We’re on the downward slope to Christmas, hopefully your shopping is done, presents are wrapped and under the tree and you’ve sent out all your Christmas cards.
How all that’s left is to finish the last few days at work and you’re free for the holidays.
There’s no denying it, Christmas is a busy time of the year, there are more vehicles on the road, people will be in a hurry and the road conditions are likely not to be the best, with gritters out in force and the likelihood that the weather is not going to be warm and sunny (unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) is strong.
Taking all of these factors into account, it’s incredibly important that you take care when you are visiting friends and family (or in 2020, your permitted bubble).
In this article we’re going to look at the best ways for you to keep safe on the roads and ensure you arrive at your Christmas destination (wherever that may be) safely.
How to drive safely during the winter
As with anything, whether it’s making a cake or going on a journey, preparation is key. Having a checklist will make this even easier.
Check the weather
In the UK, we’re known for our weather. It’s become a global joke that a key topic of English smalltalk is our unpredictable and changeable weather conditions. One day it can be sunny and warm and the next a torrential downpour. That goes double for the winter with the weather becoming less conducive to safe driving conditions, with wind, rain, hail, sleet and snow all possible in a single day.
It’s for that reason it’s vital you check the weather forecast regularly when planning to travel, especially if you’re going on a longer journey.
If you’re thinking about visiting family over the Christmas period (even in 2020, then you should always check the weather not only of your home location, but also your intended destination. It may well be sunny and warm where you are in the South of England, but get a couple of hundred miles North of the Watford Gap and you could be faced with two feet of snow and a storm!
Plan your journey
The roads are busy all year round, but come Christmas, it can seem as though the roads are even busier, because they are. This increased number of vehicles on the road can cause congestion and sometimes lead to accidents, which can cause further congestion and delays.
It’s vital that you plan your journey in advance, to ensure that you take the best route possible and, maybe even have a secondary route as a back-up.
We recommend that you do a search using local and national council websites and the Highways England website to find out about planned roadworks or road closures that may affect you on your travels. Carrying out your planning a few days in advance will give you time to find an alternative route, should it be necessary.
Things can change in a matter of moments, so it’s a very good idea to check the traffic situation a few hours before you leave, ensuring that nothing that could impact on your journey has occurred. Also, make sure that you have set your radio to interrupt your in-car entertainment when traffic updates are on.
Many sat-nav systems get live traffic updates and will reroute you accordingly. It may seem, sometimes, that these suggested routes are going to take you longer, or via a route that looks as though it’s going to take you down unfamiliar roads. However, the chances are the sat-nav is leading you via a quicker, alternative route, so we recommend you follow the instructions it gives you.
If you’re driving a long distance then you need to take regular breaks. Some vehicles will prompt you to take breaks when travelling a long way. However, you should always take these breaks into account when planning the length of your journey and ensure that you not only add the time into your plan, but also tie it in with appropriate locations for a safe stop.
Make sure your car is prepared
Just like we have to prepare ourselves for the winter (swap the summer and winter wardrobes, check the heating, find the hot water bottles), it’s also vital you ensure your car is prepared for colder weather.
Below are a few of the checks you should carry out to ensure that your vehicle is in good shape and ready to be driven over the colder winter months:
- Fill up your tank
- Replace the windshield wipers
- Ensure all the fluids are topped up
- Check the tyre pressure
- Change to winter tyres if possible
- Check that the battery cables
If you don’t feel confident in carrying out these checks yourself, there are several places that offer a free winter check, including Halfords, Kwik Fit and ProTyre. The tests offered vary between five and ten key checkpoints, but they will ensure that your vehicle is prepared for winter road conditions.
The checks offered will check: car lights, wiper blades, car battery, tyre tread and oil levels.
There are some garages and service centres that will offer a winter service that is similar to the full service you should be getting every year, focused specifically on the areas that are important to the cold weather health of your vehicle. These services will include oil changes, a top-up of the antifreeze screen wash, tyre depth check, and starter motor check. The checks vary depending on the garage you are visiting.
How to prepare for a travel emergency
We know it’s not something you like to think about, but, just like at any other time of year, emergencies can occur, even at Christmas.
The last thing you want to be, if you breakdown or get stuck in traffic, is unprepared. It’s sensible to ensure that you have a preparedness kit with you when you go on car journeys whether they’re hundreds of miles or just somewhere you’re unfamiliar with. No, we’re not talking full-on apocalypse prepper, but enough of an emergency kit in that if you are in a situation where you are unable to get your car started, or there is a very long tailback, you aren’t going to be battling with hungry and agitated passengers or shivering in the car when the temperature drops.
