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Driving in different weather conditions

Brendon Carpenter
By Brendon Carpenter
June 30, 2020

Suzuki Baleno 2019With South Africa’s varied weather conditions, we need to make sure we’re prepared to take on various conditions like rain, wind and low-visibility, sometimes all in one day. Here’s our guide for navigating all kinds of weather conditions.

The importance of safety on our roads cannot be underestimated. Sure, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had in the driver’s seat of  your car, but be sure to do so safely – remember, driving is a skill that requires constant practise.

Safety Checks

If your car has been stationary for a few days, you should always check your headlights and turn signals before you get going. Remember to check your car’s oil, water levels and tyre pressure while it is still cold, either at your closest service station or at home. You should also adjust the tyre pressure to the manufacturer’s recommended settings before your tyres warm up.

Check those mirrors and adjust the seat for maximum function and comfort.

Mist and Fog

The common denominator between mist and fog is that both dramatically reduce visibility and make driving conditions dangerous.

Fog is a cloud that reaches ground level, and contains water droplets suspended within. Mist forms when moisture is suspended in air but as a driver you would cautiously navigate them with the following techniques:

A simple rule of driving is if you cannot see, don’t drive!

So, when driving in fog or mist, drive cautiously and slowly. Have your windshield wipers on and your high beams off, as the light will reflect off the water droplets making visibility even worse (besides blinding oncoming drivers).

Pay close attention to not only the road ahead, but to side hazards as well – such as broken tarmac on the shoulder – and use the painted centre line as an assist to maintain your correct place in your lane. Be especially aware of traffic ahead or oncoming that does not have proper or decent illumination.

Driving in rain

The same rules apply for driving in rain; with the added caution, the roads may become extremely slippery from the water flow. Drivers should try to avoid puddles wherever possible and safe to do so, as these may hide deep potholes and simply be deep enough to cause the vehicle to aquaplane if it is going fast enough.

Aquaplaning occurs when the tyres do not break the surface tension of the water on the road and disperse it via the grooves on the tyre. Instead, the vehicle literally ‘skates’ on the surface of the water and the driver loses all steering and braking control.

To find out more about driving safely in the rain, read this blog

In rain, mist or fog – SLOW DOWN!

Strong Wind

Wind can have a sudden and unpleasant impact on the driving experience. Many travellers will have seen signs (mainly on mountain passes) that simply say ‘Wind’. An unexpected (and unseen) gust of wind can catch a driver by surprise and literally blow the vehicle off course – equally, it may have blown off trees or blown sand across the road.

The small rock particles in sand are like marbles and can be extremely slippery.

Modern cars are designed to minimise the effects of air flowing over the car in order to achieve maximum fuel efficiency, but the ‘wedge’ design of the vehicle does not stop a blast of wind from the side. High winds get under a car, affecting the handling and braking significantly.

Drivers should make regular weather checks by having a passenger look up an app on their phone or by listening to the local radio station – and always keep both hands on the wheel.

Veld fires

When veld fires are prevalent it’s not uncommon to come across stretches of road covered in a blanket of smoke from one of these.

The same basic principles apply as for fog and mist – slow right down, turn on your lights and proceed with caution. You should also ensure all windows are closed and the car’s ventilation system is switched to recirculate.

If the fire is in, or close to, a grove of trees, be extra careful, as large branches may have fallen across the road. Above all, do not take any chances. Rather stop and wait for it to clear.

With all of the above conditions, do not slow down so you become a risk to other drivers. Rather move off the road surface than get to a complete stall in areas of poor visibility.

If you do happen to be caught in your vehicle during a veld fire, it will provide a good degree of protection. Look for a clear area, preferably off the road and do not leave the vehicle – people have lost their lives by exiting the vehicle, only to be trapped on foot in the open.

Be aware that in reduced visibility conditions, drivers tend to follow the taillights of vehicles in front of them and be especially vigilant near intersections. Never assume because you have the green light or the right of way the intersection will be clear — always scan ahead to spot potential hazards.

Cold weather

All modern cars are created with driver and passenger comfort in mind, so they have heating capability more than sufficient to ward off the cold. However, the temperature difference between the inside and outside of the car can cause your windscreen to mist up.

Always check the ventilation settings and understand how the demist function works. It is also advisable to have a cloth handy to clear the inside of the windscreen if needed. Do not do this while driving. Stop safely, wipe the windscreen down, and then continue.

If your car is parked outside overnight, you should check with your local dealer about adding anti-freeze to the radiator coolant and be aware moisture in the air may well turn to ice on your windscreen. Use a damp cloth to clear it, and don’t use  hot water, as this may crack the glass.

In some parts of the country, extremely cold weather can bring snow and ice. Again, before travelling, check the local weather along your route.

Snow is not a regular part of the local motoring scenario, so South Africans do not have winter tyre sets like their counterparts in Europe. This does mean driving into snow is dangerous both from the lack of visibility and because the roads become very slippery.

The worst offender here is ice that forms overnight and which is invisible to the driver. Loss of control happens very quickly and it is difficult to recover.

The traffic authorities are usually quite quick in closing roads (such as Van Reenen’s Pass) when it is snowing. However, if you are caught, exercise extreme care and consider moving safely to the side and waiting it out or for assistance.

If you are travelling in really cold weather, think about taking food, water and additional warm clothing in the car with you, just in case your journey is disrupted. You can buy or even create an emergency kit to have in your car before departure. That could include protective clothing and blankets, including a high visibility jacket and a torch/flashlight with batteries; a first-aid kit; battery jump leads and a towing rope.

Hot weather

The temperature inside a stationary car with the windows closed rises rapidly to the point where it can cause death. While most vehicles today come with some level of air-conditioning as standard, hot weather driving also requires some planning.

There should always be a supply of water in the car. Even though the air-conditioning makes the interior feel comfortable, the heat is still draining moisture from your body. This has the side effect of making you slightly drowsy, leading to inattention.

Even though it is hot, it is worth stopping from time to time and opening the windows to ensure the air inside is properly refreshed.

Your safety

It is imperative all drivers should be aware of, and respect the authorities, so you do need to move over when you see flashing lights at the side of the road or the presence of emergency vehicles or fire engines. Try to stay at least 200 metres from the emergency vehicle.

If an emergency exists ahead, it may be dangerous to the public to drive through the area and people who drive into an emergency scene may collide with a fire engine, or worse, a firefighter. Just be patient and keep in mind that fire and emergency personnel did not create the emergency, they did not cause the accident and they did not start the fire.

Getting back to driving after the lockdown along with the change in seasons brings with some challenges of awareness and preparedness.

The traffic on the roads is increasing as South Africans return to work, but being a good and responsible driver means practising or even relearning skills that went unused during the lockdown period.

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