The UK is famous for its wintery conditions, and as the nights draw in, ice on the roads will become more common. 

Operating an automatic or manual vehicle in icy conditions can be stressful if you’re new to the roads. Even experienced drivers face winter-time difficulties, so it’s important to be prepared before the weather takes a turn. 

Learn what to do if you’re driving in icy conditions with Ashley Neal driving instructors. We’ll teach you how to identify if you’re driving on ice, how to prepare for the journey and what to do in an emergency.

What is black ice?

Black ice gets its name from the colour of the road. 

When rain or snow freezes, it becomes transparent and difficult to see with the naked eye. This slippery coating can also form on bridges, flyovers and the road underneath flyovers (cold air can cool both the top and underneath and cause faster freezing!) 

It typically forms on shaded, less-travelled roads or in the early morning when temperatures are at their lowest. If you drive to work on a cold winter morning, always check the roads before setting off. 

What would suggest you’re driving on an icy road?

As you may not have spotted black ice before embarking, look out for these tell-tale signs when you’re already in the vehicle.

1. Less tyre noise

Are your tyres making less noise than usual? 

Noticing subtle changes in your driving conditions could indicate black ice. We recommend turning off your music and listening carefully: the layer of ice or snow may be dampening the usual sound of your tyres on the asphalt. 

When your tyres haven’t got a good grip on the road, proceed cautiously. 

2. Light/unresponsive steering

If your steering feels lighter than usual or somewhat unresponsive, it could be a sign that your tyres are skimming over a slick, icy surface and not interacting with the road as they should. 

A lack of traction can make it harder to control the vehicle and increase the risk of skidding, so it’s vital to steer gently and avoid abrupt turns or lane changes.

3. Glimmering/shiny roads

A visual cue of icy roads can often be a glossy appearance on the surface, which might be particularly noticeable under bridges and shady areas.

If you notice the road ahead looks shiny and the temperatures are around freezing, it’s wise to assume that it could be icy. Slow down, increase your following distance, and be prepared for potentially slippery conditions.

What to do before you drive in icy conditions

So, you know what driving on ice looks like (transparent and glossy), you know what it feels like (unresponsive steering), and you know what it sounds like (silent!), so how do you prepare for the road ahead?

1. Clear windows

When driving through icy conditions, maximum visibility is essential. 

Before getting in the driver’s seat, defrost your car’s front and rear windscreen, plus the front driver and passenger’s windows. Doing this gives you clear access to views in your interior and exterior mirrors. 

Turn on your engine to warm up the car, and use a de-icer and a scraper as you wait. 

2. Ensure visibility for the car’s exterior

Snow and ice not only obscure your vision but can also cover your headlights and make them less efficient at nighttime. You’ll need to ensure your car’s exterior is fully visible, including your number plate! 

3. Double-check your route

You may know your normal route like the back of your hand, but have you accounted for unexpected disruptions or delays? Use apps like Google Maps to check for no problems, or turn on your local radio station and tune in for transport updates. 

Listen to the weather forecast: if heavy snowfall is expected while you’re still on the road, consider seeking alternative transportation. Or, stick to main roads that are more likely to have been gritted. 

4. Check tyre treads

A tyre’s tread pattern makes the vehicle grip the road. In icy conditions, you already have less grip, so tyre treads that are completely worn down can exacerbate things further. 

To check, insert a 20-pence coin into the tread. If the inner rim of the coin remains visible, your tyres are no longer suitable for driving in wet conditions and must be changed immediately. 

5. Charge your phone!

No one expects a winter breakdown, but they happen, and it’s best to be prepared. 

Whether it’s your battery, mirrors or headlights, keeping a fully-charged phone on standby will give you instant access to help. Without it, you could be left stranded or relying on the kindness of strangers. 

How to drive safely in icy conditions

If your journey is 100% necessary and cannot be avoided, it’s time to learn how to drive safely in icy conditions. 

(It’s important to note that while we can provide general advice, the only way you will properly master these techniques is through practice and experience. All weather conditions, roads and journeys are different, so what works for some may not work for others.)

1. Reduce speed

First, we recommend reducing your speed. You won’t overwhelm your tyres by driving slowly in a higher gear; this also means you won’t need to slam on the brakes. 

2. Drive gently

Losing control of the vehicle is more likely to happen when travelling around a bend, so remember to brake progressively before reaching one. You can then steer using smooth movements and avoiding sudden actions. 

Also, be mindful of stopping distances, which can increase tenfold in icy conditions. By staying well away from the road user in front, you can give yourself time to stop slowly.

3. Know what to do in an emergency

If your car begins skidding on ice, the first thing to do is stay calm. You’ll be able to remedy the situation more effectively with a clear head. 

The vehicle will either understeer or oversteer. Understeering means the car’s front wheels lose grip on the road and lock while the rear ones are still gripped. In this situation, you should reduce speed: slamming on the brakes may worsen things. 

Then, to help your tyres regain traction, remove some of the steering lock and gradually add it back once you’ve slowed down.

When your front wheels have traction, but your rear tyres are not gripped, this is oversteering. By adjusting the car’s nose in the direction of travel and applying a bit of throttle, you can get your rear wheels gripping the road again. 

Get affordable driving lessons with Ashley Neal instructors

So, there you have it! We’ve covered everything you need to know about driving in icy conditions. From spotting black ice to preparing your car, what to do before you leave and how to drive cautiously. 

You’ll get better at winter driving each time the season rolls around. But if you need to supplement your learning with extra lessons, the Ashley Neal team are standing by. We offer lessons in Liverpool, Southport, Ormskirk, St Helens, Warrington and Widnes.