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Staying Safe – Despite the Weather

I was mentally kicking myself. Just over a month previously, I had traded in my 4×4 SUV, replacing it with a 2WD Skoda Yeti. I had been pleased with the Kia Sportage, but despite my care in driving it, the fuel economy was not as good as I had been led to believe.

My Kia Sportage 2 4WD. Nice to drive, but too thirsty!

It was the 1st March 2018. At 1530, I left my office at Aviation House, heading for home. My route from Gatwick Airport was cross country. I could easily have driven home more quickly up the M23, M25 and A3, but at a cost of an extra eleven miles motoring.

Hardly fuel efficient!

Skoda Yeti… Workhorse, paractical and almost 60 miles to the gallon on DERV,

My normal route was a delight. Out through the village that shares my name, and then through Ifield and Rusper, to join the main A264 just east of Horsham.

I would then cut through the back lanes of Broadbridge Heath, and then head south west through Loxwood, and on through Haselemere and from there via Liphook to home.

Storm Emma decided to put paid to that little plan. The snow began to fall; small pellets that danced and pirouetted slowly through the sky until they smacked wetly on the car windscreen.

By the time I got to Loxwood, I was seriously considering the wisdom of my decision to trade the 4×4 in. It was now hurtling down heavily, a swirling white vortex pouring out of a grey and ominous looking cloud.

Traffic speed was decreasing to almost pedestrian speeds, and I was now having to concentrate hard to anticipate the erratic behaviour of other vehicles.

Haslemere was, by this time, totally gridlocked. The snow was now very deep, and it was almost dark.

Haslemere, in Surrey and traffic at a standstill.

I looked at my watch. 1830! I would normally have been home by 1700.

I was beginning to get worried. There were several routes that I could take to get out of Haslemere, but all required me to drive up steep hills, and looking at the developing chaos I had little confidence that I would make it up any of them.

Cars were slaloming down the slightest of inclines, and I witnessed many crashes, and the roadsides were now becoming strewn with crumpled cars,

At 2030, I had managed to travel about 2 miles, so I ended up making the decision to abort my journey, and park up and weather the storm. I knew the decision was correct when I witnessed a Police 4×4 pick-up truck struggling to climb the slight incline. Despite the four wheel drive, its wheels were still slipping.

Surrey Police Ford Ranger 4 x 4 pick up…

I now didn’t feel quite so bad. If a well-equipped emergency services 4×4 couldn’t make it out of the town, then even in my previous 4×4, I wouldn’t have either.

I found a grass verge sufficiently away from the kerb, and drove up and parked, backing up in such a way that a mature tree would offer some protection should someone lose control of their vehicle and depart the carriage way.

I gingerly opened the door into the maelstrom, and crunched my way to the tailgate. Opening it, I dragged out my thick government issue wet weather high viz jacket, and opened my car winter crate.

I decided when I first began commuting long distances across empty countryside to prepare for all eventualities, and so I had previously invested in a large plastic crate, into which I packed my emergency kit. Next to the crate were half a dozen blankets of the type that removal companies use to protect furniture.

A fold-up shovel, a set of jump leads, a pair of work gloves, half a dozen bottles of water, a pair of wellingtons, a torch, and some dried food in the form of energy bars, packs of nuts and chocolate.

Yes…. Lots of chocolate. You can never have too much chocolate in an emergency box.

I selected a handful of bars of chocolate, and a couple of bottles of water. Slamming the tailgate shut, I got back into the drivers seat, and started the engine.

I dialled up maximum heat from the climate control, and switched on the electrically heated seats. Reclining the seat back as far as it would go, I snugged up under the blankets and dozed off.

Haslemere snowed in. Photo Courtesy Ian Underwood.

The temperature outside continued to drop. and I eventually had to start the car every fifteen minutes and run the engine for a while to stay warm.

I slept very fitfully and was wide awake by 0530.

The storm had passed through, and I decided that I would attempt to get home.

I knew that as long as I could get the car moving and maintain a constant speed, I could probably get up the hill, from where I could make my way to the A3, which, I hoped would be open. I knew that once other cars started moving, my chances of a successful escape from Haslemere would revert back to zero.

Even genteel Haslemere loses it’s appeal to a cold and hungry driver.

Starting the car, I eased it into gear, and slowly, ever so slowly accelerated up to about twenty miles per hour. Every so often the wheels would spin, but the plucky little car continued up the hill which I crested without seeing another vehicle on the road.

I did see quite a lot in ditches though, inclding a single decker bus and a police car.

The A3 was closed northbound, but – joy of joys, it was still clear southbound.

Half an hour later I was at home. The first thing I did after having a hot shower and a cup of tea was to start researching for winter tyres.

I have to admit – I had never really considered using winter tyres. I had always thought that they were a hyped up fashion in the UK, as we don’t expereience the extremes of weather that are enjoyed by our continental neighbours.

