When thinking about the arduous driving conditions that Australians encounter we might visualise narrow rural roads or the dust and corrugations in the Outback. But how about the many kilometres of Aussie roads affected every year by ice and even snow?
June to October is Australia’s ski season and each year tens of thousands of Alpine enthusiasts strap hired skis to borrowed racks and head north or south to The Snow.
Another even larger group of motorists gets out of bed and looks at the ice – maybe even snow – that is going to be a companion on their journey to work or school or until the sun musters sufficient heat to melt the coating of frost.
People who live in these areas grow up watching parents or the school bus-driver deal with sudden loss of grip due to the dreaded ‘black ice’. Generally, they do a pretty good job of keeping their vehicles on the bitumen and pointed in the correct direction but avoiding a crash demands awareness of changing conditions.
Those more likely to come unstuck will be drivers from regions where sub-zero temperatures are rarely encountered. Suddenly encountering a sheet of unseen ice or the onset of a snow-storm can be haunting for those who come unprepared for driving on slippery surfaces. Here are a few tips for anyone about to embark on a snow holiday or has woken up to a car covered in frost.
. First and most importantly are tyres. Maintaining grip in extreme conditions requires tyres with considerably more than the minimum legal depth of tread. Chunky, block-type patterns offer a better chance of breaking through an icy crust than ‘semi-slick’ designs. Run tyre pressures slightly higher than normal in cold conditions as tyres take longer to reach operating temperature.
. Check that your heater and demister are working. Cars that operate in temperate climates for most of the year might have their air-conditioners permanently set to ‘cool’ and are never asked for a healthy blast of hot air needed to clear a frozen windscreen. Check before you leave home.
. Most automotive coolants today contain an ‘anti-freeze’ component but check the label to ensure you aren’t risking engine damage – especially in an older car – by using an incorrect coolant for sub-zero conditions.
. If you have no experience of driving in very slippery conditions then some time spent on a skid pan would be a sensible investment. Courses in car control are offered by accredited training organisations in most capital cities.
. Don’t drive tired. Driving in the dark on unfamiliar roads can quickly heighten fatigue levels. The temptation to work all day then leave home at dusk can be disastrous, especially if the driver is inexperienced in Alpine conditions. Take the day off, start out mid-morning to complete your trip to the ski-fields in daylight and at times when there is less chance of encountering ice patches.
. It is a legal requirement in many Alpine regions that snow chains must be carried in all vehicles, including 4WDs, and fitted when the roads are affected by snowfalls or persistent sub-zero temperatures. Chains can be hired at service stations along roads leading to snowfields or bought outright at vehicle parts supply stores.
. Make sure you get the right size for your vehicle and if you have never used chains before, ask for a fitting demonstration from the supplier. Make sure all catches are firmly locked in and adhere to the recommended speed restrictions. A chain that is incorrectly fastened or comes loose due to excessive speed can do considerable damage to the vehicle. Once you reach a section of road unaffected by snow or ice, stop and remove the chains.
SNOW DRIVING TECHNIQUES
. ‘Low and Slow’ is the advice of a highly-experienced snow driver, and it works. Using the lowest gear practicable and maintaining a speed consistent with available grip and visibility will keep most novices out of serious trouble.
. In 4WD vehicles make sure differential locks are activated and use Low Range. This way, engine compression does most of the slowing down and braking is kept to a minimum. Conventional two-wheel drive vehicles, even automatics, can be locked in a lower gear and driven with the lightest possible throttle to minimise wheelspin.
. Gentle braking is a must because locked wheels on ice will send the vehicle at increasing pace in whatever direction the camber of the road takes it.
. Remember that ABS can take longer to stop a vehicle on ice than rapid-fire pumping of the pedal. Avoid standing on the brake pedal and locking wheels which will make avoiding obstacles more difficult.
BOGGED AND NEEDING HELP
. If you slide off the road or get stuck in heavy snow, especially at night or in a snow-storm, do not leave the vehicle to go for help.
. Activate the hazard lights and if the engine will run and you have fuel, keep the heater going for as long as possible. If the car has gone a long way off the road, walk back to the roadside and leave a marker that will attract attention from passing vehicles.
. If your vehicle is damaged, your Enthusiast Insurance policy provides a range of benefits including vehicle recovery, emergency accommodation and transport (limits apply). You can also extend some Enthusiast policies to include 14 days of rental car hire.