How to ensure you're fully prepared for winter roads

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Indy Lifestyle Online
This is a testing time of year for cars and drivers, despite efficient heaters, anti-lock braking systems and other features that are now taken for granted. The fact that the RAC has 83 per cent more call-outs in winter than in summer speaks for itself. So take a few precautions.

Make sure your car is properly prepared. This sounds obvious, but a survey carried out by the AA last winter revealed that 34 per cent of the vehicles inspected did not have anti- freeze in their cooling systems.

Other faults identified by the survey included wiper blades that needed replacing and tyres with insufficient treads.

"The battery is the biggest single cause of starting problems, because it has to work extra hard in winter," says the RAC. This problem escalates when batteries are subjected to the additional strain imposed on them by such equipment as mobile phones.

Solutions to car problems in winter need not be expensive. Reluctant engines are frequently encouraged by a squirt of damp-defeating WD-40. Other problem solvers include a battery charger and jump leads that transfer power from a healthy battery to a sick one. Think in terms of pounds 10-pounds 15 for these items.

When the temperature falls below zero, we have all shared the road with drivers whose visibility amounts to a few square inches of ice-free windscreen. Andrew Howard, the AA's road safety chief, underlines the need to allow plenty of time to achieve maximum visibility. Essential helpmates include an ice-scraper and a supply of de-icer. The screenwasher bottle's water should be laced with a cleaner whose formula includes something to combat freezing. If very cold weather is forecast, stock up on Halford's double- concentrate screenwash. One litre - enough to make up to 40 litres of fluid - costs pounds 3.49.

Fog is probably the most dreaded of all winter hazards. According to the AA, there are about 20 days a year when conditions become so bad that even the most experienced drivers are disorientated. Use dipped headlights, keep the windscreen clean and switch the fog lights on when visibility falls to 100 metres. Sticking close to the lights in front creates a false sense of security and can be the prelude to an accident.

Few road-users appreciate the need for such precautions more than Dennis Priestley, a 42-year-old police constable who patrols dales and fells where blizzards and temperatures worthy of the Arctic are often experienced at this time of year.

"Believe it or not, warnings about roads being closed due to bad weather are quite often ignored," he says. Eight of his 21 years in uniform have been spent policing about 100 square miles of the northern Pennines, which the guidebooks correctly describe as England's last wilderness. This is a beautiful but potentially lethal part of the country.

Based in Alston, England's highest market town, PC Priestley has become adept at hauling vehicles to safety with a Range Rover. He and his sergeant co-operate with the men who work the gritters. These are Mercedes-Benz Unimogs with four-wheel drive and lots of ground clearance.

"Winter conditions can be dangerous" is the unequivocal warning on the sign where the A686 from Penrith to Alston leaves the village of Melmerby. From there the road zig-zags to Hartside Top, 1,903 feet up the Pennines' western flank. Five miles east of Alston, the A689 becomes England's highest classified road when it reaches 2,056 feet at Killhope Cross.

"Modern cars are so cosy that it's very easy to be unaware of how cold it has become outside," says PC Priestley. "Speed is the main cause of problems in winter. People go too quickly, then brake and slide off the road."

He stresses the need to remember that if the weather is bad at the foot of a hill, conditions are almost certain to deteriorate as the road climbs higher. Cold and wet in Alston can become a blizzard a few miles and minutes later, when you reach Hartside, Killhope or the highest point on the B6277 to Teesdale.

"Stop and go back when you start encountering small drifts," he says. "There's always the temptation to press on. But if you do that, then realise you can't keep going, by the time you decide to turn there's a risk that the snow behind you will have built up to such an extent that the road's blocked."

"If you get stuck, the golden rule is to stay with your vehicle," PC Priestley asserts. "If you're on the road, you will be found. If you start walking, there are times when you can become totally disorientated within 10 yards. Setting off on foot is the last thing you should do. It could be quite literally the last thing you do."

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