Winter weather - the ultimate road test

1. Winter check:

If you haven't already done so, give your car a thorough going-over before you leave. In Germany your car must be equipped with winter tyres - the new definitive obligation to fit winter tyres has been in force here since late 2010; the same also applies to Austria and to many access roads to winter sports resorts in Switzerland.

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Ask your garage or workshop to inspect important basic functions like the lights, brakes, battery, heating and windscreen wipers. Check your winter equipment too - make sure you have snow chains, blankets, an ice-scraper, a torch and jump leads with you. Keep your door lock de-icer in your coat pocket and not in the glove compartment.

2. Pack wisely:

Heavy bags and cases should be stowed in the boot and not on the back seats. Enormous inertial forces are generated in a collision and a case left in the wrong place can rip a front seat right off its anchoring. Place heavy items of luggage as far down in the vehicle as possible - not in the roof box, for example, as this would shift the car's centre of gravity upwards and have a negative effect on driving characteristics. 50 kilos is normally the permitted roof load for a car.

3. Before setting off:

Check the weather forecast, preferably the night before. If necessary, be prepared for a longer journey. Clear frozen windscreens completely, don't just scratch away little peepholes. Incidentally, if you use hot water to help defrost an icy windscreen, it might just crack! Fill up your fuel tank, even if half would last for the entire journey. If you get caught in a traffic jam caused by snow, you may have to keep your engine running to stay warm. However, letting your engine idle to warm up the car before departure is forbidden in Germany.

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4. Driving on icy roads:

If there is snow or ice on the road, set off in second gear and let the clutch engage gently to avoid wheel spin. Change quickly to a higher gear, because it is always advisable to drive at lower revs if there is a danger of skidding. Sudden braking and sharp steering manoeuvres should be avoided.

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Maintain a good safety margin from the vehicle in front as you may sometimes need a much longer braking distance. If you have to change lanes on snow-covered roads, do so with extreme caution. On country roads you may encounter unexpected snowdrifts caused by the wind, even though it may not have snowed for days.

5. Give way to the snow clearing and gritting services:

Even if it means changing down to third or second gear, you should try to avoid overtaking snow clearing and gritting vehicles on the motorway, according to current advice given by the German motoring association ADAC. These vehicles generally travel in convoys side by side across two or three lanes, so overtaking manoeuvres are risky, especially as the road ahead will not have been cleared and is thus more difficult to drive on. It is important to keep a safe distance from these vehicles, so that the paint and glass on your own car does not get blasted with salt and grit.

6. Snow chains:

Anyone driving in the mountains in winter and not carrying snow chains is guilty of gross negligence. Winter tyres are no substitute for snow chains, because even the best winter tyres cannot always shift a heavy car on a snow-covered road up a mountainside - especially if the vehicle loses momentum in stop-and-go traffic. Stop on a car park and fit snow chains beforehand - not on a narrow winding road. The snow chains should be fitted to the drive wheels, and not be too tight, so they do not damage the tyres. With all-wheel-drive vehicles, fit chains to the rear wheels to ensure maximum stability.

7. What to do if aquaplaning occurs:

In winter and spring, it is often not only cold but also above all wet. When a thaw sets in, motorists find themselves suddenly on 'waterways'. The vehicles ahead throw up so much spray that hazardous pools of water are hard to see, if at all. Even though tyres can disperse up to 25 litres of water per second at 80 km/h (50 mph), cars start to float if the volume of water is too great - the more so, incidentally, if tyres have insufficient inflation pressure. A wedge of water forms between the road surface and the tyre's ground contact patch. If aquaplaning occurs, hold the steering wheel tight, press the clutch and wait until the tyre has regained contact with the road. And then drive on calmly - and not too fast.