Thank Frankel it's Friday: The secret to safe snow driving

02nd March 2018
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

For a nation known for our mastery of the art of understatement, we are spectacularly good at blowing things out of all proportion when the subject turns to the weather.


And there is no organisation in the land better at crying meteorological wolf than the British Broadcasting Company. Living quite remotely as we do, I used to pay quite a lot of attention to all the weather-related scare stories trotted out by the Beeb until I realised that what they said was going to happen always did happen, but at about one-fifth of the predicted intensity. 

Today, however, was different. For me today is Thursday evening and I am sitting in my shed with what I think even the most hardened explorer would describe as a blizzard blowing outside. I am sitting in the middle of a Met Office red alert area (the first I’ve seen in 20 years in this part of the world) which apparently means there is a danger to life.

So, it wasn’t a particularly great day to run out of heating oil. There was no point trying to order some because there’s no way they’d be able to get here, which left just one option: I’d need to go and get it myself.

Fortunately, I am reasonably well prepared for such eventualities because I always have my old Land Rover here and, as it happens, I’m also spending a little time with a Mercedes-Benz G-wagon. So, and largely because it had functional heating, I fired up the Benz, loaded it with jerry cans, headed off to the depot and am now home and warm as toast once more.


But as ever on the way there and back I witnessed some of the worst driving I’ve ever seen in this country. Because I actually think that as a nation we’re pretty good behind the wheel until the weather turns bad. Then, without fail, two things happen. First, everyone owning a car with four-wheel drive automatically assumes this provides immunity against the conditions. I was driving along a dual carriageway of which just one lane had been gritted watching as Range Rover after X5 after Porsche Cayenne came piling past at 70mph, effectively on snow. Then, sooner or later, one of these goons will come across someone else driving a small, little hatchback at about three miles per hour on a completely straight road. And you can guess what happens next. 

So how to stay safe? If you have to go out, before you buy an expensive or even a cheap 4x4, just ask yourself if you’d not be better off in every single sense of the phrase if you just got some winter tyres. Not long ago I did a battery of tests on two visually identical Skoda Yetis. The only differences between them were that one had four-wheel drive, the other had winter tyres. And the results were staggering: the 4x4 Yeti on standard tyres had better traction so was quicker to accrue speed. In every other way I could measure both objectively and subjectively it was nowhere. It couldn’t go around corners anything like as fast and under braking, the results were horrifying. Slowing from just 20mph, which at times can barely seem like moving, the 4x4 Yeti took 22.5 feet further to stop than the front-driver on winter tyres. And that could easily be the difference between a small scare and a big accident.

Another myth is that whatever you drive in grim weather, it must not only have four-wheel drive, it must be big. Why? Large means heavy, and heavy means more mass to accelerate, slow and make change direction, which means more work for tyres already hard pressed by adverse conditions. So yes, it will probably protect you more if you do hit something, but if you believe that prevention is better than cure, you should probably be looking at something that minimises the chance of having the accident in the first place.


What about technology: terrain selectors, lockable differentials and so on? They’re all fine and undoubtedly help you control the car but should you hit ice, you’ll slide like everyone else.

Because ultimately a car’s ability to go faster, slow down or turn depends on one thing only: the coefficient of friction between road and tyre. And if the road is covered in ice, you’re going to skid, whatever you’re in and however many driven wheels it has, and the heavier it is, the further it will slide because that’s just physics. 

Which is why my pet theory is that of all the things you could possibly buy when the weather gets really rough, a Fiat Panda 4x4 on winter tyres is the best value out there. It has no technology, but it is light, has four-wheel drive and would sit on proper rubber. But if you want guaranteed safety there’s something even cheaper and better than that. It’s lighting a fire, opening a nice bottle of grog and staying home until it all goes away. Which is exactly what I am going to do now.

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