All Weather Driving

I’ve written this article during Lockdown due to driving lessons constantly being cancelled. I hope many will find it useful (though it is a bit of a tome) particularly during these cold, winter days we are having at the time of writing.

The article is split into the three skills that cover the problems that are caused by the most common difficult weather conditions which are:

Rain / Snow & Ice / Fog / Bright sunshine/High winds

The three skills can be broken down into:

Vision – Seeing and Being Seen / Skidding and Avoidance / Speed and Stopping Distances.

  1. Vision – seeing and being seen:

Seeing;

Ensure you have clear  windscreen/windows/mirrors; Top up your windscreen wash  to include a cleaner – obvious, perhaps, though not necessarily as this prevents the smearing on windscreens you often see in summer, caused by insects/dust  that can exacerbate vision problems  when driving into strong sunlight.

Wipers are essential in Fog, to keep the grime build up at bay and should be checked for splits/damage that can cause scratches to your windscreen by scraping into the glass ( you can usually hear this by the nerve tingling scraping noise across the screen!)

If it is snowing, you can spend time clearing any build up of snow from your side/headlights rather than setting off whilst being only partially visible. At night time, this is the ideal time for you to spend a minute or so letting your eyes adjust to the dark, assuming you have come from a well lit building.

Defrosting the car ( and yes, some, though not all people realise this ) can be done without De icer by activating the following controls;

Activate heat controls as follows: Point heat direction up towards windscreen at maximum  setting/maximum airflow/ recirculation of air setting.

Point the air flow vents situated at the edges of the dashboard  towards the side windows ( many are fixed in this position).

Switch on the heated rear windscreen.

Some vehicles also have front heated windscreens now.

Bear in mind, these heated windscreens use vast amounts of power and this is subsequently taken from your wallet via the fuel consumption used to generate the heat. I understand  that half a gallon more fuel would be used if the rear windscreen Hester was on at all times in a car that fills up to 8 gallons!

You may find the air con clears the windows of condensation a fair bit, though it does not always work in colder weather. This also burns more fuel!

One of the disadvantages of de icer is that prolonged use can cause problems around the windscreen seals.

All these things should be taken into consideration for what suits both you and your car the best, though do not compensate money or eco benefits for safety!

Some experimentation may need to be done to find out which method is best.

  Being seen;

If in doubt, use lights. The thing to remember is it’s not just about what you can see as who can see you. Something often overlooked is the colour of the car you are driving – grey, blue and green are less likely to be noticed, or seen later, so if poor weather conditions make it seem darker, these cars should be using lights at the earliest.

In the rain, dipped headlights are usually recommended as they are in fog. I will stipulate now that main beam is useless in fog and you can try this little experiment at a safely parked up position to see how the headlight beams works (or not).

Imagine pointing a torch beam into a funnel or straw and how it alters into a smaller, though stronger, warmer beam through the other end.

The same thing happens when you change from main beam (which disperses the light more widely and higher from the vehicle) to dipped (a more direct  line pointing downwards).

The dipped line of light is then more concentrated, so warmer, resulting in the beam being able to cut through the fog more easily.

Indeed, the main beam will merely reflect back at you, causing an almost blinding effect on some occasions.

Of course, there are fog lights on cars, though many still only have them on the rear. These must (‘must’ in the Highway Code means by law) only be used  when visibility reduces to less than 100 metres.

A small point about being seen again is that, when you are stationary in traffic, you may want to keep your foot on the brake so people are alerted to you sooner via the brake lights than they would see your usual side lights in the fog.

Generally, any poor conditions call for dipped headlights, including rain, snow, fog, sleet, poor light conditions and, even, bright sunlight.

I often thing driving in bright sunlight is often overlooked when discussing All Weather aspects. There are various gadgets that defuse the effects created by low winter sun, such as extended visors but I’m not a big fan as I think they reduce the zone of vision from within the vehicle, perferring good sunglasses, though these are not without problems.

