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Driving in a winter wonderland
November 2008

The weather on our small island may be gloriously unpredictable but, last year's flooding apart, the surprises that it throws are normally short-lived, and they're rarely too serious compared to the worst seen in other parts of the world. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, winter temperatures in the UK stay as much as nine degrees Celsius warmer than the average for our latitude - which is the same as much of chilly Canada's.

And yet, when it comes to our transport system, it's hard to avoid the impression that everything falls to pieces at the first glimpse of a fallen leaf or a wintery squall. It only takes half an hour of snow before the nation is seized by panic: sending children home early from school and stockpiling canned goods and chocolate.

But, if our weather's no more wintery than our near neighbours', why do they seem to cope with it that much better, and what can we do to make sure our travel plans don't fall victim to the wrong kind of snow?

The wrong snow?

Rising global temperatures have made heavy snowfall in the UK an increasingly rare occurrence, and invariably wet and mild Decembers mean that these days, bookies offer better odds on aliens landing than on a longed-for White Christmas.

Small wonder then if our European neighbours seem confused when our country grinds to a halt at the first sign of winter.

Dave McKinnon, a Scot now living in Denmark, reports that the Danes react rather differently to winter weather than the British.

"The Danes change over to spiked and studded snow tyres between December and March, although they are seldom required: roads are awash with salt and, in the event of a heavy snow fall, an army of part-time snow movers is ready to swing into action.

"It's brilliant," he says.

And according to Dave, while weather in Britain is the root of every casual conversation - and the cause of the world's ills - the Danes approach weather, regardless of its severity, as just another event to be planned for.

"The saying 'there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes' is a common friendly taunt levelled at foreign visitors during the long, cold winter months," Dave adds.

Natalie Gonnella, an American from North Tonawanda, a suburb near Buffalo, New York, now lives in London and is baffled by the British approach to bad weather.

"I am amazed how everything here in the UK shuts down when it snows. People don't know what to do with themselves! It's so funny! When we learn how to drive at 16, you learn how to drive in the snow, it's just something you need to learn to do," she says.

"Where I'm from people get prepared for bad weather. We have snow tyres and wiper blades, and we have one of the largest fleets of snow ploughs and salt machines in the country. We also have automatic car starters so they can warm up for a few minutes prior to setting off, and de-icer key rings that allow you to melt any ice that may have frozen your car door lock."

While we might have to face up to our snow plough envy, there's another inspired and low-cost tip we can borrow from our American friends: kitty litter! According to Gonnella, the good people of Buffalo carry a bag of cat litter in the boot, which works just as well as sand for traction.

Safety first - be prepared

While not get the same levels of snow as the Danes or the citizens of New York, clearly there's a lot we can learn from other nations. The good news is that there are many easy and low-cost measures that motorists can adopt beyond pulling on a bobble hat, scraping ice off the windscreen with a credit card and hoping for the best.

The typical British winter - and many periods in autumn and spring - throws up a variety of driving challenges. High winds are common on exposed roads and bridges, and mists and fogs can descend on low-lying regions and coastal areas. Low sun can be a problem, especially if the roads are already wet or frosty, and long, dark nights can prove a tiring challenge for drivers.

The best approach is to make sure that you're properly prepared, even for short local journeys. The Highways Agency strongly recommends that motorists perform basic car maintenance - getting tyres and brakes checked and topping up the anti-freeze - well before the temperature starts to plummet. In the UK, the changing of the clocks in October is a good time to start.

Safety tips for driving in winter

Other recommended precautions you can take:

  • Make sure all of your lights work properly, and keep them free of road grime.
  • Keep your screen wash reservoir well topped up. Don't just add washing up liquid – use a proper screen wash additive to prevent freezing.
  • Have a clean, cotton cloth to hand to keep the inside of windows free of distracting smears.
  • Reduce speed in strong winds or wet weather, and keep a look out for dangerous standing-water and slippery leaves.
  • Carry a basic winter weather kit in the boot - at the very least a scraper and de-mister for city driving, and a spade, bag of grit and chains if you live in - or are driving to - a rural location.
  • Ensure that your mobile phone is charged.
  • Wear warm, comfortable clothes, and drive with a supply of food and water.
  • If you are travelling to a remote location in bad weather, it's best not to travel unless you have to, and wise to tell people your route if you must.
  • Check for signs of ice before setting off and while you drive - most modern cars have ice warning lights or outside temperature gauges - ice is likely at anything below three degrees Celcius.
    The Highways Agency warns that if your tyres are very quiet, it could be a sign you're driving on ice, so take great care and slow down without heavy braking.
  • Stopping distances are up to ten times longer in wintry conditions, so drivers should use all the car's controls - brakes, accelerator and steering - gently.
  • Braking well before turning and leaving a large gap between you and the vehicle in front is also essential.

Stay informed

Whether you're planning a short journey or a long trip in severe weather conditions, it makes sense to check latest weather reports in order to decide whether it is safe to go. Motorists should listen to travel news on their car radio or tune into the Highway Agency's Traffic Radio, which is available on DAB Digital Radio and online. The agency's variable message signs also display weather information.

  • For up-to-date information on road conditions on England's motorways and trunk roads, drivers should check the agency website or call 08457 504030.
  • For information on the latest weather conditions, visit the Met Office website or listen to local radio.

Advanced driving courses

Motorists who commute long distances or who are frequently on the road for their job, can also benefit from winter weather driving training. The IAM (Institute of Advanced Motorists), the UK's leading road safety charity, offers advanced driving courses leading to the Advanced Driving Test. This is great way to polish your driving skills, and motorists who pass the prestigious test may qualify for cheaper car insurance.

Alternatively, a Google.co.uk search for 'winter driving school' turns up a number of centres around the country that can teach drivers the kind of anticipation and car-control skills learned at a young age by Ms Gonnella.

Properly prepared and equipped, a careful driver can ensure that most winter journeys pass without incident. But remember that, no matter how important the journey, it's never worth putting yourself, your passengers, or other road users at risk. Much better to take the British approach: sit at home with a cup of hot chocolate, and talk about the weather.