Winter Driving - A Talk By John Poyner


By Alan Brown

John is well qualified to talk on this subject, not just because he has been driving to the Alps in winter for close on 25 years, but he is also a real motoring enthusiast. Not a Jeremy Clarkson petrol-head, but he does know his ABS from his ESP - more later! I'm afraid John's excellent talk was so packed with facts and advice that this write-up reads like a text book. Apologies if this seems a bit heavy, but for those of you intending driving in the mountains this winter, I hope it helps!

At the outset, John pointed out that you could get away with ignoring 90% of his advice, 90% of the time and driving to the alps is generally very straightforward. It's when things get tricky that these tips can make a major difference. Like most things in life, preparation is important. John took us through the obvious like having a service including antifreeze and battery checks and new wiper blades, and getting the windscreen really clean and not using a car wash with wax.

Considering how severe conditions might be, it's important to increase the concentration of washer fluid so that it won't freeze. Most of the premixed solutions on sale are too weak for mountain conditions. Nothing is more frustrating than letting the fluid freeze at the beginning of a trip and being unable to do anything about it until the weather changes - or you get home!

Tyres are vital. Do you know your pressures for full and partial loads? The pressures needed for a rapid motorway trip fully laden, may be too high for good grip when driving around the resort on snow. It's very sensible to have plenty of tread. The legal minimum is woefully inadequate for snow driving. Obviously dedicated snow tyres are best and can work out to be quite an economical option if you use them each year as you're saving the wear on your summer set.

Even with winter tyres, chains are mandatory in most alpine areas. Latest models are easier to fit, but it's all relative and as, by definition, they need fitting in the worst conditions, and always result in wet knees and frozen fingers. practise fitting them at home in the dry is John's advice...

You must know your car's driving aids. Most people have heard of traction control and ABS these days, but ESP (or ASR as VW/Audi/Scoda call it)? This computer system helps keep the car under control when swerving or even skidding, whether the road is dry or slippery. John reckons this is the most significant safety development for ages and would always opt for it on his vehicles - even if it meant down-sizing to a cheaper model so you can afford it, it is often an optional extra on cheaper models. If your car does have it, be aware that many people think they have activated it by pressing the control button but this is generally an over-ride, so they have in fact turned it off.

It's important to be prepared for being stranded and to be self-reliant. As well as the obvious kit, John suggested a whole range of good ideas like tyre pump and gauge (if you get stuck, lower pressures might get you started and then you need to re-inflate), old sacks, shovel, long scraper to get the snow off the roof (letting big blocks blow off might seem funny, but can be lethal at motorway speeds).

John had some useful tips for when you get to the resort. Fill the tank locally as it's possible that there are special additives to prevent fuel degenerating in the cold. A full tank will minimise the risk of water condensing in the tank and freezing. Park thoughtfully. A downhill exit can be best if it's not too steep. Put the driven wheels on the "best bit". Check all electrics are left off as the smallest item will drain the strongest of batteries at -20.

The end of the holiday is perhaps the most challenging part. You need to take care to remember exactly where you parked, as all the mounds of snow can look the same after a few days of heavy falls. Scrapers are better than de-icers as these tend to super-freeze the glass and cause condensation inside which freezes which needs defrosting etc... Dig out before starting the engine and make sure the wheels are all very clear.

There were little things too, like knocking the snow off your boots before you get in as all that snow will melt as the car starts to warm up and it will steam up just as you want to be able to see clearly.

When starting the engine, make sure the exhaust pipe's clear of snow. If it's a diesel make sure the engine heater light has gone out. Depress the clutch before starting as this reduces the load on the battery - a good tip for all starts actually!

Getting out of the parking place can be very hard. Ice often forms around the wheels and rocking the car out can be a very useful technique. Avoid skidding as this polishes the snow and traction gets worse. The floor mats can help. Try starting in second gear or lowering the tyre pressures and if all else fails, recruit some local slaves!

Then there's the actual driving! Apart from the obvious like planning your route and leaving extra time for weather and traffic delays, John had wisdom from experience to impart: leave big stopping distances, especially going down hills. You can afford to speed up a bit going uphill, but keep your speed very low going downhill. On motorways, avoid new snow and drive in tracks but on minor roads, the tracks are often icy, in which case untracked crunchy snow may offer better grip. Bridges will be icier than the rest of the road, as can shady areas. Drive very smoothly on snow: no sudden braking steering or accelerating. Avoid skids as a locked wheel cannot steer.

John spent quite some time talking about skid control. There isn't room for it all here, but the Institute of Advanced Motorists organises skid pan sessions locally. If you would be interested in taking part, let Alan Brown know and he can add you to the waiting list, although it might prepare you for next winter rather than this, as the list is quite long at this time of year!

All in all, a fascinating factual talk by an experienced expert. Thanks, John, and good luck on your travels this season!