The wInterview: Driving in a winter wonderland – part two

We promised you the second half of our ‘Driving in a winter wonderland’ wInterview…and here it is.

A van causing snow to fly up off the road in Norwich last winter. Credit: PGBrown1987

A van causing snow to fly up off the road in Norwich last winter. Credit: PGBrown1987

In the second half of our chat, Iain Temperton, Manager of Casualty Reduction, Education and Development at Norfolk County Council, tells us how you can avoid skidding, how much sooner you should be braking and why snow and ice are far from the only weather conditions that could cause road accidents this winter.

And once again, you can listen to this wInterview by using the audio players at the bottom of this blog post.

How do you drive most safely when there’s ice and snow around?

The first concept is this: skids are caused, they don’t just happen.

So, what causes skids? Essentially it’s three things: harsh acceleration, harsh braking and harsh steering. If you don’t do any of those three things, your vehicle won’t skid.

So what you need to be able to do is use the controls of the car very gently, accelerate gently, brake far, far earlier than you would normally do, and don’t haul on the steering. If you do everything gently, slowly and carefully, the car will stay under full control.

Is it a matter of staying focused on the road while you’re driving?

What we tend to find is that a lot of drivers will creep out of their driveway very carefully and they’ll creep to the end of the road very carefully. Because they’re being careful, everything works nicely.

Five minutes into the journey they’re still being careful and ten minutes in they’re still being careful. Half an hour in and they’re thinking, ‘this is ok’ and they start to relax and forget how careful they need to be. Then turning into a side road half an hour into the journey suddenly the car goes sideways because the concentration has gone.

So, it’s one of those things that if you are driving in these conditions, you need to be fully switched on to the situation all the way through the journey until you stop the car at the other end, and don’t get complacent which is something we’re all guilty of. Doing everything really gently until the end of the journey is key.

What about stopping distances? When there’s a vehicle in front of you, how differently should you react?

On a dry road we would look for a two-second gap. So when you go past a road sign, just say to yourself ‘one pink elephant…two pink elephants…’ – that’s how we count our seconds.

In the wet, you would count four pink elephants. If it’s snowy or icy, you would count ten seconds so you leave a huge gap between you and the car in front.

But it’s often more relevant when you’re coming on to a junction and early in the journey you’ll give yourself lots and lots of space and brake early.

Later in the journey that will slip, so those braking distances will vastly increase. It’s much better to overbrake and to think ‘actually I can drive a bit further before I get to that junction’ than to find yourself coming up to the give way or the stop line and thinking ‘I’ve left it too late’ and desperately trying to stop your vehicle on the snowy road. So, sooner rather than later is a good plan.

So is the key here to drive to the conditions and to be aware of what the road surface and the weather are like around you?

We don’t grit every road in the county; we grit the major routes where people are going to be. But when you get off those major routes, the roads will be icy and snowy. Just take your time and feel the car.

What I would suggest is to turn the radio off and listen to the car and what’s going on under the tyres. If there’s no noise, that’s probably worse than if there is noise. If there is noise, it’s either a wet road or a snowy road. If there isn’t noise under your tyres, it’s probably ice. If that is the case, be very careful.

What about driving in other weather conditions that aren’t snow and ice? 

Evening traffic in foggy Norwich. If you can't see further than 100m, switch on your fog lights. Credit: Harry Harris

Evening traffic in foggy Norwich. If you can’t see further than 100m, switch on your fog lights. Credit: Harry Harris

Firstly fog – when should you put your fog lights on? If you look at your highway code it will tell you when visibility is reduced to less than 100 metres.

I haven’t got a clue what 100 metres is if you were to ask me to pace it out, so essentially if it’s looking a bit dodgy and you’re really struggling to keep your visibility up then get those fog lights on.

And I would stress, if you’re in a slightly older car, switch them off when the fog has gone away. With modern cars, when you switch the fog lights off then they go off and you can’t switch them on by accident the next day. But if you drive an older car you could have those fog lights on for the next three weeks and annoy lots of people behind you, so don’t forget that.

When should you switch your headlights on?

Obviously in low light conditions, like when it starts to get towards dusk, but even during the day because if you’ve put your wipers on, put your lights on to match.

If you’ve got your wipers on, you obviously have rain or snow on the windscreen and you need your headlights on – not to see where you’re going but to let other people see you.

Can the wind have an effect on your journey?

There are a few issues about windy days – essentially things being blown off trees and buildings. Unfortunately there’s not much you can do about that – if a tree’s going to fall down on you, it’s going to fall down on you.

However, you need to consider if you’re driving a minibus, a van or a high-sided vehicle and you come past a gap in the hedge or the end of a street where the wind is funnelling through, that’s going to give your vehicle a bit of a shove.

Obviously if you’re on two wheels, like a cyclist or a motorcyclist, then you must be aware that that sort of wind is going to give you a sudden movement across the road, so watch out for that on windy days.

It’s not a case of what’s falling, it’s what’s fallen before you get there – in other words what’s lying in the road, whether there are branches or debris off buildings. So keep a good eye on the road surface ahead of you.

How can drivers be careful when the sun is in their eyes?

One thing to bear in mind is when you turn into a side road or the road bends and you find yourself facing in a different direction, you can suddenly be dazzled by low sunlight.

Be ready for it – as you’re driving think to yourself, if the sun’s on the left hand side and I’m about to turn left, it’s going to be no surprise when I suddenly can’t see. Low sunlight is no different to fog, it affects your visibility. What I would say about this, and for all unusual weather conditions, is to slow down.

People will drive along and when it starts to rain, they don’t slow down. Similarly, people will drive into direct sunlight and they don’t slow down. If your visibility is reduced for whatever reason, bring your speed down to match it.

What difference can heavy rain and flooding make to driving?

Essentially, when the water gets between the tyre and the tarmac, it can potentially cause you problems.

Your tyres will shift an amazing amount of water. – at certain speeds each of your tyres will shift a gallon a second, which is pretty impressive. However, the faster you go the less water is moved because you need the weight of the vehicle pressing down on the rubber to shift the water and the faster you go, the lighter your car is.

If you’re going faster and faster on a wet road, sooner or later you will shift less water and you will then start to aquaplane. So by bringing your speed down you move the water out from under the car and you have your grip.

Skid’s all about choice of speed, so in seriously heavy rain or lots of standing water, bring your speed down and you’ll be able to control the car.

Dips under railway bridges can collect water, like this one on Station Road in Wymondham.

Dips under railway bridges can collect water, like this one on Station Road in Wymondham.

What should you do when approaching deep water on the road?

If you’re in those sorts of conditions where you can see standing water and you don’t know the depth then please don’t risk it. Quite often you get little dips under railway bridges in towns or little fords out in the rural areas of Norfolk.

It’s just not worth the risk and if you don’t know how deep the water is then it’s not worth trying it because what you don’t want to be doing is getting stuck in the middle thinking to yourself ‘if I open the door it’s going to fill up with water.’

It’s going to get expensive; it’s going to get unpleasant – so if in doubt, don’t go through it.

If you missed our first part, then take a look here to find out what to take in your car when roads are icy and what to do if you’re nervous about driving on slippery roads. Plus it has links to the all the sites you’ll need to keep informed through the winter.

And don’t forget, if you want information on gritting then the Norfolk County Council Facebook page and Twitter feed will be providing daily updates on whether the gritters are going out or not.

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