Top tips for driving on snow and ice

By Scott Heiman, 13 Jul 2015 Car Advice

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Top tips for driving on snow and ice

Having fun in the snow is one of life’s simple pleasures, but keeping safe is more important. Here’s what to do.

We “love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges”. But we are also love a bit of snow and ice.

It’s not always about beaches and deserts here in Australia. Victoria has had a decent snow fall the last couple of years, which can make for some fun and, well, slippery trips. Knowing how to drive in snow and icy conditions is an important skill – it requires doing everything more gently than you would normally do.

As a rule of thumb, reduce your speed to around half the posted dry weather speed limit but, at the end of the day, there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ speed range for driving on ice or snow.

If your vehicle starts to lose traction and begins to slide, take your foot off of the accelerator, slowly turn the steering wheel in the direction that the rear end of the vehicle is skidding and look in the direction you want the vehicle to go then start driving toward it, slowly.

Remember, even where snow has been cleared from the road, the surface may still be covered by a film of snow or ice. Driving on these roads requires concentration and adept driving skills.  A real challenge is posed by ‘black ice’ which is almost impossible to see.

It commonly occurs in shady areas where roads are typically cooler. Be alert to these encounters and slow down.

Given the unpredictability of ice and snow conditions, always keep extra distance from vehicles in front of you and give yourself plenty of time to stop. You need to consider the likely capabilities of other drivers on the road.

undefinedCredit (all photos): Scott Heiman.

Good preparation is essential when planning to enter areas that commonly experience cold weather. 

Consider adding anti-freeze to your engine radiator. Make sure you match the amount of anti-freeze to the capacity of the coolant system. If this isn’t done and the coolant freezes, the engine block and radiator may crack, leaving you stranded with an expensive repair bill.

Diesel engines require special care. In cold weather, some diesel fuel components begin to separate out of the solution turning the diesel fuel to a gel-like consistency.  This can block the fuel system and immobilise the vehicle.

If you drive a diesel vehicle, products such as ‘Alpine Diesel’ are formulated for use in cold conditions; however these are usually only available close to the snow fields.

Be sure to rectify faults before you leave. Cold weather conditions can intensify existing minor faults so have your vehicle thoroughly inspected before leaving home.

This ranges from those things that you can’t see easily (such as the electrical system) to those that you can. For instance, you may not have noticed that ice can form in ‘little’ chips and cracks in the windscreen causing them to expand and ultimately rupture the glass.

Watch your tyre pressure. Physics tells us that when the outside temperature drops by five-degrees Celsius, so does the air pressure inside your tyres by around one to two PSI.

Make sure you check your tyre pressures frequently during cold weather and add enough air to keep them at recommended inflation levels.

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Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles can generally travel further in the snow than two-wheel drives and, depending on the conditions, they are generally exempt from the requirement to fit chains.

However, in heavy snow conditions, even 4x4s can reach a point where snow chains will become necessary. In some states, it is mandatory to fit chains to 4x4s in heavy ice. Fail to do so in Victoria and you could find yourself with a $2500 fine. 

If you need to fit chains, make sure you’ve factored in enough time to do so.  Fitting and removing chains can take a considerable amount of time if you are not accustomed to it. If you practice before you head off, you’ll save yourself time in the long run (and will ensure you’ve bought the right sized chains for your vehicle).

‘Stop, revive and survive’. Driving in snow or icy conditions is more fatiguing than normal driving given the increased difficulty of the conditions encountered – bad weather, darkness, narrow and winding roads. If a ‘white-out’ condition occurs and the road ahead and snow poles are not visible, bring the vehicle to a stop, leave the motor running and switch on your hazard lights.

At the end of the day, driving on snow and ice comes down to common sense. You don’t expect to become an expert skier the first time you hit the slopes, and the same applies for developing the driving skills you need to get you there and safely home.

Plan your drive – and drive to the conditions. 

THE BASICS

Clean all glass and mirrors of ice before attempting to drive your vehicle.

For fast de-misting of the front windscreen, use the car’s heater and fan in conjunction with the vehicle’s air-conditioner.

Warm the engine for a few minutes before driving off.

Engage 4x4 and fit chains when advised to or in areas of heavy ice.

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Engage first or second gear on level ground (including automatics) before ascending or descending hills in snow or ice conditions.

Avoid unnecessary gear changes.

Observe and adhere to the local speed limits.

Keep well behind the vehicles in front of you (at a minimum leave a count of three to five seconds between each vehicle).

Drive cautiously with gradual pressure on the accelerator to avoid wheel spin.

Brake gently. Front and rear wheels can lock easily with loss of steering and control.

Avoid braking when cornering. Brake well before the corner, while you have control and while the wheels are straight to avoid disaster.

Be patient approaching slower or large vehicles and only overtake if visibility is good.

 PLAN FOR EMERGENCIES

In case of an emergency carry a torch (and spare batteries), blanket, dry warm clothes, tow rope, shovel, wheel chocks, spare food and water, and a first-aid kit.

Get chains regardless of whether you are travelling in a 2WD or 4x4 for the maximum grip and safety. Ensure that you get the right size wheel chains for your vehicle’s tyres.

Practice fitting chains before you leave home.

Use anti-freeze compound in the radiator and take along spare heater and radiator hoses.

Make sure the battery is clean and in good condition.

Make sure all lights are working and check the condition of your tyres (including the spare).

This article was originally published in 4X4 Australia September 2014.