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If you are planning a trip to the Alps this winter and are hiring a car or driving your own, here are a few tips to help you keep safe in the snow.
In the Alps the roads up to ski resorts and towns and villages with permanent residences are regularly snow ploughed and well gritted and salted. However, there can still be patches of ice and snow on the roads on a reasonably permanent basis and if you happen to be driving whilst it is actually snowing, then you will need to take extra care and will need snow tyres on your vehicle or snow chains.
Some mountain cols are closed during the winter so please take care if using a GPS as these sometimes send you over cols that are impassable. Stick to main roads, even if these appear longer in distance.
If you are hiring a vehicle:
Please make sure when booking your vehicle that you choose the option "winter tyres" ("pneus hiver" or "pneus neige" in French). Starting in 2019, it is now compulsory to drive a car with winter tyres in all the mountainous départements of France, including the Hautes-Alpes where we're based.
If the option does not appear on the website when booking, we strongly recommend you call the agency as there are chances your car won't be equipped by default, especially if you hire it in Marseille or Nice, where snow is rare and where this new law does not apply. The law does apply in the départements of Lyon (69) and Grenoble (38) so you don't need to worry if you hire your vehicle there. Same thing in Geneva, Switzerland.
Prepare your vehicle:
- Make sure you have a full reservoir of antifreeze windscreen cleaner and that your windscreen wipers work.
- Clear off any snow from your car so you have full visibility. Do not use water to de-ice windscreens. Hot water can crack the glass, and the water will only freeze again on the screen or on the ground where you are standing.
- Take the time to clear snow off the roof as it can present a hazard by slipping off as you are driving on to the car behind you or on to your windscreen.
- Check your tyres are correctly inflated and have a minimum of 3mm of tread. If you have winter tyres, make sure you put them on! Don't reduce tyre pressures to get more grip – it doesn't work, and reduces stability.
- If you don't have winter tyres on your car, make sure you have a pair of snowchains in your vehicle suitable for your sized wheels. Practice putting these on in the comfort of your garage or a car park. If you do need to use snowchains, you will probably have to put them on in cold, blizzardy conditions so the more efficiently you can do this the better! You only need to use snowchains if the roads are covered in snow. See driving with snowchains below.
- Prevent your locks from freezing up with a squirt of WD-40.
- Keep a stash of warm clothes, water and snacks in your car. If you do get stuck these will prove invaluable.
- Keep a full tank of petrol - that way if you are caught out, you'll have enough to make it home or run the engine to keep warm. However, it's essential to keep snow from blocking the exhaust as dangerous fumes can leak into the vehicle.
- Keep a shovel and a dustpan brush in your car. If your car gets snowed in, which can happen in the time it takes to eat lunch, if it is snowing heavily, you will need to dig it out. The brush is for brushing the snow off your roof and windows without scratching your car!
Driving in the snow
- When driving in snow, get your speed right - not too fast that you risk losing control, but not so slow that you risk losing momentum when it is needed
- From stationary, start gently and avoid high revs. Stay in a higher gear where appropriate to avoid skidding and maximise control. If it is very slippery, in a manual car move off in a higher gear, rather than just using first easing your foot off the clutch gently to avoid wheel-spin.
- Double or even triple your normal stopping distance from the vehicle in front so you are not relying on your brakes to be able to stop; it simply may not happen!
- It’s better to think ahead as you drive to keep moving, even if it is at walking pace.
- Plan your journey around busier roads as they are more likely to have been gritted. Avoid using short cuts on minor roads – they are less likely to be cleared or treated with salt, especially country lanes and housing estates.
- Bends are a particular problem in icy conditions – slow down before you get to the bend, so that by the time you turn the steering wheel you have already lost enough speed.
- On a downhill slope get your speed low before you start the descent and do not let it build up, use a low gear and try to avoid using the brakes – it is much easier to keep it low than to try and slow down once things get slippery.
- On an up hill slope - avoid having to stop part way up by waiting until it is clear of other cars or by leaving plenty of room to the car in front. Keep a constant speed, choosing the most suitable gear well in advance to avoid having to change down on the hill.
- Don't pass snow plows and sanding trucks. The drivers have limited visibility, and you're likely to find the road in front of them worse than the road behind.
- Don't assume your vehicle can handle all conditions. Even four-wheel and front-wheel drive vehicles can encounter trouble on winter roads.
- If you get yourself into a skid, the main thing to remember is to take your foot off the pedals and steer. Only use the brake if you cannot steer out of trouble. See specific skidding scenrios below.
If your rear wheels skid...
- Take your foot off the accelerator.
- Steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go. If your rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they're sliding right, steer right.
- If your rear wheels start sliding the other way as you recover, ease the steering wheel toward that side. You might have to steer left and right a few times to get your vehicle completely under control.
- If you have standard brakes, pump them gently.
- If you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), do not pump the brakes. Apply steady pressure to the brakes. You will feel the brakes pulse — this is normal.
If your front wheels skid...
- Take your foot off the gas and shift to neutral, but don't try to steer immediately.
- As the wheels skid sideways, they will slow the vehicle and traction will return. As it does, steer in the direction you want to go. Then put the transmission in "drive" or release the clutch, and accelerate gently.
The AA give the following advice for driving with snowchains.
- Only use snowchains where the road surface is covered in a layer of compacted snow/ice. If you try to use chains on a road that has been cleared of snow you risk damage to the road and to the vehicle.
- If you have fitted chains, stop and remove them as soon as you reach a gritted/cleared road – choose a safe place, preferably on level ground and consider wearing a reflective jacket for improved visibility.
- Snow chains can be awkward to fit or remove, particularly when wheel arches are packed with snow and your gloved hands are cold and wet. Don't just throw new snow chains into the boot and forget about them. Practice fitting them at home when the weather's warm and dry and you'll be much more confident when you do have to handle them in more severe weather conditions.
- The minimum is one pair on the driven wheels but two pairs are better, particularly if you're spending a lot of time driving in conditions where chains are required.
- A front wheel drive car with chains only on the front wheels will have a tendency to oversteer.
- A rear wheel drive car with chains only on the rear will tend to understeer.
- A four wheel drive vehicle should have chains fitted to all four wheels.
- Generally, traction control/anti-skid should be turned off when using snow chains. Check the vehicle handbook and the instructions for the chains as advice can vary from product to product.
- Snow chains will not keep you from getting into difficulty if you drive too fast in icy or snowy conditions. Drive gently with chains fitted – keep speed down (generally, you should not exceed 30mph), slow down for bends and avoid harsh acceleration and braking. See driving in snow tips above.
- With some designs of chain you have to stop after a short distance to check and adjust the tension – refer to the instructions for your chains.
- Pull away slowly – spinning the wheels can result in damage to suspension or steering if a chain catches on a hidden tree stump or rock.
- Stop immediately and remove the chains if they are damaged or broken in use.
- Check chains for damage when you take them off – look for worn/broken links and connectors.
- Clean and dry chains before putting them away after use to prolong their life.
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