If you break down in winter it can be an unpleasant, and potentially deadly, wait, depending on the weather conditions. There’s a risk of hypothermia if you are caught without enough clothing, and if you are parked on the side of the road other motorists will find it harder to see you if visibility is poor.
Minimising your risks of a breakdown in winter
A few simple checks done once a month can dramatically reduce the risk of a breakdown.
Don’t let your fuel run low. Running out of fuel is a surprisingly common way of breaking down. Also, if you get stranded in snow but your engine still works, you can keep it running to keep yourself warm. An engine uses around 0.5-2 litres of fuel per hour depending on your engine’s size. See calculations here. We tested idling a Holden Commodore and the readout said 1.4l/hr.
If you get snowed in, take care using your engine. You will need to keep the exhaust clear otherwise you risk poisoning yourself with carbon monoxide.
Warm your car up before leaving
Allowing your car to warm up a little before leaving means that the oil has had a chance to warm up and become less viscous so that it more readily lubricates the engine. It will give you some heat you can use to clear the windscreen, too. Don’t idle your engine in an enclosed garage, though, otherwise you will be breathing in concentrated vehicle fumes which will eventually kill you.
Once you’ve started your engine, give your car the quick once over. Walk around it, clear the windows and lights, have a quick look at the tyres. It will take only a minute to do this, and that’s more than enough time. You don’t need to leave modern cars idling to warm up like you use to have to before electronic fuel injection. If you leave your car any longer than 30-60 seconds idling, you’re simply wasting fuel and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Check the fluids
Check your engine oil and the levels on your windscreen washers (make sure you have antifreeze in there if you live in a cold area), radiator (when the engine is cold), oil and brake fluid.
Check your tyres
Tyre pressures will be slightly down in cold weather. Once your tread depth gets below 3mm there’s a rapid drop-off in wet weather performance so consider changing them before they get down to the minimum tread depth.
It will be wet weather more frequently in winter. When the usual road debris gets wet, it more easily punctures tyres because the water lubricates it. Having deeper tread on your tyres makes it less likely you will get a puncture.
If your wiper blades have splits in them they won’t clear your windscreen as effectively. New wiper blades are cheap and easy to install yourself.
If you regularly drive in areas where the temperature is quite cold it’s sensible to carry blankets and a safety kit in case you do have a breakdown. If you are travelling in a rural region where roads might not be clear, take a small shovel and snow chains. Ensure your cellphone is fully charged before you leave and that you have some food and liquid on board. If you do get snowed in it’s best not to leave your vehicle unless you can see another vehicle or an occupied building within a minute’s walk. It’s easier for emergency services to locate your car rather than try to find a lone person wandering around. If snow is deep, tie something to your aerial.
Remember to check the weather forecast for the area you are travelling to so that you don’t come across unexpected weather conditions that you are not prepared for.
We cover route planning and emergency preparation as part of our course for driving in challenging weather.