Saturday, January 02, 2010

Driving in snow and ice

1st January 2010 saw what is considered 'heavy' snowfalls in most of the UK. In my own area of Northumberland six inches had fallen by lunchtime. As usual it brought chaos on the roads since snow has been a rarity in the UK for some time and most drivers just don't have a clue about how to drive on snow and ice. A few, who live high enough and are old enough or have lived elsewhere where snow is common have the skill but still become stuck behind those who slide and skid.

I was one of them on New Year's Eve in Newcastle when I spent 30 minutes making a 2 mile journey up Dunston Bank. It was covered in ice and although I didn't get stuck I had to dodge around other cars which were sliding all over the place.

So what is the secret? It's easy - you slow down. Although it is counter intuitive, if you start to get wheel-spin you ease off on the accelerator (gas pedal) and run your engine just a little faster than you need to prevent the engine stalling. Keep in the highest gear possible and if you start to slide, DON'T add power. That's harder in a car with an automatic gearbox - might be a good time to remind yourself how to use it's manual mode.

When going downhill leave a large gap in front. ABS brakes will help but if your car isn't fitted with them then brake very gently. If you start to slide, take your foot off the brake and let the wheels start turning and tyres start gripping before trying to brake again. This is vital since you have no control over your car's direction once the wheels have locked. If it's really icy then pulse the brake gently rather than braking steadily.

Obviously this is no time to have to do an emergency stop so LEAVE THAT GAP and think well ahead. Assume the worst. That driver at the junction ahead will try to pull out in front of you, the guy you are about to overtake will slide sideways across your path and the guy coming down the hill towards you thinks he can control his skid by braking hard and sliding into you.

If you do get stuck there are three things you should be carrying in your boot which can help.

  1. a shovel

  2. a large piece of a cardboard box

  3. a bag of cat litter

Use the shovel to dig a path clear.
Place the cardboard under the wheel which is slipping.
Cat litter makes good grit to get you traction and is a lot lighter than grit or salt.

You might also want to plan for the worst and carry some tea light candles. They don't take up much space but if you get stranded will provide light and a surprising amount of warmth.

So where did I pick up the skill? I was raised on a hill farm 1,700 feet up in the Pennine Hills and have also spent 3 winters in Canada. I'm old enough to remember the 1963 winter too so 6 inches of snow is nothing!

By the way - if you think winter is bad this year - 'you ain't seen nuthin yet!'

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