Getting behind the wheel in the rain, sleet or snow can be hazardous. We tell you how to avoid ending up in a ditch and how to drive in snow
As English winters have progressed from mild, wet affairs to the violent cold snaps of recent years, getting from A to B has, at times, proved something of a challenge. Every year images of abandoned cars on snowy motorways grace the front pages of various papers.
Driving on snow, on ice or through mud doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Add to this the ever-increasing reliance on electronically controlled traction assistance on cars, and drivers are gradually having their skill set eroded. Less is more when driving on a slippery surface: gentle throttle, subtle steering input, steady braking.
The root cause of all challenges drivers face in difficult conditions is always loss of traction. At some stage, most cars lose grip. The tyres spin and the vehicle won’t go forwards; it might even begin to slide in an elegant but uncontrolled arc across the road. The various drivetrains affect the car in different ways.
A front-wheel-drive car has to steer and propel itself with the same pair of wheels – not great for handling under pressure, especially with no traction. They do not, however, over-steer as violently as rear-wheel-drive cars. These push from the back and leave the front wheels free to steer, but too much throttle (and it doesn’t need to be much on ice) will send the back of the car round the front: in other words, oversteer. This can be hard to correct and a rear-wheel-drive car poses the greatest challenge in these conditions.
Four-wheel drive is the best option. As all four wheels drive, less power is needed by each wheel which means less slip and more grip. If a wheel or two are slipping, the others should still get you going. What four-wheel drive doesn’t do, however, is help you stop.
What happens when it goes wrong? Tales of motoring mishaps in icy conditions are generally rather amusing. Take the chap in his low-slung sports car in Northumberland. The inside of the windscreen had iced up so he sprayed it liberally with de-icer, almost fainting from the fumes. Luckily, he got plenty of fresh air as the car took on snow-ploughesque tendencies and every 20 minutes he had to get out and free the radiator grille, which had become clogged with snow, by hand.
Another unfortunate driver wrongly assumed that his Land Rover 110 was immune to the conditions, bounced off the high banks of the country lane he was driving down and laid the poor vehicle down on its side. As for the BMW owner who put snow chains on his front wheels… there are no words. Especially when you remember that BMWs are rear-wheel drive.
Not even well-equipped cars are immune. As a child in Norway I was being driven to ski school in Oslo’s Holmenkollen. The car was fitted with studded tyres and the roads seemed clear when suddenly it began to spin. My poor grandmother, very experienced after many Norwegian winters, could do nothing as the car spun in circles back down the mountain.
Luckily, the first thing it hit was a snow bank and not the bus on its way up.
Even if your car has four-wheel drive there is only so far it can get you out of trouble before physics and mother nature will win. Fortu-nately, there are various solutions.
These are, literally, a pair of grippy fabric socks that can be kept inside the car for use in an emergency. They fit over the tyres in minutes and are safe for use up to 50mph. They must not be used on bare tarmac as they will wear out quickly. Less bulky and lighter than snow chains, they are ideal to buy just in case: £45 upwards.
Compulsory in the Alps (snow socks are not approved), they are harder to fit than socks but are slightly more effective and likely to last longer. You can’t drive fast with chains (around 30mph) and they make for quite a noisy, bumpy ride: £35 upwards.
The most expensive solution but also the best. Winter tyres offer more traction and better braking than chains or socks. You can drive at any speed (within reason) and they will last years, especially if you remove and store them at the end of each winter. A set of good winter tyres for an Audi A4 will start from £230 per tyre for a premium brand (such as Goodyear) or £140 per tyre for a mid-range tyre (Kumho).
Who better to ask about technique than the holder of the world record for the fastest crossing of the Antarctic? Jason de Carteret smashed the previous record in December 2011, reaching the South Pole in 15 hours and 54 minutes in a Toyota Tacoma truck.
THREE GENERAL RULES FOR DRIVING ON SNOW
- Never spin the wheels. If you get stuck, just stop, reverse and take another run at it, keeping a steady speed. Use the torque of the vehicle to keep the wheels turning and not the power, as if you keep too high a rev range you have a much higher chance of spinning the wheels and digging yourself a hole.
- If you do find that you are digging yourself a hole, stop immediately. If it is small, you may be able to rock the vehicle forwards and backwards and get out of it in reverse. If it is deep, dig the snow away from the rear of the wheels and reverse out.
- The correct speed is important: too slow you will get stuck, too fast and you will lose directional control and will more than likely end up in a ditch or hitting another car. If it is desperate that you must get out, you could try letting air out of your tyres to give you more flotation on the snow. However you need a lot of experience to get this right so you don’t let too much out and ruin your tyres and wheels when you get back on to normal roads.
“Ice driving is slightly different as you don’t have the issue of getting stuck in deep snow. However, getting into a skid or wheel spin will mean loss of steering control,” de Carteret adds.
THREE GENERAL RULES FOR DRIVING ON ICE
- Keep your speed lower than when driving on snow.
- Avoid spinning the wheels.
- And avoid over- or under-steering as much as possible.
“When you do have to drive in snow or on ice your vehicle will act differently, therefore you have to drive differently. Think ahead and try and keep a constant speed, even if it is slow. Be deliberate and try to limit tight turns, accelerating and braking,” he concludes.
ELECTRONIC DRIVING AIDS
Virtually every new car on the planet has traction control now, mostly electronic. But sometimes this just leaves you motionless as the computer has a row with reality. On detecting that the wheels are slipping some systems won’t let you move at all. You need to know how to drive correctly when you turn all the systems off. Many modern four-by-fours even have sophisticated programs for ascending and descending and will, literally, drive themselves up or down the slope. Handy, but, as ever, don’t rely on technology – you still need to know how to land the plane.
With most things in life, getting some decent instruction has a positive effect on one’s skill set. Driving is no different and the skills mentioned can be taught and honed.
The simplest way to learn how to control a skidding car is to go to a skid pan. Cars are mounted on special trolleys that reduce traction, so the instructor can teach the driver how to respond to and correct loss of control at various speeds and levels of grip, as well as learning how to try to avoid a skid in the first place. From £99 upwards (www.driverskills.com).
Land Rover offers courses aimed at improving off-road driving skills. You can take your own 4×4 and it doesn’t have to be a Land Rover. Land Rover Experience, from £365 upwards (www.landrover.com).
The best way to learn to drive on ice is, of course, to drive on ice. BMW offers courses on glaciers and lakes in Austria and Sweden. Basic courses from £630 or four-day advanced courses from £2,500, typically in an M3 fitted with spiked tyres (www.bmw.com/com/en/insights/driving_experience/rivertraining/overview.html).
Or throw caution to the winds and go to Finland to drive full throttle on a frozen lake with four-time World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen. The cars? Imprezas, RS4s, Porsches and a Lamborghini Gallardo. Yes, it’s savagely expensive. But I’m not sure it’s physic-ally possible to have more fun than this (www.ultimate-gt.com/tours.php?id=1).