Driving safely on rural roads this winter

Welcome to winter.  Driving on rural roads can be tricky at the best of times, and requires far more caution at this time of year.  Darren Cottingham shares some timely advice.

Leaves and puddles on the road - a common sight.  Photo:  Darren Cottingham
Leaves and puddles on the road – a common sight. Photo: Darren Cottingham


As our hemisphere turns away from the sun, driving becomes more challenging, especially for those who are new drivers and perhaps this is their first winter with a full licence.

While we can’t control the weather, we can control how we prepare our cars for winter and how we react to different driving situations. Rural roads tend not to be as well marked or maintained as city roads and that means that we have to be more careful driving in winter.

What you should check on your car for winter
Put this in your diary otherwise you’ll forget: winter car safety checks. You can do all of the following checks yourself – you don’t need to go to a mechanic.

The legal minimum depth is 1.5mm, but after about 3mm the wet weather performance drops off quite rapidly because the tyre can’t disperse water fast enough. This could cause you to aquaplane/hydroplane at high speed, and you’ll be out of control. Also, check your tyre pressures as in cold weather they may be too low.

Check the oil using the dipstick, check you’ve got antifreeze in your windscreen washer fluid, and check that the brake fluid is between the minimum and maximum mark.

Wiper blades
Your windscreen will get much dirtier in winter and you’ll need to keep it clean, especially if you drive a route prone to sun strike.

Keep them clean, especially if you’re driving unsealed roads and they tend to get dirty quickly. Dirty lights can’t be seen as quickly by other drivers, and they won’t give you as much visibility of the road ahead.

If you ride a motorbike, these are the checks you should do monthly.

The main issues in winter are slippery roads and lower visibility. In autumn, decaying leaves create a slippery mush on the edge of the road – these are fairly easy to see, but in winter ice can form, and that’s much more difficult, especially at night. Ice can remain in sheltered corners until the sun reaches a position to melt it, and freezing fog can cause black ice to form. If you are driving and your steering suddenly feels very light, you’re probably on black ice. Ease off the throttle and don’t make any sudden movements.

If your car has electronic fuel injection (and most cars built after 1990 do) you don’t need to leave it to warm up any more than 30-60 seconds unless you need the engine’s heat to keep the windscreen clear , otherwise you’re just wasting fuel. Two minutes of idling is the same as about 1.5km of driving, and you’ll warm it up much quicker if you are moving rather than idling because the engine is under load!

Fogging of your windows is caused when the humid air inside the car hits the cold windscreen and condenses. Make sure you’re familiar with how to operate the demisters. Use the air conditioning to dry the air that is blown on the screen as this will speed up the demisting process. Keep a cloth within easy reach to wipe the windscreen. A small squeegee can also work well.

The sun is lower for the whole day in winter and that means there is more risk of sun strike (or sun dazzle). This is where you are driving towards the setting or rising sun and it prevents you from seeing clearly. You must keep your windscreen clean to minimise sun strike.

A dirty windscreen refracts the sun’s rays, and then if you try to use your windscreen washers the water on the dirt will create a shimmering wall of light that you can’t see through for a couple of seconds before the wipers clear it. Keep sun glasses in the car and adjust your seat as high as is comfortably possible to make your visor more effective. If the sun strike is so bad that your visor can’t block it out (this often happens with shorter drivers), you may need to stop and wait a while until the sun goes down or behind something else.

The low sun can also create problems with reflections in rural areas. These tend to be just momentary, so focus your gaze on a part of the road away from the glare.

(So remind me why we're not living somewhere tropical again?)
(So remind me why we’re not living somewhere tropical again?)

Fog is common in the morning and can be like driving at a white wall. Keep your lights on low beam and turn your fog lights on if you have them (these will be two low-mounted lights at the front and one bright red light at the back). Remember to turn them off when you are out of the fog otherwise the rear light can dazzle following motorists.

Keep your speed down in heavy fog as you won’t be able to see far in front of you and anyone following you won’t have much time to react either. If you are pulling out at intersections when the fog is really thick wind your window down and keep your radio turned off as you can then listen for other vehicles.

Rain can be heavier and more persistent in winter. At the intersections of unsealed roads, and where unsealed driveways meet the road, gravel and mud can wash down forming a slippery surface.

And, of course, with the reduced daylight hours you are more likely to be driving at night when visibility is less. Watch out for wandering stock and pedestrians in dark clothing.

In winter you will have to drive more carefully. This means keeping your speed down and increasing your following distances.

It’s not our roads that are dangerous – roads are just roads – it’s how we drive on them, and you can make a choice to drive more carefully this winter.

Click here for additional tips and advice plus Road Code quiz for learner drivers

And click here for Darren’s Facebook page.  You gotta like it!  (We do.)

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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

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