By David Milloy
It’s a fact of motoring that cars are more likely to break down in winter, and it’s equally true to say that accidents and road closures are more common than at any other time of year. But by taking a few sensible precautions, your chances of reaching your destination without too much delay or drama can be substantially improved.
So without further ado, here are our best tips for winter motoring.
If you’re not already a member, join a breakdown recovery service. Shop around for the best deal that gives you the level of cover you need.
Always allow additional time for your journey in winter. Road conditions may be less than ideal and there’s a greater risk of being delayed or diverted because of accidents or breakdowns.
Check for road closures and delays before setting out. The Traffic Scotland website (www.traffic.gov.scotland) provides useful information such as details of incidents, road closures and traffic news. On the move, you can obtain road information bulletins by using the RDS feature on your car’s radio/infotainment system.
Ensure that you’ve got your mobile phone with you and that it has plenty of charge.
Carry a set of jump leads in your car, as well as a warning triangle, and a high-vis jacket or tabard. We’d also suggest that you carry a shovel, as well as some old mats or rugs to place under your car’s driven wheels in case you get stuck in boggy or snowy ground.
Take some warm clothing (preferably waterproof), some water and something to eat with you, just in case you should be unlucky enough to break down and have to wait for a recovery vehicle to reach you.
Before setting off on a journey, make sure that your car is properly defrosted, including its number plate and lights. Clear all snow from your car’s roof, bonnet, windows, number plate and lights. You need to be able to see well out of all of your car’s windows as well as the windscreen. Keep an ice scraper in the car plus, in very cold conditions, have a can of de-icing fluid and a lock de-icer on your person in case the car doors or locks freeze up when you’re away from it. You can’t drive it if you can’t get into it!
See to it that your car has plenty of fuel to undertake the journey, allowing for any delays or detours you might have to take.
Make sure your car’s screenwash reservoir is topped-up and the washer jets are working – they can freeze in very cold weather.
Turn on your car’s lights if visibility is reduced. Don’t rely on your car’s daytime running lights (if it has them) as they’re only fitted to the front of the car. It’s just as important to be seen as to see.
In icy or snowy conditions, stick to main roads if you can, as they’re more likely to have been gritted or ploughed.
Keep well back from the vehicle in front of you, particularly in wet, snowy or icy conditions when your car will take longer to stop.
Don’t drive faster than is safe for the road conditions, even if that is considerably slower than the speed limit.
There are also a number of things that you should frequently check on your car, both for safety reasons and to stay on the right side of the law.
Many garages and some motor accessory shops offer to carry out a winter safety inspection at a reasonable (compared to the size of some garage bills) cost. It’s a useful service but it should only be considered as part of your car winter safety regime. With that in mind, here’s what we think you should keep an eye on…
In some parts of Europe, the law requires that owners of cars registered in that country drive on special winter tyres during the colder months. Although there’s no such law in the UK, it’s still very important to make sure that the tyres on your car are fit for use in all conditions.
That means not only carrying out frequent checks for wear and damage (many tyre retailers offer a free tyre safety check) but also ensuring that the right tyres are fitted in the first place. Don’t be tempted to run a car on worn tyres or replace worn tyres with cheap ones or, worse, remoulds. Skimping on safety could end in disaster.
That doesn’t mean you have to break the bank when buying tyres, as it’s quite possible to buy good tyres for a reasonable price. Shop around for the best price and be aware that some retailers will offer their best prices only to online customers.
First, though, you need to know what to buy. In our climate, wet roads are very much a fact of motoring life. We’d therefore suggest that you buy a tyre that’s best suited to those conditions. As it happens, all tyres now sold in the UK are rated for, amongst other things, wet weather braking performance on a sliding scale from A to G. A tyre with an A rating will take 3 metres less to stop on a wet road at 50mph than one with a B rating, 6 metres less than one with a C rating, and so on. That might not sound like much but it could make a huge difference in an emergency.
We’d also recommend that you check your tyre pressures frequently and add air to them if required. Your car’s owner’s handbook should state the correct pressures for your front and rear tyres. Checking pressures can be done at home using a pressure test gauge (which costs a few pounds) and 12V air compressor or you can do it using the coin-operated machines found at most filling stations. If one or more of your car’s tyres keeps losing pressure, then get it checked by a local tyre retailer. Don’t assume that you’ll need a new tyre, the existing one may be repairable.
Finally, don’t forget to carry a good spare wheel and tyre or a temporary puncture repair kit. You never know when you might need it.
According to Green Flag, the most common cause of car breakdowns is a faulty battery.
Car batteries have a hard life, particularly in winter when the current they produce often has to simultaneously power a car’s lights, heater and wipers.