Going into a dark tunnel and out again, for example, but these are things  for you to consider and decide which is safest for you.

Perhaps tunnels are obvious when it comes to changes of light, but bright sunshine brings problems when out in an environment  that creates shadow. Consider being in the shadow of a hillside that you corner out of round a sharp bend into a blazing sun – the same thing can happen in towns where buildings would substitute the hillside! (in this example).

Anticipation is the key, but you need to be alert to the problem in the first place.

So, plenty to consider, and it is impossible to be specific over many of things mentioned, but what matters is that you take responsibility for what you can affect and allow you yourself and your vehicle to be as safe as is possible, given your own circumstances.

  • Skidding & avoidance:

This is always one of my favourite  lessons because it always allowed the pupil to do an Emergency Braking exercise (commonly known as the Emergency Stop) and I recommend that you practice a few yourself in safely controlled conditions so you know what you can expect from your vehicle in terms of response.

I am assuming you are competent at Emergency Braking in good conditions for the purpose of this article. If you are not, I would suggest taking an hour with an instructor on that issue ( this should be ample time if you are a reasonable driver).

As with all things driving, the best way to stay safe as possible begins with the  responsibility for the health of the driver them self.

This is not just about drinking/drugs etc , but being fit, well and not over tired. This applies at all times, though once the more specialised operations of skid control in an unexpected situation occur, it can be life or death, and one never knows when they might.

Common sense? I hope so.

With skidding, the main thing to concentrate on is to avoid them.

As with many problems in life (and driving is a great reflection of life/people) prevention is better than cure.

Having said that …. we all know stuff happens. So, here is my usual lessons on Skidding that is incorporated into the lesson on Emergency Braking (though not today as, to reiterate, I am assuming you are competent at that already).

Consider 3 things – the driver, the vehicle and ppthe environment (both weather conditions and road surface).

  1. The driver – if you skid, it is your fault. I have stressed avoidance and this is mainly achieved through Anticipation & Awareness.
  • The vehicle – think tyres here. The minimum tread depth is 1.6mm but I would suggest no less than 2cm around the central 3/4 and outer edge of the tyres. Use a feelers gage or simple tool but there are markers on the tyres showing the minimum wear points. If in doubt, get to a garage, but regular servicing usually creates a warning from your mechanic as to the state of your tyres. You can also have winter tyres fitted though in Manchester, the climate changes so often, I would be constantly having them exchanged for the normal ones back and forth, so I adjust my driving instead. Something  to consider if you live in a very cold climate, though. 

Something I’m guessing many reading this will not be familiar with is what is known as the Vehicle Footprint – not to be confused with the Carbon Footprint. The Vehicle Footprint, in terms of the tyre, is that part of the tyre that is touching the ground at any one time. It’s about the size of the palm of your hand. Now, in ideal driving, all 4 tyres are in contact with the road at equal weight – this is when the car is at its most stable and least likely to skid. This state is not achievable when accelerating, braking or cornering, so this is when skidding is most likely to occur.

There are ways achieve the maximum stability for the conditions which would be covered in a lesson on taking bends (often on faster, more open, roads though can be in the town). The main thing is to slow down ‘before’ the bend and not ‘in it’!

Suffice to say that if you can imagine that small hand size bit of tyre on each wheel holding a 70 mile an hour moving object with you in it, you begin to see the necessity  of keeping the weight on as many tyres as possible, and not just one – which can happen in poor driving. As stipulated, another lesson, but you’re  probably beginning to get the picture!

Electronic Stability Control is on many cars now and look up what your handbook tells you about this feature that you may activate, but bear in mind, resources are no substitute for a good driver .

  • The surface – Two issues here, one being the general state of the road in terms of grit/oil and other ‘contributory factors’, not forgetting leaves in the Autumn that secrete an oil that mixes beautifully with a bit of rain to create the ideal skid pan!
  •  Actually, the list is endless.

The  other is the weather – think rain ( not difficult in Manchester), snow and ice.

