How to Drive Safely in Bad or Extreme Weather

Staying safe in bad or extreme weather isn’t as easy as you might think. For a start, how do we even categorise extreme weather? Over the past decade, we’ve seen it rain fish (Sri Lanka, 2017), spiders (Australia, 2015) and frogs (Uruguay, 2015). Now, that’s extreme.

More typically, extreme weather challenges can include high winds, snow and ice, torrential downpours and thick fog. 

What’s important to remember is that all weathers are hazardous for driving, and good driving behaviours apply at all times. Always check the weather forecast and your vehicle before you leave and drive carefully!

Why good weather is bad 

A nice sunny day? Fantastic. Except it’s not. There’s more glare for one thing, which means half the drivers out there will be squinting, particularly when the sun is low in the mornings and evenings. The drivers in your fleet may have their sunglasses, but do others?

There’s also likely to be more traffic jams and also more vulnerable road users. Bad weather will actually deter many pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists; good weather will see them out in their droves.

Among them will be young, inexperienced drivers, easily distracted by their friends in the car, probably driving too fast and possibly drinking. Summer is also when there’s likely to be more roadworks, changes to lanes and new hazards to negotiate. Plus, those who want to put their foot down and get to their destination quickly may feel emboldened to try risky manoeuvres.

According to one newspaper report, harsh braking – defined as enough to propel a bag on the seat into the footwell – rises by 30% when temperatures increase. Also, motorway speeding rises by 25%, while speeding on local roads goes up by 7%. 

There's biological science to the road safety problem, too, as hot weather has been shown to lead to aggressive driving behaviours. Leigh Richardson, director of the Brain Performance Center in Texas, has said: “Research shows a link between aggression and extreme heat and it can manifest in your daily life, affecting the way you drive, making judgment errors.”

The message is that extra vigilance is crucial in the summer – as is being prepared. Long before peak season hits, check your vehicles’ tyres, air-con, screen wash and coolant. And remind your drivers to be as cautious as they would for inclement weather.

Don’t panic in snow and ice

Winter weather conditions, including snow and ice, are known to pose serious challenges for drivers. The US Federal Highway Administration notes that each year, more than 1,300 people are killed and more than 116,800 people are injured in vehicle crashes on snowy, slushy or icy pavements. 

Pre-journey checks are key in wintry weather. In the UK, it’s illegal to drive with snow on your vehicle, so clearing that is a priority, along with de-icing windows and ensuring good visibility. Wipers and screenwash should be checked, as should tyres. It’s also worth packing emergency supplies in case conditions deteriorate. In some countries, snow-chains (or at least tyre ‘snow socks’) are an essential winter item.

In terms of driving, it’s about sensible speeds and maintaining large stopping distances. Also using low gears for downhill and avoiding braking unless necessary. Experts advise braking before turning the wheel at bends and if a vehicle goes into a skid to take your foot off the accelerator, pump the brake and steer into the bend.  

It’s also worth investing in an emergency kit (ice scraper/de-icer/torch/warm clothes and blankets/boots/first aid kit/jump leads/shovel/road atlas and sunglasses) on occasions when you know the weather is going to be bad. Also, enough provisions to keep you going for 12-24 hours.

Be vigilant in high winds

Wind is dangerous. Earlier this year, high winds created a dust storm in the US state of Illinois. A report noted: “High winds blew dirt causing ‘zero visibility’ on Interstate 55. More than 70 cars and trucks were involved in the crashes, including 20 commercial vehicles. Six people died and at least 37 were taken to the hospital with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening.”

Even when there’s no dust and visibility is good, high-sided vehicles will have problems with windy weather, such as this one in Canada, and they’re not the only vehicles at risk. Strong gusts can also knock cars and motorcyclists off course. This is particularly the case on open stretches of road when crosswinds are likely.
Motorcyclists are also vulnerable to the turbulence created by large vehicles and riders should be particularly wary when overtaking all high-sided vehicles. 

The usual advice applies; slow down, maintain a large stopping distance and stay focused on the road ahead, as there could well be branches, entire trees or other wind-blown items littering the highway. Also, look out for gaps in trees or buildings that could lead to crosswinds and always keep both hands on the steering wheel.

Always remember to give vulnerable road users including cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians more room than usual. They are more likely to be blown around by side winds so keep a safe distance.

Rain puts a dampener on safety

Rainy conditions often lead to an increase in accidents, says the US Federal Highway Administration. Each year, more than 3,400 people are killed and over 357,300 people are injured in crashes during rainfall in the US. 

The FHA goes on to say that inland flooding, usually following a tropical storm or hurricane, has typically been the ‘greatest source’ of fatalities.

In the UK, the Met Office warns that even if the water seems shallow, just 30cm of moving water can float a vehicle, potentially taking it to deeper water from which the driver may need rescuing. 

It also highlights that hazards hidden under the water can damage vehicles and just an ‘egg-cupful’ of water sucked into a vehicle's engine ‘will lead to severe damage’.

In Australia, roadside assistant firm MRNA adds to the warnings with the chilling message that “modern cars with electrically powered windows and locks are almost impossible to escape from once water finds its way into wiring and motors.”

As ever, slowing down is key. As Scott Marshall, Director of Training for Young Drivers of Canada, pointed out: “Speed limits are set for ideal conditions, and since driving in the rain isn’t ideal, drivers need to adjust their speed and brake sooner.”

It’s also wise to keep more distance than normal between other vehicles and in heavy rain to follow the tracks of the vehicle in front, which will have pushed some of the water away. 

In doing this, aquaplaning (when tires lose contact with the road) becomes less of a risk. Should this happen, the advice is to stay calm, ease off the accelerator and the brake, and try to steer towards a spot with less water on the road. It also helps to emphasise why checking the tread on tyres and the quality of wipers is essential pre-trip.

Don’t be blind-sided by fog

The Times of India reported that at least nine people lost their lives due to the thick fog that covered most of north and central India in December 2022. As everyone will be aware, dense fog reduces visibility, making it difficult for drivers to see and react to hazards in a timely manner. 

Among the newspaper’s advice for driving in these conditions was to use fog lights and drive and low speeds. Also, to avoid changing lanes and to put on the demisters as fog will cause condensation.

It’s obviously important to reduce speed and increase braking distance. If fog gets too bad, then it’s best to pull off the road and park until it improves. 

If drivers are confident they can still drive safely, it’s best to avoid cruise control and to check the speedometer regularly. Fog can create the optical illusion of driving slowly, which can cause drivers to speed up. And, obviously, be very cautious about overtaking.

If you only remember one thing…

Driving in poor weather conditions requires extra caution and careful driving techniques to ensure safety. The key elements are to slow down to allow better control over the vehicle and to create more time to react to any potential hazards. This means increasing the stopping distance. Particularly in wet or snowy conditions, as it takes longer to stop.

Of paramount importance is the need to prioritise safety over speed. If the conditions are severe or drivers feel uncomfortable, it's better to find a safe place to pull over and wait for the weather to improve.

And having read this article, it might seem like the weather is out to get you and your fleet of vehicles. Remember, it’s not paranoia – just good sense – because the weather is not your friend.

Further reading

How to prepare yourself and your vehicle for bad weather


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