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Drive on ice and snow with confidence

13 July 2022

Drive on ice and snow with confidence

It’s that time of year. The sun is lower in the sky, temperatures drop – winter is here. And in some parts of the country, snow will start to fall. For many Australians, that means an exciting trip to our beautiful alpine region. Snow might look great, but it can spell danger on the road.

For the uninitiated, driving on icy, slippery roads lies somewhere between challenging and absolutely terrifying. We spoke to a resident of the New South Wales Snowy Mountains, Kylie Emmett, to get some first hand snow-driving advice. Whether you're heading to the slopes or driving in freezing conditions in non-alpine areas, here are some important tips to consider when you’re behind the wheel.

Preparation Is Key

Like any dangerous driving condition, the most important steps you take will be the ones before you start the car. Do a thorough check of your vehicle, paying particular attention to tyres, battery, windscreen wipers and fluid, lights, brakes and overall maintenance.

Make sure you’re familiar with the safety features of the car, including Anti-Lock Braking Systems (ABS). Not all SUVs will be Four-Wheel Drives (4WD) or All-Wheel Drives (AWD), so if you’re in a rental car, make sure you know what you’re driving. Don’t be shy about asking the rental company to talk you through the safety features.

Take a moment to check road and weather conditions and warnings in the area, noting any areas expecting snow or heavy rainfall. Of course, ensure you’re well rested and alert before you set out on your journey.

Be Safe On The Road

Take it slow on icy roads. Look further down the road than you usually would, and anticipate what you’re going to need to do next. Consider using low gears – especially when you’re going uphill, and avoid cruise control: It can make your wheels spin if you hit a slippery patch.

“The most useful thing I learned when I moved to the alps was that if it’s below freezing, I could expect ice on bridges,” says Kylie, who lives near Jindabyne in southern New South Wales. “You know those bridges that go over a creek? They ice over first if there’s a bit of moisture on the road and can be really dangerous.”

Exercise extra caution when going around bends and when it comes to braking, do it slowly and deliberately – braking suddenly can cause you to lose control and is a recipe for disaster. Leave an extra-large gap – it can take up to 10 times as far to stop on an icy road than a dry one. If there’s any difficulty with visibility – rain, fog, snow or fading light – flick your headlights on.

You might not see all hazards right away, either. Black ice is a thin sheet of ice that is clear, rather than white, and often is mistaken for a wet patch of road, which can catch unaware drivers. When driving on or near black ice, drive slowly, avoid sudden braking or direction changes, and be extra conservative when leaving a safe gap to cars in front.

“If there is snow on the road, the best way to brake is to gently pump your brakes multiple times, rather than one hit. That will slow you down more gradually and hopefully avoid skidding.”

Hitting The Skids

Unfortunately, you can be prepared and do all the right things on the road and still find yourself in a situation where your car begins to skid, which can be really scary. First up - stay calm, and don’t slam on the brakes. If you find your car is sliding in a direction you don’t want to go, look where you want to go (rather than the direction you’re going), and gently steer in that direction.

Different courses of action are called for, depending on whether you’re in a Four-Wheel Drive, All-Wheel Drive or Two-Wheel Drive.

If it’s a Two-Wheel Drive and your front wheels are likely losing traction - ease off the accelerator. Your car should begin to regain traction, then you can steer in the direction you want to go.

If it’s a Four-Wheel/All-Wheel Drive, your car should send power to the tyres that aren’t losing grip. Again, ease off the accelerator, but don’t slam on the brakes, and as you begin to regain traction, steer back in the direction you want to go.

Regardless of the type of car you’re in, keep your steer in proportion to the skid. In the heat of the moment, over-correcting is easy to do. Often the second skid from an overcorrection can be more dangerous than the first.

Thankfully, most modern vehicles are now equipped with ABS that will help control and stabilise the vehicle. It’s essential that you familiarise yourself with ABS braking in controlled conditions.

Chained To The Wheel

In many instances, snow chains for your vehicle will be essential.

In New South Wales all Two-Wheel Drive (2WD) must carry snow chains that can be suitably fitted in Kosciuszko National Park between the June and October long weekends. It’s a good idea for Four-Wheel Drive (4WD) and All-Wheel Drive (AWD) vehicles to carry them as well. They can also come in handy on very muddy roads – good knowledge after all this rain in eastern Australia.

Victoria requires all vehicles entering alpine resorts during the snow season to carry snow chains, while in New Zealand there are a number of areas on the South Island where carrying snow chains are required.

Pay attention to signs and information on the road, and fit chains when directed. It’s recommended that you use designated bays where possible, but if you need to fit chains on the road ensure that it’s safe to do so. Choose a location that’s easily visible from traffic coming in both directions, put your hazard lights on and wear warm, bright coloured clothing and gloves.

Whether you own or hire the snow chains, it is vital that you familiarise yourself with their operation well before you need to use them - it can be a cold, stressful experience trying to work it out in subzero temperatures on the side of the road!

Kylie says, “The guy I bought my chains from showed me how to use them, made me have a go, and then sent me a link to a video that I watched when I got home. Because of course I’d forgotten everything he told me in the shop.”

For 2WD vehicles, chains should be fitted to the driving wheels, generally at the front. Chains should be firm, but not tight, and after fitting them check them again after driving 200m to ensure they are secure. 40km/h should be your top speed while driving with chains on.

The moment you don’t need your chains any more, take them off. Driving with chains can damage your tyres and wheels, so you don’t want to use them for a second that you don’t need to.

Driving on ice and snow is not something most of us learn to do in our teens in Australia and although there are skills to learn, the most important thing is to be prepared, and know what to expect.

Make sure your vehicle is protected. Even for the most experienced driver, accidents can happen. Head to NRMA Insurance for a quote on your car insurance.