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Tips for Driving in Winter Conditions

As the snow falls across many parts of NZ, it is important that we are aware of the changing conditions and remind ourselves how to be safe when travelling in it. Driving during the winter months can sometimes mean an increased risk to safety, but it doesn't need to. Being aware of your surroundings and taking extra precautions can reduce the risk.

Drive only when you need to – winter is never a great time to take a road trip. Try to plan trips for the warmer months when the roads are less likely to be icy and wet. A better idea is to stay home with a good book and a cuppa if you can. However, we can't all hibernate in the winter and travelling is sometimes necessary.

Before you leave the House – Check that you are prepared. Check the local weather conditions, in your home town and where you are travelling to. Make sure you have everything you need in the car in case of the unexpected happening. It would be a great idea to have extra supplies like snacks and water. Keeping some warm blankets in the boot is never a silly idea either. Make sure you check and top up your first aid kit, check you have some jumper leads, touch, and outdoor gloves. For yourself pack an extra jacket, umbrella, and mobile phone charger.

Plan your Journey – check the roads that you are planning to travel on right before you leave to ensure they are open. Where possible stick to main roads and try not to be tempted to take the shortcut through a back road. Main roads will always be safer with other travellers around which will be handy if you need some assistance.

Check your car is ready – fill up before you head on your way, even if you don't think you will need a full tank to reach your destination, if you end up detoured or delayed it may be a saving grace to have a full tank of fuel. Check your tyres, ensure that the tread is good on all of them. Even if your vehicle has a current WOF, your tyres can be worn between WOF checks. Good tyres can be a life saver, literally. And check your wiper blades too. There is nothing worse than finding out in the middle of heavy rain or snow that your wiper blades are worn, or noisy. Take a minute to check your car heater, ensure the demister is working well on both front and rear screens.

Using your lights – winter is never a good time to use the 'automatic' feature for headlights. In any snowfall you should have your lights on low beam. Often in the automatic setting the headlights do not come on in snow during the day, or they can often use high beam which is dangerous for other drivers. Do not use your fog lamps, unless visibility is less than 100m.

Practise Safe Driving – check your following distances. In wet or icy conditions, your following distance should be increased. Remember it can take a bit longer to stop on an icy road. A good following distance in the icy conditions is around 20 seconds behind the car in front where possible. To calculate this distance, pick an object and when the car in front passes it, start counting. Stop counting when you reach the object. You should be able to get a fairly accurate time count like this. Keep your radio volume to a sensible level. Being able to hear what is going on outside the vehicle can sometimes be a warning to something before you see it. A change in the road condition under tyres can often be heard before it is seen.

Drive your car for the conditions – how we drive in the winter conditions is different to how we drive on dry roads. If you drive a manual, you should slowly release the clutch when changing gears as this keeps the engine revs low. Keeping the engine revs low reduces the risk of wheel spin, which can be hazardous on an icy road. If you are driving an automatic vehicle, check to see if it has low-ratio mode. This is the gear you should use. Try to avoid sudden manoeuvres like sudden braking or sharp turns, this could cause your vehicle to skid. If your vehicle starts to skid remove your foot off the accelerator and let the car decelerate on its own until you are able to regain control. Do not use your brakes as this will make the skid last longer.

Be Aware – make sure when you are on windy roads you take your time when approaching corners. Driving at a safe and consistent speed around bends will keep your car firm on the road, and also allow you to be able to slow safety and stop if necessary if there is something around the bend you could not see. Be aware of other motorists, in front, behind or beside you. Remember they too are travelling in the same conditions as you, but they may not have the knowledge you do about driving to the conditions. If you think someone driving is unsafe, or they are following too close behind, perhaps pull to the side and let them pass.

There is no need to be afraid of winter driving, just be prepared.