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Learning to drive

How to drive in bad weather

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In the car adverts it never rains, but sadly those of us who live in the real world have to put up with wind, rain and a whole array of adverse driving conditions. Once the heavens open you have to deal with all sorts of issues, such as reduced natural light, grip and visbility, and just slowing down isn’t enough.

How can I stay safe in all weather?

Wind and rain

Here, with the help of the experts at IAM RoadSmart, are the things you need to do to stay alive next time you have to drive in wind and rain:

  • Before you set off, set your heater controls – rain makes the windows mist up in seconds. You don’t want to be fiddling with controls when you should be concentrating on the road.
  • Slow down. In the rain your stopping distance is at least doubled. Giving yourself more space helps you to avoid spray, especially when following a large vehicle.
  • Keep your eyes on the road ahead and plan your driving so you can brake, accelerate and steer smoothly – harsh manoeuvres will unbalance your car.
  • Strong winds can also unsettle your car and even change your direction of travel. Grip your steering wheel firmly and be aware of the effects of the weather on other road users.
  • If you have cruise control, avoid using it on wet roads – it may create problems if you start to aquaplane (this is when the car’s tyres no longer clear water away fast enough to grip the road).
  • See and be seen. Put your lights on – as a rule of thumb, whenever you need to use your wipers you should also turn your headlights on, and before overtaking put your wipers on their fastest setting.

 

Floods

It’s easy to be blasé when dealing with flood water, but you need to be incredibly careful as such conditions can catch you out big time. Not only can a swollen river carry your car away, but if water gets into your car’s electrics it can be written off by the huge cost of putting things right.

What’s more likely to wreck your car though, is water being sucked up into the engine. Your engine needs air to breathe; this gets in via an air intake. Different cars have this air intake positioned in different places, but it’ll be at the front of the car; the critical thing is what height it’s set at.

Think of your car’s engine as being like your body; your lungs need air to breathe, but if you’re submerged in water, you’ll suck in water and drown. The same thing can happen to your car.

The golden rule is that if you’re in doubt and there’s an alternative route, take it. if the water if more than 30cm deep you’re in danger of being swept away, unless you’re lucky enough to be driving a hefty 4×4.

Here, with the help of the IAM RoadSmart, are the things you need to do to stay alive next time you have to drive in flood water:

  • Drive on the highest section of the road and don’t set off if a vehicle is approaching you.
  • Leave time and space to avoid swamping other cars and pedestrians.
  • If you can’t see where you’ll exit the water, such as when approaching flooding on a bend, think twice about driving into it.
  • Once in the water, keep the revs up, stay in a low gear and slip the clutch if necessary to keep your speed down; you don’t want to create a bow wave in front of your car, by driving too fast. Maintaining revs helps prevent the water from travelling up the exhaust pipe and into the engine.
  • If you have to stop in the water, keep the engine revs up. Let the revs drop or stall the engine and you’ll probably be stranded.
  • Once you’re out of the water, dry the brakes before you need them. Check there’s nobody behind, then apply the brake as you drive along for a few seconds.

Fog

When the temperatures drop, the air cools and fog often results. This leads to reduced visibility – which is bad enough, but what’s even worse is when it’s patchy. One minute you can be driving with perfect visibility, and the next you can barely see the end of your bonnet.

The key – as ever – is to keep your speed down so you’ve got plenty of time to react to any hazards that might develop. But there’s also an array of other things you can do to make your life easier – and also the lives of those around you.

 

Here, we guide you through the things you need to do to stay alive next time you have to drive in fog:

  • Before setting off, clean your windows and windscreen and ensure all your lights are working.  Clean the inside of the screen as well; it can be hard to tell if your windows are misting up, as it looks just like the fog outside.
  • Switch on the heater or air conditioning and leave them running to keep the inside of the glass clear.  Air-con helps dry the air – on a foggy day it can really help.
  • Use your windscreen wipers on an intermittent setting to keep the screen clear; those droplets of moisture build up faster on your screen than you realise.
  • Always keep your headlights switched on, but stick to dipped beam as you’ll dazzle yourself on main beam. Don’t rely on your car’s daylight running lights – they tend to work only at the front of the car.
  • Use fog lights if visibility is less than 100 metres, but don’t forget to switch them off when visibility improves. And if you’re in stop/start traffic, keep them switched off or you’ll just dazzle the driver behind. Remember that rear fog lights may mask your brake lights, increasing the chance of somebody driving into the back of you.
  • Slow down and keep enough distance between yourself and the vehicle in front – make sure you can stop safely within the distance you can see clearly.
  • Fog is not the same density all the time – when it gets thicker, slow down.
  • Brake gently, and earlier than usual so your brake lights warn drivers behind that you’re there.
  • Be aware that other vehicles may be travelling without their lights on, and pedestrians and cyclists will be hard to see anyway, so extra care and attention is needed.
  • At junctions, wind the window down and listen for traffic.  If you have electric windows, open the passenger one to listen that way as well.
  • Straining to see through thick fog will quickly make you tired – take regular breaks.

Snow and ice

It doesn’t matter which way you cut it; when the temperatures plummet you really need to have your wits about you if you’re going to get behind the wheel.

Not only will the roads be much more slippery than usual, but it’s not always obvious where the ice begins and ends – just using your eyes isn’t enough. The obvious advice would be to stay in where it’s warm and dry, but if you do have to drive in sub-zero temperatures, here’s how to minimise the chances of getting into a scrape: It’s not always obvious where the ice begins and ends – just using your eyes isn’t enough

  • Keep your vehicle well-ventilated; to stop the windows misting up use air-con if you have it. A heater turned up full can quickly make you drowsy.
  • In snow, stop occasionally to clean the windows and lights. Visibility will almost certainly be reduced, so use dipped headlights.
  • Stopping distances are 10 times longer than usual; gentle manoeuvres are essential.
  • Keep to the main roads as they’re more likely to be gritted. Also bear in mind that after the frost has gone, ice can remain in areas which are shaded by trees and buildings.
  • Wear comfortable, dry shoes: cumbersome, snow-covered boots will slip on the pedals.
  • Select second gear when pulling away, easing your foot off the clutch gently to avoid wheelspin.
  • When climbing a hill avoid having to stop – wait until it’s clear by leaving plenty of room ahead.
  • Maintain a constant speed, choosing the most suitable gear well in advance.
  • When driving downhill, reduce your speed before the hill, use a low gear and avoid using the brakes. Leave loads of room between you and the car in front.
  • Always apply brakes gently. Release them and de-clutch if the car skids.
  • If you have an automatic, under normal driving conditions select ‘Drive’ and let the gearbox do the work throughout the full gear range. In slippery, snowy conditions select ‘2’, which limits the gear changes and makes you less reliant on the brakes. Many modern autos have a ‘Winter’ mode which locks out first gear to reduce the risk of wheelspin. Check the handbook if you’re not sure.
  • If you do get stuck, straighten the steering and clear the snow from the wheels. Put a sack or old rug in front of the driving wheels to give the tyres some grip. Once on the move again, try not to stop until you reach firmer ground.