So now, let’s look at some low speed skid correction:

The first question you should ask is, ‘How do I know I’m losing control?’ This is helpful because you can correct things before a skid ensues if you’re lucky, and your first signal will be the steering feeling lighter (much easier in olden times before power steering).

Your first response should be to stop whatever you are doing at that moment; if you’re braking – get off the brake, likewise the accelerator.

Hopefully, you will feel the steering re grip the road (get heavier)  at which point, if you feel the car spinning, you can turn into the skid.

This means, as the back of the car swings towards the kerb, turn towards the kerb and vice versa.

If you are going straight, you can begin braking again as you feel the wheels grip and then repeat ( look up cadence braking).

I Would also recommend  reading your vehicle hand book as some manufacturers will give you other guidance to follow on   ‘Anti lock braking’ etc , but these actions are a pretty good, basic starting point.

Let’s now consider Speed & Stopping Distances and how these are affected in various weather conditions:

Basically, in the rain, these double, though some manuals will say they increase up to 3 or 4 times – again, use your experience and knowledge of your car here;  generally, the newer and more expensive the car, the better these functions perform.

Aquaplaning is an issue in sudden, heavy rain and this is where the rain rests on the surface of the road, to the extent that your vehicle floats along. Again, you feel no grip and the steering wheel will be light, so off the gas and follow the advice above.

Stopping distances comprise of Thinking and Braking distances added together, and can be found in the Highway Code, lThe Driving Essential  Skills Book (every driver should read it!) or Google.

Bear in mind, they can increase up to 10 times in snow or ice.

A point to consider here, if you’re not good at distance interpretation, use the Two Second Rule (again refer to the publications above if necessary), and double up to 4 seconds (minimum) for rain and to 20 for ice and snow.

When moving away in snow, try second gear because the lower gears create wheel spin, exacerbating the problem. Keep in higher gears once moving.

Something to carry in your vehicle in the snow, apart from the obvious shovel, de-icer and scraper, is a piece of carpet or thickish material; this can be used near the wheels to pull away on a hill if it’s icy – it works, trust me! I even used my passenger’s pullover once to get us out of a fix! Just glad they didn’t have expensive taste!

Bear in mind, the rug should be just at the front of the driving wheels. The chances are your car will be a front wheel drive if it’s modern, though many older cars were rear wheel.

If the area between the two front seats is low down (the part that houses the handbrake and gear lever), it is front wheel. If it is high up, this means there is a shaft running from the engine to the rear wheels.

(If you have a car with an engine at the rear, then reverse all of this information).

The more weight on the drive wheels, the more grip in the snow/ice, so if it’s a front wheel drive, put the heaviest person in the front (usually me), and vice versa for rear wheel drive.

Of course, some people have four wheel drives which will probably alleviate any need of these emergency measures.

A block of wood/brick behind the wheels can help, too, though the carpet gives you more of a ‘run’.

Bear in mind that in fog, the vehicle displaces the fog, so you may be tempted to overtake the ‘fog displacing’ vehicle in front – don’t bother, because you should only drive according to the distance you see to be clear, and you will probably just be confronted with a white out in front of the leading vehicle.

Finally, High Winds:

You should be familiar with the warning sign of Side Winds but these can be an issue anywhere, not just in high, exposed areas. Consider that when you’re doing 70mph, for eg., alongside a lorry on the motorway and there is a side wind, but you don’t know about it because said lorry is protecting you from it! As you overtake them, you could be blown into another lane of traffic by the blast. Try to feel out for it by noticing small pulls of the steering wheel that may suggest you’re heading towards this type of hazard. And, keep an eye out for conditions and environmental spaces that create this hazard, particularly  in unfamiliar areas. Traffic alerts can help, but never over rely on technology.

That is not, and probably never will be, a safe substitute for good, responsible, control and anticipatory skills shown by the best drivers, at the best of times, let alone in ‘All Weather Conditions’.

Published by Hilary Hughes

Lady Driving Instructor / Automatic Car

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