How to prepare for winter driving

How to prepare for winter driving
Video transcript

Will Shepherd

Intro – voice over and/or stills

Winter is just around the corner - the weather will deteriorate and driving conditions become more hazardous.

With this in mind, RAC has some advice to help you prepare your car in case we have a harsh winter again

Motorists are 50% more likely to breakdown at home in winter

At the peak RAC received a call for assistance every 1.2 seconds

RAC received over 1.3 millions calls and attended over 750,000 breakdowns

Quick checks to make sure you’re ready:

First and foremost, it’s important to check the coolant level – the last thing you need is a frozen engine or for your car to overheat. Although it’s a sealed system and shouldn’t need to be topped up, you should always double check when the engine is cold and look in your handbook for the correct coolant and mix to use should you need to top it up.

Moving on, whilst checking levels, make sure you check your screen wash - again top the level up with a mix of screen wash additive and water to prevent the screen wash from freezing. There’s more muck and dirt on the roads during the winter, as well as salt, so its important to make sure you can keep your windscreen clean. And remember to keep topping the level up during the winter.

Whilst under the bonnet, check that the oil level is between the minimum and maximum mark and top up if necessary. (refer to the owners handbook or local dealer for the correct oil spec)

Check that the battery terminals and clean and tight, (clean corrosion off with hot water and apply petroleum jelly)

Have the charging system checked by your local garage, this will ensure the battery and system is working correctly.

Tyres are the only connection between you and the road so make sure you check your tyres for general wear and tear – cracks, splits or bulges, and, more importantly, tread depth. Although the minimum tread level is 1.6mm, during winter it’s advisable to have 3mm of tread on your tyres to help with traction and grip. Also ensure that you have the correct pressure in your tyres.

Lights – its vitally important to make sure not only that you can see where you’re going but also that other drivers can see you, Walk round your car and make sure all lights are working and that the lens covers are clean. Again lights get extremely dirty during the winter months so clean them on a regular basis.

Finally, take a look at the wiper blades. Wiper blades are not everlasting and need replacing from time to time. Check the blades for splits or cracks and replace if necessary. Wiper blades can get frozen to the windscreen – don’t pull them off as you will damage them but make sure you free them off either by using the demister or de-icer.

Winter is the harshest time of the year for cars but a few quick checks could stop you breaking down in the cold.

Any underlying mechanical issues could escalate as temperatures drop, the RAC sees 14% more breakdowns during the winter months, so it’s well worth taking the time to ensure you carry out the right checks on your car.

Follow our guide to help avoid breaking down this winter.

Preparing your car for winter

Cars need to be serviced regularly to keep them running well and this becomes even more important during the colder months.

Check your car’s handbook or contact your dealer to find out the recommended service intervals.

If it hasn't been serviced recently, consider booking it in for a service ahead of winter. Not only could a service prevent problems, a reputable garage should be able to spot issues on the horizon and give you advice to prevent a breakdown.

Many car manufacturers offer special winter check deals that will check the key areas of your car important for safe winter driving. 

Failing that at the very least you should perform the following basic checks:

Quick winter driving checks

Here are some basic checks you should regularly carry out through the winter.

1. Check the coolant level

The last thing you need is a frozen engine or for your car to overheat.

Although it’s a sealed system and shouldn’t need to be topped up, you should always double check, especially before a long journey.

Check your coolant levels when the engine is cold and look in your handbook for the correct coolant and mix to use should you need to top it up.

If you're unsure on how to top up see our advice here.

2. Check your screen wash

Again top the level up with a mix of screen wash additive and water to prevent the screen wash from freezing.

There’s more muck and dirt on the roads during the winter, as well as salt, so it’s important to make sure you can keep your windscreen clean. And remember to keep topping the level up during the winter.

3. Check that the oil

Check the oil level is between the minimum and maximum mark and top up if necessary. (refer to the owner’s handbook or local dealer for the correct oil spec).

How to check your oil?

4. Check that the battery

Check the battery terminals are clean and tight, (clean corrosion off with hot water and apply petroleum jelly).

5. Charging system

Have the charging system checked by your local garage, this will ensure the battery and system is working correctly.

6. Tyres

Tyres are the only connection between you and the road so make sure you check your tyres for general wear and tear – cracks, splits or bulges, and, more importantly, tread depth.

