Driving in icy weather can be treacherous. We explain how to tell if the road is getting icy and the best way to drive when it does
Driving on ice is probably one of the most dangerous situations you can find yourself in behind the wheel – but there are precautions you can take so you don’t feel like you’re on a slip ’n’ slide.
The first is not to drive unless it’s absolutely necessary. Next, make sure you’ve got all your cold weather gear, including a warm coat, snacks and enough charge on your phone. There are more useful things to pack in your car in our winter driving tips page. And, as we’re talking about your phone, it’s sensible to text the person you’re meeting with your estimated time of arrival and the route you’re taking.
Here are our top tips for driving on icy roads.
How to drive in icy conditions
The main thing to do is to drive slowly. At lower speeds, you’re less likely to skid on a patch of ice. If you do skid, it’ll be less serious and a bit easier to control than a skid at higher speeds. If you spot ice ahead of you when travelling at higher speeds, it’s safer to ease off the accelerator rather than slamming the brakes.
Smoothness is really important on ice. Harsh acceleration or braking can result in a loss of grip – driving like you’re in a Fast & Furious movie might have you getting up close and personal with a hedge. Make sure your steering input is as smooth as a hot knife through butter, too.
You should leave a lot of space between you and the car in front. Braking distances can be up to 10 times longer in icy conditions than in dry conditions, and leaving a large gap also gives you more time to react to the situation in front of you. If the vehicle in front starts skidding or swerves to avoid ice, you can adjust your driving, and you might be able to spot the ice before you get to it.
Modern cars typically warn you that there might be ice on the road at about three or four degrees Celsius. It seems conservative but the warning is there for a reason – when the air temperature is around four degrees, the road can be at freezing point. Ice can start to form quickly, especially if there’s been rain recently.
Stick to main roads and bus routes if you can, because these are most likely to have been gritted. Gritted roads can still be icy, so carry on being extra careful, but quiet country roads are likely to be a lot more slippery.
What would suggest you’re driving on ice?
When it’s below four degrees, you should be prepared for icy stretches of road, especially if it’s been raining or you’re driving very early in the morning. Shiny areas of Tarmac or puddles are likely to be iced over.
If you’re still not sure whether you’re driving on ice, listen to how much noise your tyres are making. On normal roads, tyres can make quite a bit of noise, but on ice they’ll be much quieter or totally silent.
Your steering may feel light or unresponsive on ice – but don’t yank the wheel too hard to check, otherwise you may end up in a spin.
What gear should you drive in on icy roads?
If you’re driving a manual car on icy roads, drive in the highest possible gear that won’t cause your engine to stall or labour. This will give your tyres the best chance of gripping the ice, as a lower gear and higher revs can overwhelm your tyres and lose all that lovely grip. You might need to pull away from a stop in second gear to stop the wheels spinning (and you may need to ride the clutch a little).
How to drive on ice in an automatic
Drivers with automatic cars can find it difficult to set off in icy conditions. Many automatic gearboxes will let you override the software and choose your own gears, enabling you to start off in second gear like in a manual car. In especially slippery conditions, you might need to briefly turn off your car’s stability control – usually a button on the dashboard – to be able to pull away, making sure to turn it back on as soon as possible.
How to drive uphill on ice
Driving smoothly is imperative if you’re heading up an icy hill. Take it slow and steady and try to maintain a constant speed. You should choose the highest gear possible for the road surface, but aim to avoid changing down halfway up the hill as you could lose traction and start sliding back down the hill.
When driving downhill, slow right down before you start your descent and choose a low gear. This should stop the engine from spinning too fast and overwhelming the tyres. Try not to brake but, if you have to, brake gently.
What is black ice?
Besides an air freshener scent, black ice is when you have a thin but slick layer of ice on the road. You may see a sheen – warning you that the road is slippery – but black ice is often invisible to drivers. Take special care on shaded road surfaces, like under bridges and large trees because the lack of sunlight means ice is more likely.
How to prevent your car from sliding on ice
Driving slowly is the first way to prevent your car from skidding on ice, as the tyres are more likely to keep gripping than at higher speeds. But a slide can happen at low speeds, too – as those videos of cars sliding helplessly into kerbs and other cars attest – so it’s worth knowing what to do if it happens.
Make sure you’ve got plenty of grip on your tyres, and consider investing in a set of all-season or winter tyres. Winter tyres especially are designed to be most grippy below 7ºC, so you’re much less likely to slide than if you’ve still got ‘normal’ summer tyres on.
What to do if you skid on ice?
If you start to feel the back end of your car sliding, turn the same way. So, if the back of your car is starting to veer to the right, you need to steer to the right. But be sure to do this gently and in a measured way, not yanking the wheel like you’re swerving a rogue pheasant.
Come off the accelerator and resist the urge to slam on the brakes. Do this and the car’s weight distribution will pivot to the front and you’ll end up spinning. It’s easy to panic when you get into a skid, but stay calm and you’ll have a better chance of regaining control.