What’s a winter car health check

Driving in winter can be challenging thanks to slippery roads and poor visibility that can impact your driving and insurance.

However, you can reduce your risk of an accident or a breakdown by giving your car a winter health check. Below is our 10-point action plan to prepare your car for winter.

1. Check tire tread depth

Worn tires increase your chances of skidding, aquaplaning and being in an accident. It can also result in fines of up to £10,000 (£2,500 per tyre) and 12 penalty points.

Legally, the tread depth must be at least 1.6mm. However, experts recommend a depth of 2-3mm.

There are a few ways to check the tire tread depth, including tread depth gauges, tire tread indicators and various tools in professional garages.

However, we recommend the 20p test:

  • pump each tire up – the test doesn’t work if they’re flat
  • place a 20p into the groove of a tire
  • If you can’t see the coin’s outer band, your tires are above the legal limit
  • if you can see the coin’s outer band, they’re below the limit and need replacing

You can also choose winter tires if you live in a cold climate. They have deeper treads and softer rubber, providing more traction. Read more about winter tires.

2. Check coolant levels regularly

Coolant cools down your engine, prevents rust and stops freezing. It’s a mixture of antifreeze and water.

It’s always good for your car, but it’s essential in sub-zero temperatures. You should regularly check your engine’s coolant level and replenish it when needed.

Only try to change the coolant when the engine is off, or you’ll burn yourself.

The ideal coolant level is between the min/max in the tank but check your car’s manual. You need a protection level of at least -25°C.

3. Maintain your lights and use the correct ones

Visibility is difficult in winter, so you need reliable, well-maintained lights. You should visually check your vehicle’s lights regularly and if a light’s out, replace it before making your next journey.

Legally, all your car’s exterior lights must be operational – that’s everything from the headlights to indicators and even the number plate bulb.

This is when to use your different lights:

  • dipped headlights – dusk, night and in poor visibility
  • high or full beam – when conditions are bad

Turn your high or full-beam headlights back to dipped if you see another driver.

The days are shorter in winter, so night-time driving is more common. Read our guide on driving at night for more advice.

4. Check your wipers

In winter, your windscreen can get dirty much quicker from rain, ice, salt and muddy water. This means having working wipers and filled windshield wash is important.

If your wipers are faulty or windshield wash is empty, you can be stopped by the police for a few motoring offenses. Having faulty wipers/blades is also a common reason for an MOT failure.

Avoid this by:

  • making sure your wiper blades are clean and don’t leave smears/streaks
  • running your fingers along the wipers to check for splits
  • not using washing-up liquid in your washer reservoir
  • using washer fluid that can withstand temperatures of at least -15°C

Experts recommend you change wiper blades every 12 months.

5. Review your windscreen’s condition

Make sure your windshield isn’t likely to chip or crack. This is more likely to happen in winter when you de-ice your car windscreens.

We deal with thousands of windscreen claims annually, and windscreen protection is a key part of most car insurance policies.

Some things you can do to avoid windscreen damage:

  • Check the weather – use a windshield if overnight frost is forecast
  • clear frost slowly – Use de-icer and scrape slowly when your windshield is frosted
  • Avoid using boiling water – it can cause cracks or chips
  • maintain wipers

6. Monitor engine oil

Motor oil behaves differently at very cold temperatures, and it doesn’t flow as well. Your engine may take longer to heat up or run inefficiently.

To avoid engine damage and a potential breakdown, check your engine dipstick regularly and keep the oil topped up. Remember: too little or too much oil can cause engine problems.

Aim to change your oil and filter every year (usually at the annual service), and don’t ignore any warning signs. Left ignored, your engine will seize up and could cost thousands to rebuild or replace.

Keep an eye out for leaks too. Losing oil too quickly and seeing dark puddles under your car are signs that you have a leak. Common causes of engine leaks include:

  • a damaged oil filter
  • a failing filter cap
  • Leaking oil pan gasket
  • broken valve cover
  • too much oil

Contact a professional if you aren’t comfortable finding the leak’s source.

Lastly, check your car’s manual to make sure you’re buying the correct oil type and buy a reputable brand.

7. Test your brakes

Your brakes can help prevent aquaplaning and skidding in the winter.

Some garages and tire fitters carry out free brake tests where the technicians check your car’s brake pads, shoes, callipers, hoses, discs and handbrake linkages.

We recommend testing your brakes at a professional garage. Here are some common signs of brake damage:

  • loud or squeaking noises when braking
  • spongy or soft brakes
  • a burning smell when braking
  • your brake light flashes when the brakes aren’t applied

If you notice any of these, get your brakes tested.

8. Test your battery

Flat batteries are a common fault in winter. Drivers use heaters, demisters and lights more in cold, dark weather, causing strain on the battery.

We also drive shorter distances more often in winter to avoid getting caught in the rain, meaning the engine and alternator struggles to recharge the battery.

As part of your car’s winter health check, get a professional to test your battery. You may want to buy a battery charger and jump leads too.

9. Top off the bodywork

Salt and grit help keep roads running, but they can increase rust and corrosion on your car.

The only way to stop this is through prevention. Wash and wax your car before the weather gets bad, paying attention to the wheel arches and underside.

This should keep your car in good shape over the winter and prevent long-term damage.

10. Have the right insurance

Are you as covered as you could be? If your renewal is before winter, then consider your car insurance cover level.

Our cover includes features like breakdown cover, windscreen cover and keycare cover which are helpful in winter.

It’s often more beneficial to have far-reaching cover, and should an accident happen, you’ll have the right level of protection.

What if I don’t have time for a winter health check?

Head to your local garage or tire fitter if you don’t have time to carry out the above – many offer special winter checks.

However, that costs money – if you can’t do all the above, we recommend prioritizing your tires and visibility.

Read our tips for driving in extreme weather to stay prepared, too.

I’m an experienced journalist, digital editor and copywriter, now specializing in motoring. I’m editor of Automotive Blog and have worked across the media in newspapers, magazines, TV, teletext, radio and online for household names including the BBC, GMTV, ITV and MSN. I’ve produced digital content in the financial sector for Lloyds Bank, Nationwide and the Money Advice Service. I’m married with two children and live near Bath in Somerset.

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