How to drive on snow and ice covered roads

snow and ice driving tips

Winter is here…and with many parts of Australia copping the Antarctic Blob this weekend, we thought we’d share tips on how to drive on snow and ice covered roads.

Driving on snow and ice covered roads is very different to driving on wet roads. And that’s mainly because many of us will only ever see snow or come across an icy road once or twice a year.

So, while we know of plenty of Sydney-siders readying themselves for a drive up into the Blue Mountains or to places like Barrington Tops to get some snow, we’d suggest not heading out onto the roads would be a better idea. See, all it does is add unnecessary congestion and increase the chance of an accident. And, besides, plenty of roads are closed by emergency services when it snows.

Okay, old man whinge over…not sure why I bother, no-one ever listens. If you’ve never driven on snow or ice covered roads before, or only every now and then, there are a few things to keep in mind.

The first one is that selecting first gear on an icy road is a good idea. It isn’t. In fact, it’s a really, really stupid idea. And that’s because lower gears are giving you more ‘drive’ so to speak and that means the tyre’s grip can easily be overwhelmed and…you lose grip and spear into a tree. Selecting a higher gear and a nice even throttle application is the best way to pull away on ice. If your vehicle is an automatic rather than a manual then it’ll possibly have a snow mode, selecting this, will see the transmission automatically select a higher gear to try and prevent slip.

When you’re driving on icy roads you should drop your speed by a third of the speed limit and give yourself at least 10 car lengths between yourself and the car you’re following. And don’t A) accelerate quickly or B) make sudden direction changes, and C) don’t brake hard either. You want gentle applications of the steering, throttle and brakes.

If you do start to skid then don’t A) take your hands off the steering wheel to cover your eyes, and B) don’t jam on the brakes. What you want to do is steer where you want to go, so, if your car is starting to slide to the left then steer to the left and ease off the accelerator, doing this should help you regain control of the car, see te tyres get traction again and keep you heading in the right direction.

While a road cleared of snow will generally have a frosty look and thus be easy to see that there’s ice on the road, ‘black ice’ can be impossible to see. And while driving on a snow covered road isn’t particularly common in Australia, black ice can form anywhere the mercury drops below zero degrees overnight. It tends to sit in shaded sections of road.

Similarly, heavy frosts can see your windscreen wipers ‘stick’ to your windscreen, so never try and use your wipers to clear ice from your windscreen unless you’ve used the windscreen demister function to blow warm air onto the screen and melt the ice, or you’ve scraped the ice clean and had raised your wipers at the end of the day before. Indeed, if you know you’re staying somewhere that’s about to experience snow, then raising your windscreen wipers, or laying a tarp across the windscreen is a good idea.

Following this theme, let’s say you’re not a day-tripping tourist but someone living in an area that’s copped a dumping of snow. Before jumping in your car and cruising around, you’re going to need to remove the snow from your car. See, if you don’t when you hit the brakes, all that snow will slide forward and cover your windscreen. And your wipers won’t be strong enough to clear it. So, walk around the car and scrape the snow off the roof and the windscreen, and check your lights both at the front and back are clear of obstructions too.

Once your vehicle is clear of ice and snow then refer to the tips above for how to drive on the road safely.

One last thing…fuel. Petrol won’t freeze until it hits -50 degrees C which is not something we need to worry about in Australia. But diesel, well, that’s a different story. See, its freezing point is only -20 degrees C but it’ll begin to cloud and wax long before it gets to that. You’ll know your diesel has become waxy if you turn the key and it sputters. You’ll often need to wait for the temperature to rise before the diesel will thin again.

Fortunately, Australian fuel standards specify the maximum temperatures, by region and month for fuels sold in Australia. If you’re heading into alpine areas then you’ll see Alpine Diesel being sold at petrol stations and this has a much lower cloud point than the non-alpine diesel, maybe around -7-degrees C. Other cold areas will get Highland Diesel which has a cloud point of around -2-degrees C. You can also get additives to lower the cloud point of your diesel even further. A cold weather diesel isn’t something that day-tripping tourists will need to worry about but those who are staying in a freezing cold, snowy spot for a couple of days should look to fill up on local fuel.

So, there you go, if you’re copping the Antarctic Blob or planning on a day trip to somewhere that’ll get snow, then hopefully these tips will come in handy.

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Isaac Bober has been writing about cars and 4x4s for more than 20 years, has worked on some of the country's biggest motoring magazines (remember what they were?), and launched Practical Motoring. Now he's back, back again... to share dad jokes and much more.