For the calendar, winter begins on December 21 but for the Highway Code the season officially starts on November 15, although as always it is the weather that dictates the law. Global warming cannot be used as an excuse for being unprepared to face the typical winter conditions that can take the form of an invisible layer of ice or of a coat of snow on the road.
This is why the traffic regulations in force on many roads across Italy require motorists to fit winter tyres or, alternatively, to have snow chains on board, from 15 November to 15 April.
Start with the right equipment
When you find yourself in the midst of a snowfall, the first mistake is not to have the right equipment and to rely on snowploughs. This means that you will need at least one pair of snow chains if you are not fitting winter or all-season tyres.
The snow chains must be of the right size for the wheels of your vehicle and, of course, you must be able to install them. Never forget that traditional tyres, conventionally called “summer tyres”, are designed to work best at temperatures from 7 degrees Celsius up and that their tread is not designed to ensure traction, braking efficiency or grip on snow.
Four is better than two
The Highway Code does not provide all the information you need to guarantee safety in all situations. Actually, it simply states that tyres of the same type must be fitted on each axle of a car. In practice, this means that you are free to fit two winter tyres on the drive wheels and two summer tyres on the other axle. This solution may perhaps save money but is not recommended and very dangerous, because in this way the vehicle is highly imbalanced and the chances of losing control on bends and when braking are very high.
See also: Are All-season tyres suitable for snow?
Experience always makes the difference
If the equipment is right, you can drive safely even on snow. This is proven by Scandinavian motorists for whom this is a common condition. In Italy, on the other hand, we often lack experience with this kind of situation and the effects are very varied. Some opt to proceed at a walking pace while others overrate their skills because they are at the wheel of an all-wheel drive vehicle (perhaps equipped with summer tyres, relying exclusively on the 4WD).
Actually, care and caution are the foundation of safe driving in cities and mountains alike. The technique is comparable to that to be used in case of rain.
Braking is more important than starting off
If you are thinking that being able to start off and maintaining traction are the only difficulties to overcome on a snow-covered road, think again. The greatest dangers are not uphill – in the worst-case scenario you simply will not climb up – but downhill because braking on a hairpin bend can become critical.
The electronic control devices may not always be able to provide real help. Tackling a mountain road downhill as you would on dry tarmac, just because you have four winter tyres, is wrong.
If you are too fast, the ABS does its duty by preventing the wheels from locking but this will considerably extend the stopping distances.
See also: The 5 golden rules for driving on snow
The driving style to adopt on snow is similar to the ideal one you should follow to save fuel. Do not start off at full throttle, regardless of your tyres. This reduces the risk of the skidding and, if the snow is deep, will prevent digging holes in which you could get stuck.
Minimise brake use and exploit the engine brake. To do this, observe the road carefully and slow down in good time before a bend or when you expect the car in front to brake.
Maintaining an adequate safety distance is essential to avoid rear-end collisions but also to prevent damage to your windscreen and headlights caused by the lifting of coarse-grained sand that during snowfalls is scattered on mountain roads to assist traction.
Care also when parking
The list of misconducts does not end while moving and includes a number of precautions to be followed when parking. A parked car positioned diagonally with respect to the roadway is easier to manoeuvre out if snowplough piles up huge heaps of snow along the road.
After parking, if the gradient allows, it is advisable not to apply the handbrake. If temperatures drop below zero, the cable running inside a sheath of a mechanical handbrake is prone to freezing, which will inevitably lock the vehicle wheels.