Winter driving, often compounded by darkness in addition to bad weather, can be challenging.  But the difficulties can cause other problems including potentially landing motorists in hot water with either their motor insurer, the police or both.

UK Show Plates look at some of the most common winter driving habits and examine whether they really are such a good idea.

Defrosting your car

Everyone does it, start the engine and then pop indoors to stay warm whilst your car defrosts.  The little wrinkle is however that if you leave your car unattended with the keys in the ignition and the engine running, you will invalidate your insurance cover for theft.  And there are gangs of thieves prowling around waiting for just such rich pickings, no need to even break in, just drive away.

It takes longer but try and protect your car from icing up so thoroughly in the first place by covering the windscreen overnight.  Run the engine but don’t leave the vehicle, scrape and wipe the windows or sit inside waiting for it to defrost.  

It is also in contravention of the Highway Code (Regulation 123) to leave a vehicle with an engine running on a public road even if you are in it although the limited number of transgressors are usually people sitting with an engine on idle in built-up areas such as outside a school; police are more interested in the emissions problems than anything else.

The police are quite vigilant in bad weather when they see motorists driving around in cars which are covered in snow.  There is no actual criminal offence but it is a breach of the Highway Code to drive a vehicle in which the glass areas are not totally clear.  And the police can cite section 41D of the 1988 Road Traffic Act which states it is a legal requirement that you should have a totally clear view of the road before you drive off.  Apart from anything else, it is also incredibly dangerous in what are probably already quite challenging driving conditions.  Snow blankets can slip down the side of the car when you move off temporarily obscuring your view.  It is time-consuming to completely clear a vehicle in winter weather before you drive off but it could prevent you from having an accident so allow extra time.

Snow should be cleared from all windows and lights and the number plates using a very soft brush to avoid scratching or marking the bodywork.  Don’t forget the wing mirrors.  Removing the snow will help the car thaw out more quickly.  Whilst the engine is running, you can then set the controls to de-mist and scrape away any residual ice which is often present under a blanket of snow.

Driving footwear

Only drive in shoes or boots which don’t impede your ability to use the foot pedals.  You might be prowling around outside in a pair of wellies defrosting the vehicle – pop them in the boot when you have finished, they are not easy to drive in particularly if you are not used to it.  You may need them again if you have to stop or get stuck.

What are the insurance implications if you have an accident in snow or ice?

The prevailing road and weather conditions are always relevant to an accident in the same way that they would be taken into account if you were driving into low sun or torrential rain.  Snow and ice do not excuse bad or careless driving.  The law expects you to take measures to drive in line with the prevailing road conditions.  This will include having a bump or a shunt after losing control in the ice even if there is no-one else involved – the insurer can still deem this to be a fault-based claim in which you are the one at fault.  So, you should take steps to alter your driving in adverse weather and these might include:-

Adjusting your speed
Leaving much greater stopping distances, did you know it can take up to ten times longer to stop on an icy road than in normal conditions?
Putting on your lights to make yourself more visible
Changing your route to avoid minor roads which may not be gritted or even postponing your journey altogether until the weather improves.  Travelling first thing or last thing when the road temperatures are lower and it is usually dark is best avoided.  Travel in the middle of the day when the weight of traffic will have cleared the roads and visibility is better
The debate about winter tyres

Some motorists favour fitting winter tyres to their cars not just because they perform better in the colder months and work well in temperatures below 7 degrees but they are also quite a good option in the wet too and Britain tends to have more wet winters than icy ones.  However, fitting winter tyres even though they are perceived as a safety device, are also classified as a modification by the insurance industry and could result in a higher premium.  If you fail to tell the insurer you have modified the vehicle even if it is for a very good reason, then it could affect your cover. In more recent times, most of the major providers in the market have signed up to a pledge called the Association of British Insurers Winter Tyres Motor Insurance Commitment which means you don’t have to notify your insurer when you swap the tyes.  But do check, small or niche providers may not be part of this scheme as it is voluntary.

Winter driving kit

It is not a legal requirement to carry an emergency driving kit although it is a jolly good idea.  A sturdy plastic box with a can of de-icer, an ice scraper, a torch, a warm jumper and socks and a few rations like chocolate, crisps and bottled water can see you through most eventualities.  A plastic shovel for clearing snow and a small first aid kit are also useful additions as is an in-car phone charger.