This is a particularly personal topic for me since one of the questions on my driving test was about controlling a skid and, despite getting it catastrophically wrong, I still passed. The examiner never mentioned how wrong I was, and I subsequently had a serious accident on icy roads as a direct result. Since then I have driven vans, cars, and HGV professionally in all conditions, and also had the experience of training on a skid pan which I can sincerely recommend (it’s hugely fun as well as educational).
In this article I hope to give some good, if sometimes rather obvious, advice about preparing yourself and your van for winter driving and how to get about safely in icy or snowy conditions. Pretty much everything included here is just plain common sense, but I’ll be the first to admit to having lacked that precious commodity on more than a few occasions, so please excuse me if some of this appears obvious.
How to prepare a work van for driving on ice
With particular attention to the brakes, tyres, wheel balancing, and tracking of course, but also check the antifreeze, screen-wash, and wipers are properly set up for winter. Make sure the van is well maintained overall as well. Breaking down is bad enough at any time, but in winter a long cold wait for recovery is no fun.
Depending on how cold it gets in your region, you may want to carry or equip some tyre chains or similar. Alternatively you may want to consider fitting specific winter tyres if you know you will get the use from them.
Even if you drive really carefully, there’s still more chance of an accident in icy conditions; so you will want to make sure your load is properly secured, and things like tools, parts, materials, or screws and fixings, are not flung about in the event of a bump.
Professional internal van racking is an investment that will pay dividends well beyond the spring thaw.
Carry some basic essentials, just in case. A shovel and a small supply of rock salt, for clearing snow and ice from under your wheels, de-icer and a scraper for the windscreen, and blankets and spare warm clothes in case you really get stuck.
Make sure your phone is well charged or you have a suitable in van charger as well. Not just because you can get in touch with the breakdown or emergency services in case of problems, but also, if you do have an accident you may need to take photographs of the scene for insurance purposes. Especially if you were not at fault which, hopefully, will be the case after reading this.
How to drive a van on icy roads.
Ensuring that your van is well maintained and with good tyres should be a given. Beyond that, there are a number of ways in which your driving style can help prevent skids in the first place.
Driving a little more slowly is an obvious starting point, as well as leaving a larger gap between you and the vehicle in front.
If you have the benefit of ABS then you won’t need to worry about cadence braking, but if not, then this is a vital skill. If you find yourself on a clear stretch of road with no vehicles following you, it is well worth testing how slippery conditions are by braking until you feel a skid start and then easing off.
Give yourself plenty of time and space to take corners, using a low gear and engine braking, to avoid excessive use of the brakes.
If you took your test a long time ago and have got into bad habits, icy conditions are the best time to readopt good habits. Keep your hands at ten-to-two on the steering wheel, pay close attention to other road users, and stay a few miles an hour below the speed limit at all times.
How to correct a skid on ice in a van.
Nothing can quite prepare you for correcting a skid like experiencing one, but if you can’t get onto a skid pan for some professional training it is at least worth understanding the basic principles.
The most basic rule when entering a skid is to ease off the brakes to avoid the wheels locking. Cadence braking is the technique of pumping the brake rapidly, taking your foot off as soon as the wheels lock, and then braking again. If your van is equipped with ABS, then it will do the job far better than you ever could. Having said that, please never rely on your ABS. It is better to use the gears, and engine speed, to control your road speed around corners, thereby avoiding a skid in the first place.
If the rear wheels start slipping out, you need to turn the steering wheel in the same direction as the skid. This will cause the van to slip sideways but remain in line with the road. If you turn the wheel a little too far, the rear wheels will usually start to slip the other way, allowing you to turn the steering wheel back and still keep the car facing the right way.
In the event of all your wheels skidding then it is still a case of steering into the skid to get traction back to your front wheels, and then correcting the rear wheel skid as before.
As always, in a skid, you will want to reduce your speed by cadence braking and shifting down through the gears, if at all possible, and using engine braking.
If you can get a chance to practice this, ideally on a skid pan, or failing that, on a completely clear stretch of road, it is well worth it. Just knowing how to correct a skid is nothing like as effective as doing it for real.