Reduce the chances of breaking down in winter with these top tips

Reduce the chances of breaking down in winter with these top tips
Get ready for the latest Siberian winter blast heading across the UK and help stop your car breaking down with these quick checks.

Any underlying mechanical issues could escalate as temperatures plummet and there is a likelihood of widespread snow and ice.

The RAC is expecting to see a 20% increase in the volume of breakdowns over the next few days compared with seasonal norms, 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.

Quick winter driving checks before a journey - remember FORCES

We suggest you remember and use the acronym FORCES for the regular ‘DIY checks’ you should carry out through the winter and especially as we head into another icy blast.

That's Fuel, Oil, Rubber, Coolant, Electrics, Screen wash

1. Fuel

Check you have plenty of fuel in your tank for your journey.

It may sound obvious but you would be surprised how many people run out of fuel and with temperatures as low as expected you really don’t want get stranded. 

2. Oil

Our patrols check the oil level on every vehicle they attend and surprisingly they find one in three are dangerously low on oil. This can cause a breakdown or lead to catastrophic engine damage at worst.  

You should check your oil level is between the minimum and maximum mark on your car's dipstick and top up if necessary. If you're unsure, you can find out how to check your oil here.

For the type of oil you need to use, you should refer to your owner’s handbook or speak to your local dealer. 

3. Rubber

You'll need to check your tyres and your wiper blades before you set off.

Check your tyres for general wear and tear racks, splits of 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. (Check your owner’s handbook for the correct inflation).

Your tyres are your car’s only connection to the road and it is vital that they are in good condition and correctly inflated for good traction and grip.

MORE ADVICE: How to check your tyres

Next check your wiper blades. They are not everlasting and will need replacing from time to time so check them for splits and cracks.

Check whether they are effective at clearing your screen and replace as necessary.

Wiper blades can get frozen to the windscreen – if is freezing or you have plenty of snow – clear your windscreen and ensure that they will lift off the screen before switching them on.  Use de-icer or a little warm water to free them if necessary.

This winter our patrols have seen a big increase in callouts to member’s cars which have blown a fuse or broken the motor/mechanics when operating the wipers when they are frozen to the screen.

Cover your windscreen with a blanket or an old sheet to keep it ice and snow free and wrap the wipers up in the sheet to avoid them sticking to the screen. 

MORE ADVICE: How to check your wiper blades

4. Coolant

Check your car’s 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.

MORE ADVICE: How to check your coolant

5. Electrics

Check your lights – they are essential for you to see and be seen.

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 they are free from dirt and grime.

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

MORE ADVICE: How to check your bulbs

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

If your car struggles to start and the engine ‘labours’ when you turn the key you should get it check out by a garage. If your battery is over four years old it may be getting to the end of its life and it could let you down.

If you are having your battery test ask them to check the charging system and the drain on your battery – this will give a better picture of your car’s overall electrical health.

Our RAC patrols deal with over 400,000 battery related faults every winter as the cold weather takes its toll on older tired batteries and the wet and ice conditions play havoc with the electrics. Batteries have to work that much harder in cold conditions and they have endure greater demand from extra electrical equipment like the lights and the heater.

6. Screen wash

Check your screen wash level and top up with a quality screen wash additive or pre-mix which is effective down to at least -15 degrees Celsius.

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 checking and topping up the level over the coming days.

Our patrols are often called out to motorists whose screen wash has completely frozen in the tank – so it is vital that you remember to use quality additive. Remember the wind-chill factor can send the temperature to below 20 degrees Celsius.

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.

And if you are embarking on a long journey with snow forecast then be sure to pack extra waterproof, some sturdy footwear, a shovel, a warm drink in a flask and a fully charge mobile phone.

This year we have had motorists reporting that they were grateful that they packed a sleeping bag which proved invaluable when they became stranded in extreme snowy conditions – so it seems you can never be too prepared! 

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 sun visors if you’re driving when the sun is low. Keep your windscreen clean and slow down if visibility is reduced.

Advanced preparation for next 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 above basic checks.