• Winter’s short days pose challenges to drivers 
  • Make sure your car is fit for the journey, plan your route and let someone know you are travelling
  • Will Dron, Acting Editor of Driving.co.uk, shares his tips for better night driving

1. Let there be light!

As the dark nights draw in, it can be tricky to know when grey has become gloom – so it’s never a bad time to lighten up! Keeping your headlights on even before dusk on gloomy days could increase visibility – not just for you, but for other drivers trying to pick out cars on the road ahead, or in their mirrors. 

According to the Highway Code, sidelights and rear registration plate lights should be lit at night. With many commutes taken in darkness at this time of year, and an increased chance of fog, take time to check that all your lights work properly.  

A good rule of thumb is simply, if in doubt, let the light shine out. So keep headlights on unlit roads and when visibility is reduced, such as in rain or fog, and just switch off your fog lights whenever they’re not needed.

2. Brush up on your skills

The man in charge of the busiest roads in Britain, Superintendent Robert Revill, Roads and Transport Policing Command for the Metropolitan Police Service, is a big believer in the value of a regular Highway Code refresh, which can be found online.

He recommends all drivers brush up on their Highway Code each winter ready for poorer visibility and challenging conditions, and keep up with the latest guidance from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA). What these resources underline, he says, is that “common sense is often all that is needed”.

3. Get a grip! Check your tyres for tread and pressure

Lower visibility and light levels pose challenges in terms of reaction times, so keeping your stopping distance down can help enormously. As the nights draw in, check that your tyres have a tread depth of more than 1.6mm across the breadth of the tread to ensure good grip – especially on the winter roads. In snow you should aim for 3mm.

If you choose to buy special winter tyres, many garages and national car servicing brands offer a storage service, whereby they’ll keep your summer tyres free of charge over winter and vice versa.  They’ll also be happy to give you a tyre tread check.

This is a great idea, as the tyre check you get as standard with your annual MOT only checks that your tread is within legal limits for roadworthiness, and not that it’s the optimum for poor conditions. 

4. Take a fresh look: clear your windows

Night brings darkness, but also lower temperatures on both sides of the glass. Even small areas of frost can create a blind spot, so de-frost your windows and side mirrors thoroughly on cold nights. If you have a heated windscreen, turn it on to help remove the frost and stop any snowfall settling.

Many people now use windscreen blankets so they don't have to wait for the windscreen to clear before leaving the station or work car park.

5. Shine on: glow with satisfaction in a high-visibility car kit 

If you break down at night, you’ll want to be seen more easily. Winter car kits contain reflective warning triangles, high visibility jackets and a torch. There may also be useful items like whistles, safety hammers and a first aid kit.

According to the Metropolitan Police, winter car kits are also proven to make it easier for the breakdown and emergency services to find you in dark or remote locations – so if you do need assistance, you’re likely to get the help you need even sooner.

If you are concerned about breaking down and not being able to use your car over the winter period, ask your insurance company about their breakdown cover and in what circumstances they provide a courtesy car.

6. Charge up your phone, double up on essentials

One good rule of thumb is to keep a couple of ‘doubles’ in the car just in case. A spare battery or portable charger for your phone (and ideally, a fully charged phone before you leave the house) can give you that all-important peace of mind.

The Highway Code suggests making sure you’re covered on night drives by taking a spare pullover or coat for each occupant, a warm drink and a snack on any dark journeys in the winter months.    

7. Give your SatNav a reality check

If you’re driving far, or don’t know the way, it’s worth looking twice at any route your SatNav (or your road atlas) throws up – and even having a quick Google, or checking StreetView, if it’s covered.

Look ahead for weather warnings before you choose your route, and consider the fact that some motorways and roads may close at night so that repairs can be carried out with the least amount of disruption.

Let someone know where you’re going and what time you expect to arrive – this will make it easier to find you at night if you have any problems.

8. Take it easy, take it slow

At night, give yourself even more time to react and be aware that other road users will be experiencing the same conditions as you.

“Give everyone that extra bit of time and space,” says Neil Greig, Director of Policy and Research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists – as even if you’re sure of your ground and know what’s around you, other drivers might not. 

And while you’ll want to bear in mind that in icy or wet conditions stopping distances can increase threefold, it’s also worth considering manoeuvring distances: if the cars in front of you stop, it’s always good to know you’ve left yourself options in terms of space for turning round to take an alternative route.  

9. Know the sounds, as well as the sights, to watch out for  

Black ice is a winter hazard around the clock where wet and freezing conditions combine. It’s often found in sheltered road sections, under trees and on bridges – and it can be tough to spot even in full daylight. 

But according to the Institute of Advanced Motorists, drivers can use their ears as well as their eyes to identify slippery patches.

“The main clue is a sudden drop in tyre noise,” says Neil Greig. This underscores the value of sound to drivers at night – and the potential benefits of switching the music off. After all, with less to go on visually on a night drive, all sensory input from the road around you can help. 

And if you hear the telltale sound of the tyre pressure dropping?

“Keeping speed low in cold conditions will help you to regain control – but the key is smooth and slow steering and braking inputs until the hazard is cleared,” says Greig.

10. If you feel tired, take a break. 

It’s a perennial message, but worth repeating: if it’s dark, it’s easy to lose track of time. Driving late and long can lead to tiredness behind the wheel, so make sure your body and mind are topped up, fully charged and working properly, as well as your phone and your car – after all, the driver is arguably the most critical component of all.

“If you feel tired during the journey then you should find somewhere to stop as soon as possible,” is the guidance from RoSPA. It’s tempting to think that two strong coffees and a 15-minute nap can help, but ultimately, you may need to find a place to stop overnight.

11. Drive like a boss: join the experts

Taking a Pass Plus course will help you gain skills and confidence for driving at night and in wet and wintery conditions. You could also get more acquainted with your vehicle.

“Learn what features your car has to help you deal with adverse weather,” advises the IAM’s Neil Greig.

By following these eleven top tips, you can have enjoy your night driving this winter – and, in fact, all year round.

Will Dron is the Acting Editor of the Sunday Times Driving website. You can find him on Twitter @wdron