Driving in Challenging Weather
From extreme heatwaves to flash flooding and snowstorms, we examine how to look after drivers and vehicles during adverse weather conditions
Driving is the most dangerous part of most people’s jobs and for those whose workplace is out in the field, the risks are only amplified.
This is further compounded when other factors come into play, such as fatigue, carelessness, speeding and distractions.
The good news is that drivers can control these factors with behavioural modifications.
But what about when drivers are faced with risks that they can’t control?
Increasingly, drivers are having to contend with extreme weather conditions, from heatwaves and flash flooding to snowstorms and smog, and as the pace of climate change accelerates, adverse conditions will become a more common challenge.
It is therefore imperative that fleet companies arm their drivers with the knowledge they need to stay safe on the road and take steps to ensure vehicles are fit to deal with whatever conditions may cross their path.
Preparation is key
Extreme weather conditions make an emergency more likely, so it is advisable that drivers are prepared for every scenario by keeping a fully-stocked emergency kit in their vehicle year-round.
This kit should include tools to assist in the event of a blowout or breakdown, such as a properly inflated spare tyre, wheel wrench and tripod jack, as well as jumper cables, fire extinguisher and reflective triangles.
Items to ensure driver safety are also important and should include a first aid kit, torch, hi-vis jacket, car charger, non-perishable food items, water, blanket, waterproof jacket, de-icer, shovel, and windshield washer fluid. Something that will provide traction for the wheels should the vehicle get stuck is also advised, such as some carpet or even cat litter.
Providing a check-list for these items and issuing regular reminders of the importance of replenishing items will help ensure the emergency kit is not overlooked or forgotten about by drivers.
Companies should also ensure that drivers have easy access to emergency numbers in the event of a breakdown.
Feeling the heat
First of all, drivers should be encouraged to take regular breaks from driving during hot weather, as the heat can make them feel more fatigued, and to use these breaks as a chance to rehydrate.
It is not just drivers who need to keep their fluid levels up during hot weather. Vehicles are susceptible to becoming damaged due to fluid depletion, so it is important that all fluid levels are checked, preferably before hot weather takes hold.
These include motor oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, windshield wiper fluid – and the all-important coolant.
If the coolant level is too low, and temperatures hike, drivers run the risk of the engine overheating.
Drivers should consult the owner’s manual before topping up coolant to determine the recommended coolant-water ratio for the type and model of vehicle, as well as for advice on when the coolant should be changed, as this can also vary.
Monitoring tyre pressure should be done more regularly when the weather heats up, as under-inflated tyres are more sensitive to the heat, increasing the risk of a blowout. Recommended tyre pressures can be found in the owner’s manual and pressure measurements should always be taken when the tyres are cool to get an accurate reading.
Hot temperatures can also negatively impact the life of the battery, as the heat can cause the battery fluid to evaporate, leading to a weak battery and corroded connections. It is worth getting batteries tested – particularly if they are older than two years – and replaced, if necessary.
The use of electric cars is on the rise and drivers should be aware that temperature extremes can drastically affect battery efficiency – particularly if air conditioning is in use, as it consumes more energy. In extreme heat, the mileage per charge could be reduced by as much as 40 percent, so it’s important that drivers readjust recharging schedules.
According to scientists, 2019 was the warmest year on record in Europe – with this warming trend set to continue – so companies should be thinking about incorporating more regular maintenance checks into their scheduling, to ensure vehicles are ready each year for the warmer months.
Faring in flash flooding
Flash floods are one of the most dangerous weather phenomena to drive in, as they can appear quickly and without warning.
Flooding events are on the increase in Europe – particularly in the northwestern region – as a consequence of climate change, so drivers may come up against this challenge more often in the future.
Driver safety takes priority in flash flooding and companies should communicate effectively with their drivers on the steps they need to take to protect themselves – and the risks they should steer clear of.
In the event of heavy rainfall, drivers should be reminded of the following advice; turn your headlights on, leave twice as much space between you and the vehicle in front, and if your steering feels light due to aquaplaning, ease off the accelerator and slow down gradually.
When it comes to flood water, the number one piece of advice for drivers is not to drive through it. The depth of flood water can be deceiving, and misjudgement is often the cause of drivers getting into trouble.
16 cm of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars, causing loss of control and potential stalling, 30 cm of water will float many vehicles, and 60 cm of rushing water will carry away most vehicles, including SUVs and pickups.
Drivers should attempt to find an alternative route rather than proceeding through flood water.
If a driver has no choice but to negotiate a flooded section of road, they should stick to the middle where the water will be at its shallowest, and let oncoming drivers through first, going one at a time.
In a low gear, drivers should drive slowly and steadily so as not to make a bow wave and to protect from damage to the internal system.
Slipping the clutch and revving the engine will also help to keep the exhaust clear and keep the engine running if water splashes onto the electrics.
