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How To: Drive on snow and ice

By Scott Heiman, 26 Feb 2015 Gear

How To: Drive 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.

Here at 4X4 Australia we “love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges”. But we also love a bit of snow and ice.

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 for driving in snow, 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 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, so be alert to these encounters and slow down.

Given the unpredictably 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 capabilities of other drivers on the road. Good preparation is essential when planning to enter areas that commonly experience cold weather.

Consider adding anti-freeze to your engine radiator if you’re not already using a quality inhibitor/anti-freeze. 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 in to a gel-like consistency. This can block the fuel system and immobilise the vehicle.

If you drive a diesel vehicle, Alpine Diesel is fuel formulated for use in cold conditions; however this is usually only available close to the snowfields.

Be sure to rectify faults before you leave. Cold weather conditions can intensify existing minor faults so have your vehicle thoroughly inspected before taking off. This ranges from those things 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.

Check 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.

Four-wheel 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 carry chains in all alpine areas and fit them when directed to. Failure 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’re not accustomed to it. If you practice before you head off, it’ll not only ensure you’ve bought the right-sized chains for your vehicle but you’ll also save yourself time in the long run.

‘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 – 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.