Although the minimum tread level is 1.6mm, during winter it’s advisable to have 3mm of tread on your tyres to help with traction and grip.

Also ensure that you have the correct pressure in your tyres.

You can read more on how to check your tyres here.

7. Lights

It’s vitally important to make sure not only that you can see where you’re going but also that other drivers can see you, Walk round your car and make sure all lights are working and that the lens covers are clean.

Again lights get extremely dirty during the winter months so clean them on a regular basis.

How to check your bulbs.

8. Wiper blades

Wiper blades are not everlasting and need replacing from time to time. Check the blades for splits or cracks and replace if necessary.

Wiper blades can get frozen to the windscreen – don’t pull them off as you will damage them but make sure you free them off either by using the demister or de-icer.

How to check your wipers.

What else to consider

In addition to the above checks there are a number of symptoms your car can display letting you know something might need looking at.

Read our 10 checks to prevent a breakdown, to find out what you should be looking out for which are well worth checking your car for.

Preparing for a breakdown

However much you prepare, there’s always a chance that your car might leave you stranded over winter.

So it’s important to be fully prepared for a breakdown: keep warm clothes in your car, as well as a torch and a few basic tools. Consider keeping bottles of water in the car as well as emergency food supplies, such as energy bars and chocolate.

For a full list, see our winter breakdown kit checklist.

Winter driving tips

Your car is likely to use more fuel over winter. Don’t risk running the fuel tank low, as you could be vulnerable if you run out of fuel on a dark road or in bad weather.

It’s especially important to plan your journey in advance if the weather is likely to be bad.

Look at weather forecasts for a various locations on your route and consider taking an alternative route if particularly bad weather is forecast.

Stick to main roads, as they’re more likely to be kept clear, and keep away from rural or hilly areas if possible.

If you’re concerned that the weather is going to be bad enough to prevent you completing your journey, such as if weather warnings are in place, consider whether you’re journey is really necessary.

Plan alternative routes in case you encounter an issue on your journey and keep friends and family informed of your location. You can share your location using apps such as Waze so people can kept track of your journey in case there’s an issue. Make sure your phone is charged in advance, and consider buying an in-car phone charger.

For more help read our winter driving tips.

Driving in snow

In snow and ice, stopping distances can increase by as much as 10 times compared to dry conditions.

Drive slowly, allowing you to stop within the distance you can see in case of any obstacles in the road. Be smooth – braking, accelerating or turning harshly can unsettle the car, leading you to lose control.

Keep the car clear of snow. All windows need to be clear for maximum visibility, while snow on the roof can fall and cause problems for you or other drivers. The number plates need to be visible, too.

Full advice for driving in the snow.

Driving in rain

Wet weather can be just as problematic as snow if you don’t drive to the conditions.

Slow down, as stopping distances in the wet can be twice what they are in the dry.

Watch out for flooding: dips in the road can hide areas of water, especially in the dark. If you’re not sure how deep a puddle is, don’t risk driving through it.

Doing so could cause serious damage to your car and leave you stranded if it’s deep.

Full advice for driving in the rain.

Driving in strong wind

If there are weather warnings for strong wind, seriously consider whether your journey is absolutely necessary. Not only does it make driving difficult, trees are likely to come down causing congestion and, in a worst case scenario, hitting cars.

If you do drive in strong winds, avoid high bridges, especially if you’re in a high-sided vehicle.

If you feel the steering go light or you’re having to make a lot of corrections as the wind blows your car around, slow down and make sure you keep both hands on the wheel.

Full advice for driving in windy weather.

Driving in fog

Fog can also be especially dangerous. It usually accumulates in patches, so can take drivers by surprise.

Switch your car’s fog lights on to aid your visibility to others, and increase the gap between you and the car in front. Above all, be prepared to stop in the distance you can see.

If you’re driving through an urban area in thick fog, consider turning off the radio and opening the windows to help you listen for other vehicles.

Driving in fog: when to use fog lights.

Driving in low sunshine

Surprisingly, this can be one of the biggest hazards for winter driving.

Keep a pair of sunglasses in the car at all times, and use the sunvisors if you’re driving when the sun is low. Keep your windscreen clean and slow down if visibility is reduced.