Testing brakes is imperative when emerging from the flood waters, so always remind drivers of the importance of lightly squeezing the brakes whilst still driving off slowly.
Advice differs from country to country on what drivers should do if they get stuck in flood water. The general consensus is that in low waters, drivers should wait to get help, but if a vehicle is submerged or sinking, they should get out of the vehicle as soon as possible and climb on to the roof, escaping through the window.
Advice from companies can be life-saving so it is worth consulting an expert and communicating an escape plan to drivers on a regular basis.
For vehicles that are stationary in a flood affected area, drivers should attempt to move their vehicle to a place of safety when first made aware of the warnings – but only is safe to do so.
Companies may wish to instruct their drivers to inform their manager when a vehicle has been through deep flood water or has gotten stuck in flood water for a period of time, so that the mechanics of the vehicle can be checked by a professional.
Bracing for snowstorms
Effective preparation is the best course of action when it comes to driving in snow.
During wintry and snowy conditions, drivers should allow extra time for readying their vehicle for the road and planning their journey.
Companies should remind their employees of how important this is, as being hasty in the interest of saving time not only creates potentially dangerous situations but can land drivers in trouble with the law.
In certain countries, driving with snow on the vehicle, or icy windscreen or windows, is illegal.
After clearing the vehicle of snow and ice, drivers should check the wipers, making sure any auto wiper control is switched off so as not to blow the wiper control fuse if they are frozen to the screen, check the tyres, to ensure the tread is adequately deep and install snow chains if conditions call for it, and check that the screenwash fluid has not frozen.
Remind drivers of the importance of driving at a low and controlled speed, maintaining safe stopping distances between vehicles, avoiding unnecessary braking, using low gears for going downhill, avoiding wheeltracks, and using dipped headlights – or fog lights, when necessary.
Companies may look to compile a handy guide on driving in the snow, which they can communicate to drivers at key times of the year. This can include a check-list of the items that they should ensure they have a sufficient supply of in their emergency kit – such as de-icer, a shovel and warm clothing – as well as advice on driving in differing severities.
Drivers should also be reminded of the importance of taking regular breaks, as heavy use of the heating systems and the dark weather can cause drowsiness at the wheel and eye strain.
Road grit can be corrosive so drivers should look at getting their vehicles cleaned more regularly when it is icy or snowy.
It is best practice that vehicles are booked in for a maintenance check ahead of and after the winter months, to ensure everything is in working order and damage has not occurred.
Clarity in fog and smog
Though foggy conditions are nothing new, smog is a modern phenomenon, ushered in by the industrial revolution and rising pollution levels.
Efforts are being made to lower pollution levels across the continent but smog is still a prevalent issue, particularly for major cities.
Earlier this year, cities across southern Europe experienced dangerously high levels of smog caused by a prolonged period of dry sunny weather and light winds, leading to temporary bans on diesel vehicles in certain cities.
The main issue with driving in fog or smog is the limited visibility.
Reaction times are greatly impacted, so it is imperative that drivers reduce their speed, drive steadily and stay well back from other vehicles. Driving slowly also gives drivers more time to avoid obstacles or shift lanes in case a vehicle up ahead has crashed.
Fog lights are effective in low visibility conditions, as they have a shorter throw compared to the headlights, which gives you immediate illumination. Low visibility conditions are also the only acceptable time to use the rear fog lights. Drivers should focus on following the road-edge markings as a guide.
If visibility gets to a point where almost nothing is visible, the safest thing to do is to find a secure spot off the road and park the vehicle until conditions improve. When stationary, drivers should switch on the hazard lights.
Drivers should be reminded that they are only to use the hazard lights when the vehicle is parked, as using them when the vehicle is in motion can be dangerous for other road users.
Whilst the hazard lights are flashing, drivers are unable to use the indicators as they operate on the same bulbs, which can cause confusion to other road users if the vehicle turns unexpectedly.
Foggy conditions can come and go quickly so drivers should be vigilant and adjust light beams and modify their speed, accordingly. They should also always be prepared to perform emergency manoeuvres at any given moment.
Caution and care are top priority
Fleet managers have a duty of care for their employees and they should reassure their drivers that their role is to not only manage risk but to provide support to their drivers and ensure their safety.
Employee health and safety is of paramount importance and everyone deserves to return home safe and well. Therefore, steps should be taken to ensure employees are comfortable and confident in speaking up when they are worried about driving in difficult conditions and they should never be put under pressure to drive when it is unsafe to do so.
Companies are understandably keen to minimise vehicle downtime, but by providing drivers with visual check-lists, robust safety advice, and ample opportunity to raise concerns, as well as proactively scheduling vehicles for regular maintenance checks, fleet managers can ensure that seasonal risks are minimised, that drivers are safe and that their vehicles can stay on the road for longer.