So, in case of emergency, we recommend you keep the following in your vehicle – whether in a bag in your boot, or under the car seats:
- Keep a few of these in the car, it can get cold when you’re not moving for a while
- Winter boots
- Not the best thing to drive in, but necessary to keep your feet warm if you need to change a tyre or walk somewhere if you breakdown
- Extra layers are important when it’s cold
- A fully-charged mobile phone
- It goes without saying that most people have their phones with them all the time, but make sure to remember it when you’re driving long-distance
- Phone charger pack (plus cables)
- Batteries do die, so as a backup, make sure you have a fully-charged battery pack for your phone (and other electronic equipment) with you. These are small, easy to find and relatively low in price but invaluable when your phone battery starts getting low
- Non-perishable food
- Hunger = anger and frustration when stuck in one place with no escape
- The food could be in the car for months without being eaten (unlikely), but there is nothing worse than being stuck in a car for hours, unable to find somewhere to stop for food and feeling hungry.
- Foods such as cereal bars, packets of crisps, dried fruit or pretzels are ideal
- It goes without saying really that you need to keep hydrated. Don’t drink so much that you need a toilet break when you’re miles from the nearest rest stop, but keep some bottles of water in the car
- A torch
- We recommend a wind-up one unless you have spare batteries in the glove box
- Engine oil
- Washer fluid
- Spare tyre kit
- Repair kit/spare tyre
- Car jack
- Locking wheel nut key
- A pack of playing cards or games
- We’ve said it before (Road Trip Tips) and we’ll say it again, if you’re travelling with kids and there is a chance that you’re going to be stuck in traffic for hours (as is the possibility when travelling over Christmas) then you’ll need something to distract/amuse them.
Winter vehicle tips and tricks
Keeping your car roadworthy and also safe from the elements in the winter is important, especially if you don’t tend to drive it much over the colder months. So, we’ve put together a few tips and tricks that will help you to maintain your vehicle and keep it in good condition in the winter.
Where should I store my car in the winter?
The winter weather can be harsh and if you are wondering where to store your car to keep it in the best condition, we would recommend storing it in a safe and dry building (such as your garage).
Before you store it, you should ensure that the oil and fluid levels are topped up, tyres are inflated to the recommended level and the battery is corrosion free. If you aren’t planning on driving your car over the winter then you may want to remove the battery – though you will need to store it in the house on a piece of wood and connected to a maintainer/tender.
Condensation is a problem during the winter, so in order to prevent any moisture build-up inside your vehicle, roll the windows down around an inch.
Fill any holes, such as the exhaust with steel wool balls or the fabric sheets you use in the washing machine to prevent mice or rats camping out in your car.
Of course, not everyone has access to a garage, especially with so many living in blocks of flats or new developments where parking is at a premium. The next best option is a cover that you can easily put on the car and take off when you’re heading off to work.
A cover will protect your car from snow and ice, however, condensation can get trapped underneath it and, if it’s cold enough this will make the cover brittle. If this happens then the cover could crack when you try and remove it, it could also stick to the car.
Some companies, like Autocovers, have now started to produce covers specifically designed for cold weather, protecting against frost and/or snow. A cover that is designed to fit your car properly can help to protect it better from the environment.
Should I wash my car during the winter?
The salt used to grit roads in the UK is actually corrosive to car exteriors so if you are driving anywhere over the holidays then be prepared to stand outside at some point and give your car a wash to protect it from the damage that could occur. You will need to make sure that you can dry it off well if it’s not stored in a garage though, so it doesn’t freeze.
Should I idle my car?
Time was that you used to have to idle your car for 10-15 minutes first thing in order to warm up the engine. But that was due to the fact that old cars with carburated engines needed to be warmed. If you do this with a newer car you could be doing it more harm than good.
Not only could you be opening yourself up to coming out to find that your car has been driven off by an opportunistic thief, but you could also be damaging your car.
Modern vehicles only need a few minutes (at most) to warm up before you start driving. If you leave it idling for any longer than you’ll be stripping vital oil from your engine pistons and cylinders.
Once you start driving, we would recommend that you go slowly for the first 5-10 minutes until everything has been properly warmed up.
Should I fill my car with fuel more frequently?
If you want to avoid problems such as ice in the fuel lines then you should fill your car up more frequently in the winter to keep your tank in good shape.
If your tank is almost empty in the winter this can lead to the moist air to freeze and crystallise, causing ice.
If you fill your tank more frequently then you’re reducing the risk of ice in your fuel lines. You can purchase antifreeze (such as Heet) for your fuel line and getting an annual winter service can be the perfect check to ensure that your antifreeze levels are right.
Conclusion: Be prepared
There are many things that you can do to keep safe when driving home for Christmas, or just travelling over the winter months. Planning, checking the weather, packing an emergency kit, getting a winter service.
If you follow these tips then, whatever happens, you’ll be warm and have something to occupy you and your car passengers when you’re stuck for any length of time in traffic.
- The AA
- The RAC