Batteries have a limited lifespan and, as time passes, they’re able to store less and less energy, eventually reaching a point where they’re no longer able to produce sufficient electrical power to start the car. Thankfully, there are a few warning signs that indicate that a battery has lost charge. The most obvious of these is that it takes longer than it used to for your car to start. Other signs include your lights appearing dimmer than previously, electric windows taking longer to raise and lower, windscreen wipers that seem to be on a go-slow, and a flickering battery charge warning light on the dashboard.
The other main cause of battery problems is that the alternator, the component which charges the battery whilst the engine is running, is faulty. The symptoms are exactly the same as those stated above.
Another issue with batteries is that some components, such as anti-theft alarms, draw current from the battery even when the engine is switched off. It can only take a few days of inactivity for the battery to discharge to a level that’s insufficient to start the car. It is, however, possible to keep the battery topped-up by attaching it to a battery minder, a plug-in device which reads the battery’s state of charge and tops it up without overcharging it.
Vehicle lights not only enable you to see where you’re going, they also ensure that other road users can see your vehicle as well as giving notice that you’re about to make a manoeuvre such as stopping, turning at a junction or reversing.
It’s therefore very important that your vehicle’s lights are in full working order. Checking that they’re working is a test you can do yourself, though you will need someone else to stand outside the car to help you check your vehicle’s stop and reversing lights.
Most lighting faults are caused by faulty bulbs or, less commonly, by a blown fuse. Changing bulbs and fuses is usually pretty straightforward, if sometimes a bit fiddly. The owner’s handbook for your car will tell you how to gain access to your car’s bulbs and fuses. If you’re not confident about doing this, any garage or fast-fit centre will be able to help you.
Making sure that the screenwash reservoir is topped-up is an easy and obvious precaution to take yet is one that many of us somehow forget about until either a warning light comes on or the reservoir runs dry.
Adding screenwash to the reservoir is the easiest of tasks, provided of course you know where it’s located – a 2014 survey reported that a third of drivers don’t.
Its location will be shown in your car’s owner’s handbook.
If you don’t have a handbook then you’ll usually find the screenwash reservoir under the bonnet. It’s easy to identify as its filler cap should have the same symbol on it as the one in the photograph. Be aware, though, that there are several other filling points for liquids under the bonnet – oil, coolant, brake fluid, and power-steering fluid – so don’t add screenwash or any other fluid to your car unless you’re certain that you’re putting it in the correct receptacle!
Once you’ve identified the screenwash reservoir, your next task is to check the level of screenwash in it – an easy job as it’s made of clear plastic – and top it up with a mixture of screenwash and water. In cold weather, you should add a more highly concentrated mixture – at least 1 part screenwash to 3 parts water – to prevent it from freezing. Be aware, though, that some screenwash is sold ready-mixed. In that case, just add it neat and don’t dilute it.
After that, all you need do is check the level in the tank every few days and top it up as necessary.
A car’s windscreen has a pretty tough life, being in the front line for not only rain and snow but all sorts of dirt and other debris thrown up by other vehicles.
Keeping it clean and clear is a job for your windscreen wipers and your screenwash jets. Wiper blades do a great job of clearing your windscreen but can also be magnets for dirt and small pieces of stone or gravel, which can scratch your windscreen when the wipers are used. Checking your wipers for damage or dirt and keeping them clean (by wiping their edges with a clean wet cloth) is an easy job that only takes a couple of minutes of your time.
Wiper blades also degrade over time, smearing your windscreen and leaving streaks across it. Replacement wiper blades can be purchased from your local motor accessory shop and are easy to fit, though some motor accessory shops (and all garages) also offer a fitting service.
Screenwash isn’t the only fluid that you should keep an eye on. Most cars with internal combustion engines are liquidcooled. This means that coolant is pumped through the engine via a radiator so that the car’s engine doesn’t overheat and seize.
Coolants also contain anti-corrosion inhibitors, which help to protect the engine’s internal components from rusting. They also have a lower freezing point than water, which protects your engine in cold weather. Like screenwash, the greater the concentration of the coolant, the better the protection it will give against freezing. It’s possible to buy a coolant strength tester from motor accessory shops but any garage can also carry out a check for you as part of a winter safety check.
Coolant leaks can occur, however, with the cause usually being a split coolant hose or a damaged radiator. It’s therefore best to check the coolant level frequently as well as checking the coolant hoses for damage. If your car is losing coolant then have it checked by a mechanic. If your car starts to overheat then stop as soon as it’s safe to do so, turn off the engine and phone a vehicle recovery service. Engines that have overheated can be very costly to fix.
It’s also important to note that coolant has a limited life-span and has to be replaced every few years. That’s a job which can be undertaken by competent home mechanics. If, however, that’s not something you feel comfortable about tackling then it’s best left to a garage or fast-fit centre. Do be aware, however, that there are different types of coolant on the market and that it’s inadvisable to mix them.
Whatever you drive, wherever the road takes you, we wish you happy and safe winter motoring.