• Beware of black ice under trees and on, or under, bridges
  • Keep an eye on the thermostat – below 4°C could mean slippery surfaces
  • A road sign’s shape will help you decode it if your view is obstructed

As autumn recedes in the rear-view mirror, we head into winter, the toughest months of the year for drivers. Good preparation is key to negotiating the coldest months safely. So it's good to know how to get your car ready for winter roads and how to overcome any winter driving fears you may worry about.

But preparing your car only takes you part of the way; knowing in advance the best way to react if you get into a tricky situation while driving in winter is also key to steering clear of trouble. Sue Baker (@carscribe) talks to two driving experts to guide us through the hazards when the temperature dips and road conditions become a bit more difficult.

A car dashboard showing the ABS light on and the traction control light on

What should you do if your car starts losing grip?

‘Many modern cars have technology that will save you from skidding,’ says Tim Shalcross, head of technical policy at IAM RoadSmart (@IAMRoadSmart).

‘If you see a little amber light flashing on the dash, it's telling you that the car's electronics have saved you from losing your grip, but you're driving too fast for the conditions. Slow down and double your distance between you and another vehicle. Treat the throttle pedal as if it's mounted on a wine glass stem and will break easily.’

A snowy road with tyre tracks on the road. The tyre tracks are swerving suggesting the car that did them lost control

How can you avoid the risk of skidding?

‘Having the correct tyre pressure and tyre tread depth will maximise your tyres’ ability to maintain their road grip,’ advises Kevin Clinton, head of road safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (@RoSPA). 

‘Aquaplaning can be avoided by reducing speed in wet conditions. If it happens, ease off the accelerator and brakes until your speed drops sufficiently for the car tyres to make contact with the road again.

‘Speed limits are the maximum in ideal conditions; in difficult conditions, they can often be too fast. Avoid harsh braking, acceleration or sharp steering, and slow down in plenty of time for bends and corners. Always reduce your speed smoothly and in plenty of time on slippery surfaces.’

A car driving along a road. In shot is a warning sign saying 'Ice' with a snowflake symbol on it

How can you read the road for signs of danger ahead, such as 'black ice'?

‘During wintry weather, road surfaces are often wet and may be covered in frost, ice or snow,’ says Kevin. ‘But this does not occur uniformly. A road will often have isolated patches of frost or ice after most of the road has thawed – this commonly occurs under bridges.’

Tim adds: ‘Expect black ice to occur under overhanging trees, and when you’re going over a bridge. Beware where there are lots of leaves on the road, too. Keep an eye on the weather forecast and the temperature, and if it falls below 3-4°C be prepared for slippery conditions.’

A car on a very snowy road, with a large field in the background also covered in snow

What's the advice if your car breaks down in winter?

‘The most important thing at this time of year is to carry plenty of cardigans, pullovers and lots of layers in the boot,’ urges Tim. ‘You can get too hot driving in a thick coat, and you need to be well prepared for a breakdown situation.’

Kevin says: ‘Don't leave your vehicle; call your breakdown service or the emergency services and let help come to you. Don't run the engine to keep warm, but instead keep blankets and other warm clothing in the car if you’re expecting to be out in cold conditions.’

If you’re not the main driver, read our article on helping a friend or relative who has broken down, and how to avoid it in the first place.

Two cars driving a long a very snowy road with houses in the background

What if you get caught out in heavy snow?

The wisest option may be to stop somewhere safe until the worst passes, but Tim warns that laybys can be very difficult to spot in a blizzard. He says it's vital to know your road signs when driving in extreme conditions.

‘If you see an octagonal sign, it's a ‘Stop’ sign, the only one shaped like that. If you see an inverted triangle, it's a ‘Give Way’ sign, again the only one that shape. So even if they are covered in heavy snow, and you can't see any road markings either, you know where the junctions are.’

Take our quiz to brush up on your knowledge of UK road signs.

A man on the phone in the snow. In the background is a car that has drove into a ditch in the snow.

What should you do if you’ve had an accident on wintry roads?

‘If the worst does happen and you get stranded, don’t panic,’ says Kevin. ‘Stay with your vehicle and call the emergency services on your mobile phone.’

Tim cautions: ‘Don't put yourself in danger – if your car is in the middle of the road, put the hazard lights on and move yourself somewhere safe. Report it instantly via your mobile.’

He also has an interesting tip: ‘If you’re somewhere with a poor phone signal on your network, dial 999. There's an agreement between phone suppliers to pass on a 999 call if a mast picks one up, even if it's coming from a different network.’

Even though there’s plenty you can do to prepare for winter driving, anyone can still be caught out by freak weather spells or bad conditions. If the weather is bad, only drive if absolutely necessary – and, if you must, make sure you’re armed with all the knowledge (and layers!) you need to cope.