Driver Knowledge Tests

What should you check on your car before winter?

As the weather gets colder, breakdowns and accidents become more likely, especially if you’re going to be travelling in a snowy or icy area this winter. Your car needs to be prepared for the journey, so it’s a good idea to check these items even if you’ll just be doing regular driving as cold weather can be more dangerous to break down in than warm weather because of risks of exposure.

How to reduce your chances of breaking down or having a crash in winter

Visibility

Overcast winter days mean less visibility, and nighttime comes earlier. Keeping your lights clean ensures that you get the best visibility for yourself when using them at night, and that other drivers can see you.

Keeping your windscreen clean on the outside reduces the chance of sunstrike – dirty windows diffract the sun.

Keeping your windscreen clean on the inside reduces the chances of it fogging up quickly – the water condenses easily on particles of dust and dirt on the windscreen.

Remember to also keep your other windows clean so that when you’re looking in your blind spot that you can see clearly.

Fuel

Running out of fuel is a surprisingly common way of breaking down. It can happen when you let it run too low, then you’re held up in a traffic jam for a while and it uses more fuel than you would have expected. If you drive in the mountainous regions where you’ll get snow and ice, it’s best to keep your car at least half full in case you get stuck and need to keep the engine running to keep warm. Even if you’re stuck overnight, you’ll only use between 0.5-2 litres of fuel per hour when idling, so a half-full tank will give you 30 litres of time (15-60 hours, depending on your engine size and whether you’re running any other items in the car like your radio or the air conditioning which takes more power).

If you do keep your engine running, ensure that the exhaust remains clear otherwise it could be allowing fumes into the car which will poison you with carbon monoxide.

Check your tyres

Cold weather will mean slightly lower tyre pressures. This has the effect of allowing more rubber in contact with the road, but if they are too low it creates too much movement and deflection in the tyre. This can cause the tyre to overheat and delaminate, and that means you’ll need to stop and change the tyre.

Check that you don’t have stones or other debris caught in the tyre treads that could wear a weak spot.

When the road is wet, debris is more likely to puncture the tyre because the water lubricates it. Make sure that you’ve got plenty of tread on your tyre. The more (and deeper) tread you have on your tyres, the less likely you are to get a puncture.

Check the car’s fluids

These checks should ideally be done monthly. Your windscreen is more likely to get dirty in winter, so check your windscreen washer fluid. If you live in an area where you get freezing temperatures, antifreeze is a good idea. You can use a solution that gets rid of dirt more easily. Also check your radiator (when the engine is cold), brake fluid and oil. See here for basic maintenance for your car.

External fittings

If your wiper blades are in poor condition, replace them – they’re fairly cheap from most large automotive stores. Check your wing mirror position and keep them clean.

Give your car a minute to warm up

30 seconds to a minute is all your car needs to warm up before you leave. You don’t need to let your car warm up for five minutes unless you are driving an older car without electronic fuel injection (EFI). EFI will compensate for the oil being viscous when the engine is cold. If you leave your car idling any more than 60 seconds, you are simply wasting fuel and adding more greenhouse gases to the environment.

Plan your journey

If you’re going on a long trip, check Google Maps or your local traffic service to make sure there are no road closures, major accidents, slips or other problem that would cause you delays.

Emergency supplies

When venturing into colder areas, carry blankets and a safety kit in case you break down. Let someone know where you are travelling to, and ensure your mobile phone is fully charged. Carry enough food and liquid to tide you over for 8 hours. If the weather is really bad, don’t leave your car unless you are in immediate danger or you can see another vehicle or occupied building within 100m. If emergency services come along the road they want to know that you are safe and it’s more difficult for them to find one person wandering around in the wilderness, than if you are in your car.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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