In the UK, we’re not used to driving in the extreme weather conditions experienced recently. But with a little education we can deal with them much more safely, writes IAM Drive & Survive’s Simon Elstow
The most important consideration is to ask yourself whether you need to be travelling at all. If you do, check the weather forecast before setting off and don’t ignore police warnings about closed roads or advice not to travel on specific routes. If possible, try and work from home or at least reschedule unnecessary travel. Not everyone can do this, but the more people who are able to avoid travelling in poor weather, the better the journey is likely to be for those who do have to take to the road.
LIFE SAVING TIPS
If you must drive or ride in extreme conditions, keep these points in mind:
When driving in snow, get your speed right – not too fast to risk losing control, but not so slow that you risk losing momentum when you need it, particularly uphill. The idea is to plan ahead to reduce the need to stop.
Try to brake, steer and accelerate as smoothly as possible.
Start gently from stationary, avoiding high revs. A higher gear will give you better traction for pulling away if the ground is slippery. It will also offer better control when on the move
Prepare for driving downhill by lowering your speed before you start the descent, and do not let it build up – it is much easier to keep it low than to try and slow down once things get slippery
Bends are a particular problem in slippery conditions. Slow down in advance, so that by the time you turn the steering wheel you are travelling at a speed to negotiate the bend safely.
If you get yourself into a skid, the main thing to remember is to take your foot off the pedals and steer – only use the brake if you cannot steer out of trouble
Double or even triple your normal stopping distance from the vehicle in front. Drive so that you don’t need to rely on your brakes to be able to stop – on an icy surface they simply may not do that for you!
In very slippery conditions, ABS won’t give you the same control it would in others – so don’t rely on it. Traction control and other electronic systems (ESC) can help – but they cannot overcome the laws of physics, so use common sense. Read your manual about your vehicle’s electronic safety aids; and don’t switch these off unless you must.
Plan your journey around busier roads, as they are more likely to have been gritted. Avoid using short cuts on minor roads – they are less likely to be cleared or treated with salt, especially country lanes
On motorways stay in the clearest lane where possible, away from slush and ice. Keep within the clear tyre tracks if you can
In falling snow use dipped headlights or foglights to make yourself visible to others – but make sure your foglights are only on if necessary as they can dazzle other drivers
If you are following another vehicle at night, using their lights to see ahead can cause you to drive dangerously close – keep well back
Having windscreen wipers working for a lengthy time with snow falling can be mesmeric and quite a strain – be prepared to stop and give your eyes a rest, but choose the right place to do it.
LESS OBVIOUS HAZARDS
There are also other, less obvious hazards. Trucks particularly can have large amounts of snow or ice on top that may blow off on to your windscreen. Be prepared for this by staying well back from the vehicle in front, especially larger ones, and remember to clear your own roof of snow before starting your journey. Remember that black ice forms in shaded spots and areas exposed to cold winds. And remember that bridges are particularly prone to icing over first and thawing last.
Approaches to junctions are usually more slippery than other parts of the road, as the surface has been worn smooth by drivers constantly braking and accelerating away. Again, slow down early, and be prepared to stop, but with a view to keeping moving should the road be clear. In prolonged cold weather, fresh snow may have frozen ice underneath it, and grip may not be as good as in snow that has fallen on dry ground. Also be careful when the snow and ice begin to melt, as slush forms a very slippery layer.
Getting your vehicle fit for the job of winter travel is almost as important as preparing yourself, so allow extra time.
Before the cold weather hits, check the key items such as tyres, battery condition, lights and screen washer fluid (with plenty of de-icer)
Always clear your windows of snow, ice, or condensation before starting off, and ensure that your lights and mirrors are clean
If you leave the car engine running to help de-ice windows before setting off, make sure that there is someone with the car – a cold thief may see a warm opportunity, and some insurers may not compensate for theft in those circumstances
It is a good idea to have an emergency kit so you are prepared for breakdowns, or long traffic delays. This should include a torch, food and water, an ice-scraper/de-icer, a blanket, shovel, and some extra layers/sturdy boots, should you need to get out of the car or walk. A fully-charged mobile phone is also a must. On longer journeys always let someone know you have set off and tell them your planned route.
KNOW YOUR LOCATION
Keeping careful track of where you are on your route is critical in the event of a breakdown or accident. Knowing your location makes it easier for your breakdown provider, or the emergency services to find you. On motorways and dual carriageways it is always safer to leave your vehicle and stand a short distance away from it on the verge, behind a crash barrier if at all possible, although you need to balance this up with the risk of hypothermia. If you have to retreat into your vehicle, try to ensure that it is parked as far over from the carriageway as possible, and don’t forget to put seatbelts on while waiting.
While nothing other than practical experience can really prepare you to deal with driving in adverse weather conditions, advanced training does teach you a driving style that sets you up to cope more effectively with any problem.
Advanced driver training teaches drivers to look much further ahead than they usually would and to identify situations that could arise that may cause them to slow down or change their course. An important part of making safe progress in snow is to maintain momentum. It’s better to think ahead as you drive to keep moving, even if it is only at walking pace. IAM Drive & Survive can provide on-road, seminar and skid-pan training to prepare company drivers for adverse weather conditions, which could be of special benefit for high-mileage drivers who can’t avoid travelling.
DUTY OF CARE
An employer’s duty of care for its employees should include a written policy on driving in adverse weather conditions, as well as written confirmation that the employee has read and understood it. This policy should include:
A statement about how driving in hazardous conditions is not considered to be part of an employee’s contract, regardless of the importance of the journey
A stated reporting procedure to the employee’s line manager when hazardous conditions curtail their journey.
A commitment to act on advice from reputable sources about when not to travel; and to make these available via e-mail/intranet when appropriate.
A policy about booking overnight stays if stranded.
A commitment to getting employees to familiarise themselves with active safety aids on their vehicles and how to do so (vehicle’s manual).
It is also a good idea to use seminars, intranet, and written circulars to communicate information about managing the risks of driving in bad weather
For employees who are identified as being high risk e.g. high-mileage drivers, they should have advanced to practical training for driving in the adverse weather conditions, when working from home or postponing a trip is not an alternative.
Driving safely in adverse weather conditions is about preparation: both the driver and the vehicle.
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