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Driving in Sweden: When should you change to winter tyres?

Winter is here, and navigating the icy, slippery, and snow-covered Swedish roads is nothing less than a challenge. But it's not just a different sort of driving you need to get used to: you also need to winter-prep your car.

File photo of cars on a snowy street in Stockholm
Stay safe on Sweden's roads this winter. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Swedish winters are pretty much as tough as they come, with snow and ice storms, freezing cold temperatures, and a harsher environment in general. If you plan to drive in these types of road conditions, you need to be prepared. We’ve gathered together our best tips:

Prep your car

– Change to winter tyres. Swedish law states that all cars must be equipped with winter tyres between December 1st and March 31st if the weather conditions require it. If your car doesn’t have them or if they are not up to scratch (a tread depth of at least three millimetres), you risk a fine of 1,200 kronor ($140).

But don’t leave it too late, as temperatures may very well plummet before December 1st in many parts of Sweden. Winter tyres radically decrease the risk of skidding and improve a vehicle’s overall braking capacity on slippery surfaces, reducing the risk of accidents. In general, studded winter tyres are better suited for icy roads or on surfaces with hard-packed snow, while stud-free tyres work better on roads with soft snow. Pay attention though: studded tyres are illegal on some streets in major Swedish cities for air pollution reasons.

Studded tyres are allowed between October 1st and April 15th, or in wintery driving conditions.

– Make sure the windshield wiper fluid contains anti-freeze. And remember to check the temperature range it can handle – if you’re driving to Sweden from a warmer country your windshield wiper fluid may not be suitable for very cold temperatures. That means it could freeze or even, in the worst-case scenario, crack the tank.

– Check the car lights. Visibility decreases radically in winter, especially during storms.

– Equip your car for emergencies. In case you get stuck in the snow, make sure to always have a warm set of clothes and a blanket in your car. It’s also a good idea to have an ice scraper, a shovel, a torch, a tow-rope, a reflective vest, starting cables and a bag of sand (sand helps the tyres get a grip). Also stock up on fast energy foods, such as raisins or candy, as well as tealights or candles, matches and a lighter to keep warm.

Scroll down for more tips, or watch this video:

How to drive

Driving on a winter surface requires different skills and reflexes than we are used to. Plan your car’s movements in advance, since the more slippery surface adds to the risk of losing control of the car, and makes braking distances far longer. You should therefore:

– Avoid braking abruptly.

– If you still have to brake, and your car is not equipped with an ABS-braking system, use the “pump-braking” method, meaning you first step on the brakes and then let go to, then step on them again. This prevents the wheels from locking (which will cause the car to skid). If your car is equipped with an ABS-braking system, then use the brakes as you would normally.

– Drive in the highest gear possible on slippery surfaces in order to get a better grip.

– Only accelerate in a controlled and moderate manner.

– Keep a greater distance from other cars than you normally would.

– Avoid sudden movements of the steering wheel.

High-risk ice zones where you should pay particular attention

– Bridges

– Areas in the shade

– Valleys

– Near lakes and rivers

– Open landscapes

Signs of slippery road conditions

– Ice and frost on the windows of the vehicle

– Shiny road surface

– Other drivers seem to be driving unusually slowly

If you get stuck in the snow

– The rule of thumb is always: warn, leave and alert. Turn on the car’s hazard-warning signals, put on your reflective jacket and place a warning triangle on the roof of the car if you’ve driven off the road, or well ahead of the car if it’s still on the road. Then stay out of the road and call or look for help, and alert authorities if you have to. If someone is seriously hurt or their life is in danger, call Sweden’s emergency number 112. 

– If the wheels are spinning in the snow, you can place spruce twigs (widely available in northern Sweden) by the front of the tyres to allow them to get a better grip, and/or use sand for the same purpose.

Other tips and tricks

– Clean all dirt by the doors with a cloth. If the temperature drops below freezing, any remaining dirt could cause a door to freeze shut. Apply silicone spray or glycerine on door weatherstrippings to make them less prone to freezing.

– If your car is equipped with a keyless system, make sure to know how to turn on the car manually.

– Keep in mind that a car needs a lot of energy to warm up and will therefore drain your car battery faster in cold conditions. One of the best ways to save your battery (and ensure your car always starts) is to equip your car with a heating unit that you turn on five to ten minutes before heading out on the roads.

– If you wash your car, ensure that it is completely dry before you head out with it in the cold to avoid doors and windows freezing.

Member comments

  1. I noticed that the new LED rear lights doesn’t have the suficiente heat to unfrezze the ice and this block the break light to be visible. EU needs to prohibit LED rear lights.

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COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.