safe driving in winter

by steve ghosley

safe driving in winter

Planning a shopping expedition? Visiting relatives and friends over the festive season? Make sure you don't forget the most important thing: is your car and your driving up to surviving the winter weather?

In the cold, wet weather, it's even more important than ever to give your car a thorough check over - for safety as well as peace of mind. Of course, if you belong to a breakdown organisation, it's comforting to know that if the worst happens and your vehicle does let you down, help will quickly be on its way. However, the frustrating thing for many members stranded by the roadside is that the breakdown could easily have been avoided.

Ensuring that your car is serviced regularly is one way to avoid all the hassle of a breakdown - not foolproof, of course, but prevention is always better than cure. Tyres should always be carefully checked as worn treads can be lethal - for you and innocent bystanders, as well as other road users. Tyre pressure, too, should be regularly monitored.

Up until recently UK motorists hadn't adopted the Continental practice of swapping tyres in the autumn for winter ones - then swapping back in the spring to summer ones. As a result of recent very cold winters however attitudes are changing with many garages now offering a 'Winter Tyre Fitting Service' where they will sell you a set of winter tyres and store your summer ones free of charge.

One of the most common causes of breakdown is battery failure. Sluggish starting is a sure sign that your car battery is getting old. As soon as starting becomes slow, it's time to think about buying a new battery, especially after a long winter.

If you're venturing to the Continent, make sure you read up on the traffic laws in the countries you're planning to visit. You could be liable for hefty on the spot fines or even time in a foreign jail if you don't.

Make sure you are prepared?

Before setting off on a winter journey, assess the weather and if in doubt stay at home. If, however, you do set off, take time to run through the basic checks outlined above. Keep a few essentials in the car, too. They could be a life saver!

* mobile phone (fully charged)

* shovel

* de-icer/ice scraper

* blanket

* warm clothing

* wellingtons

* torch

* hot drink

* chocolate bar

Driving style

In bad weather it is only common sense to drive more carefully. This means lower speeds, allowing yourself greater distances to brake and bring the car to a halt and most importantly of all, giving fellow road users more time and space to complete their manoeuvres. Getting angry and uptight will only exacerbate a situation and increase the likelihood of an accident.

Children in the back?

Children are not miniature adults, so if you're travelling with one or more youngsters in the car, take good care that seats and restraints fit properly. Requirements change as the child grows, too, so take expert advice.

Recent research has produced frightening results. About half of children travel in cars unrestrained and two-thirds of child safety seats are fitted incorrectly. Similar trends are in evidence elsewhere in Europe. New laws are making safer ISOFIX child seats mandatory. These plug into the car seat rather than being held in place by the seatbelt. Many new cars now have ISOFIX points built into them, however it is not yet mandatory and some new vehicles may not have them. New types of vehicles must be fitted with ISOFix points from November 2012 and all new vehicles must be fitted with it from November 2014. This will not apply to cars with only one row of seats, which will not be required to have ISOFIX.

An adult seatbelt alone must never be considered as an acceptable restraint for children under the age of 13 - a booster seat with lateral belt-guides is recommended under all circumstances. One with a back and headrest would enable the child to sleep comfortably upright, a boon for the whole family on longer journeys.

What about an Advanced Driving Course?

If you're stuck for future Christmas present ideas, this would be an excellent one. So much of driving is common sense and sheer habit that you stop thinking about it; a gentle prod never goes amiss.

Even aspects of driving as basic as using the accelerator could stand review. The accelerator is a key factor which affects tyre grip, among other things. Its two main functions - acceleration and deceleration - are critical to every aspect of your driving. Yet, excessive speed and violent acceleration are the most common causes of skidding.

By developing a sensitive touch on the throttle, you will enable your vehicle to be better balanced in all situations. Choosing the correct gear, too, is important - many people are guilty of driving in too high a gear, which not only labours the engine and pushes up fuel consumption, but also can reduce the car's response when you accelerate or decelerate.

Young drivers who have just passed their test are particularly vulnerable, simply because they don't have the depth of experience to recognise hazards or to react quickly to difficult situations. That's why 20% of accidents and 25% of all fatal accidents involve novice drivers - who make up only 10% of the driving population.

In response to the Learn and Live campaign, which was set up 10 years ago to give young drivers greater safety on the roads, the 'Pass Plus' scheme was launched in 1993, backed by many insurance companies. It makes provision for a further course of instruction after you pass your test - in return for major insurance premium reductions as a reward. Ask your local driving school for more details.