Breaking down in winter is potentially more dangerous than breaking down in summer. This is because there is less visibility on the road due to bad weather (i.e. other motorists will find it harder to see you), and if you are caught on a remote road or mountain pass then there’s a risk of hypothermia if you can’t be rescued.
There are a few simple checks you can perform to minimise the risk of a breakdown, and if you do break down, they’ll keep you safer.
Don’t let your fuel level run too low because if you do get stranded you may need to run your engine to keep warm. An engine uses around 1.5-2 litres of fuel per hour of running, and it will be more if you are using other devices at the same time that require electricity because power has to be taken from the engine to charge the battery. If you do get snowed in, use the engine enough to keep warm. If the vehicle’s exhaust becomes blocked then you risk poisoning yourself with carbon monoxide.
Open the bonnet and check the engine oil and the levels on your radiator and windscreen wiper washer bottle. Your engine oil should be around the maximum level. Don’t overfill it. Use a screen wash additive with your windscreen wipers so that the water doesn’t freeze.
Give your car a chance to warm up before you leave in the morning so that you have heat which you can use to clear windscreens. It’s also slightly easier on your car’s engine, but it’s not necessary for fuel injected cars in terms of major wear and tear as the engine will compensate for the temperature and lack of oil viscosity. If you don’t need to clear the windows, you don’t need to idle any more than around 30 seconds, otherwise you are just wasting fuel and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Don’t warm it up in an enclosed garage, though, otherwise you will be breathing in concentrated fumes. In cold weather it could take 5 minutes for your engine to warm up enough to give you demisting power. In this time you can clear the windscreens and quickly check around the outside of the car. Be aware of safety, though – don’t leave your car running and walk too far from it or someone could jump in and steal it.
Check your tyre tread depth and tyre pressures. Even though the minimum level is 1.6mm, tread depth, wet weather performance drops off quickly once it’s below 3mm. In cold weather the tyre pressure will fall. While this technically means that more of the tyre is in contact with the road which will give you slightly more grip, if your tyres were already down then you could be moving into a range of suboptimal performance from your tyre where it starts to overheat.
As debris on the roads in winter is often wet, it can enter your tyre more easily because the water lubricates it. Tyres with deeper tread are less likely to be punctured this way.
Get someone to help you check lights. Check and clean all your lights and make sure that they work.
Wiper blades should be in good condition and you will be using them a lot more in winter. If they have splits in them then they won’t clear efficiently. New wiper blades are usually cheap to purchase and easy to install – check the owner’s manual.
In winter remember to carry blankets and safety kit in your car in case of emergency. If you are in a region that’s likely to be snowy then you can carry other emergency items such as a small shovel. Depending on where you live you might want to carry snow chains. If you are driving on a longer trip ensure your cellphone is fully charged and that you have some basic food and water supplies. If you do get snowed into your car, don’t leave the car unless you can see another vehicle; it’s easier for emergency services to locate your car than one individual person wandering around.
It’s best not to use cruise control when driving on slippery surfaces unless your car also has ESP or traction control.
Check weather forecasts and road closures if you are driving a long distance. Let other people know your route.
Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.