If you are fortunate enough to live in the United Kingdom, then according to figures I dug out of the Meteorology Office, we only get to “enjoy” snow for 23.7 days per year, and it only lays around for an average of 15.6 days each year.

Winter Tyres – on a Steel Rim. Great for country lanes, potholes and freezing conditions. Image courtesy of FreeImages.co.uk

On this basis, I was started wondering if it would be worth it.

It seems that during the winter in the south east of England (The counties of Kent, Sussex, Surrey Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire, and London) the winter temperatures sit at around 3℃ in London, down to -0.5℃ on the coast.

There is little difference between snow tyres and winter tyres. Winter tyres are optimised to perform at their best during all types of winter weather, including rain, sleet, snow, and slippery surfaces. Snow tyres may well have studs moulded into the tread to enable better grip in very hostile weather conditions.

Winter tyres are designed to offer their best performance when outside air temperatures are less than 7℃ (45℉) and have a tread design that includes deeper grooves or “sipes”

This makes them ideally suited for a typical British winter. Take November 2019, for example. According to Met Office figures, the average temperature this time last year was 5.3ºC – prime conditions for winter tyres.

Firstly, how can you recognise a winter tyre?

Winter tyres carry a mark on the sidewall which consists of three mountains with a snowflake. This “Three Peak Mountain Snowflake” symbol indicates that the tyre has undergone and passed a specific winter traction performance test.

My somewhat salty, muddy, winter tyre, clearly showing the winter tyre mark Photo Mark Charlwood

In order to perform well under the low temperature, wet and slippery conditions, winter tyres are constructed from carefully blended rubber compounds that are hydrophilic in nature.

These compounds contain more natural rubber, which stays softer at lower temperatures, and helps the tyre to become more “grippy” in wet conditions.

Winter tyres are also narrower than standard tyres; the width of the tread is narrower for the wheel diameter. This reduces the resistance of the tyre as it is driving through snow.

The tyre will also have a deep groove pattern, with many additional smaller grooves known as Sipes that are designed to cut through snow, and improve traction.

Deep grooved tread pattern, clearly showing the sipes and the extra blocks for exerting grip. Photo Mark Charlwood

Tests conducted by the British Tyre Manufacturers Association found that a car braking at 60mph on a wet road at 5 degrees Celsius stopped five metres shorter, equivalent to more than one car length, when fitted with winter weather tyres.

I could see the immediate and obvious benefits of fitting winter tyres.

I started by ringing round the local tyre dealers, to get costs. Most of the dealers were able to supply, at reasonable prices.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the extra costs involved. My normal “Summer” tyres were not worn out. I would need the tyres removed from my rims, and the winter tyres put on. Then, when I needed to change back to the summer tyres, I would need the dealer to remove the winter tyres, and refit them.

As they wouldn’t be fitting a new tyre, they would charge £20.00 +VAT per wheel to switch them. £80, twice a year! And I would have to store the tyres as well.

It was beginning to look costly.

Then I had a brainwave.

What if I bought some steel wheels and had the winter tyres fitted to them?

It would mean my nice Alloys wouldn’t be subjected to the rough conditions (salt, mud, and the risks of hitting potholes, or the verges) and I could change the wheels myself without incurring costs.

Solution found.

Now I hit a potential problem that had me scratching my head.

My car was originally fitted with 17 inch rims. All of the winter tyres quoted for my model of car were 16 inch rims, and a lot narrower.

Whilst Skoda Yetis may be bought new with 16 inch wheels, I was worried that the smaller size would mean the the tyre pressure monitoring system, stability control and anti skid systems would be compromised if I put smaller narrower tyres on.

A quick conversation with the service manager at the local Skoda dealer and I was happy. He explained that whilst the wheel rim was of a smaller diameter, the extra height of the tyre sidewall would ensure the onboard systems wouldn’t have any problems.

I eventually sourced a company on eBay that supplied me with four Continental winter tyres, ready-fitted onto steel rims. They arrived direct from Germany, and it took me about an hour to remove and refit all four wheels.

My experience is good. There is a definite improvement in the handling of the car during braking and cornering in slippery and wet conditions.

Some folk complain of the tyres being noisier than summer tyres, but I haven’t noticed this. The only thing that I do notice, is that the speedometer over reads by about 10% now compared with the GPS (An indicated 77 mph equates to 70 mph GPS true speed) and as a result, my sat nav system calculates my drive to work as 44 miles, but the car trip recorder shows 47 miles.

Not too much of an issue, but I have to remember to deduct 10% of the fuel computer’s range-to-empty figures!

It must be remembered that winter tyres should really only be fitted in about October, and removed in March. Winter tyre rubber compounds do not work well at average spring and summer temperatures, and in many cases, braking will be considerably poorer than those achieved using the original tyres.

Yes, they cost me about £500 to buy, but I am only wearing both sets of tyres out at half the rate, so it was a good investment.

I regard it as an extra piece of insurance.

Stay Safe!