Winter navigation of our busy streets and highways is tough enough when the roads are snowy. But learning how to detect, then navigate, through black ice on the streets is a safety prerequisite to driving (and walking) outdoors during our cold winter months. So we want to share some information you can use, including a few tips to deal safely with black ice this cold winter.
First, let’s dispel the idea that black ice is really black. It isn’t. It’s very clear, and probably gets its name because you can see the asphalt underneath it so easily. Black ice is sneaky because it sometimes can be mistaken for a wet street.
Black ice is a thin, smooth surface that can form quickly, making it even more difficult to detect. Because it looks like a relatively harmless wet street, you might naturally approach it the same way you would if you had perfect traction. Don’t!
It is caused by light precipitation – usually a fine mist – rather than snow or slush and can build up in less visually obvious places. When this fine precipitation hits pavement that is beginning to freeze (32 degrees Fahrenheit/0 degrees Celsius), a thin, glassy layer of ice is the product.
There are a few warning signs that suggest black ice is beginning to form. When it’s freezing and there is wet precipitation, rain and sleet will begin to freeze on the highway upon impact. This smooth icy surface can also appear on busy highways in much cooler temperatures because the friction of the tires on the road melts the snow or slush and brings the pavement to the perfect black ice freezing point.
Watch your vehicle’s outside temperature gauge when the outside ambient temperature begins to approach freezing: Encountering black ice is possible. Be especially cautious on bridges, viaducts and overpasses, because they are exposed on the top and bottom, which cools faster and creates conditions conducive to black ice. It can also form at the bottoms of hills and in areas that are heavily shaded. A good tip is to drive like you have a raw egg between your foot and both the brake and accelerator pedals. The secret is, “gentle does it.”
If you’re anticipating possible black ice:
- Turn your lights on.
- Drive slowly and don’t tailgate.
- If the roads look wet or dark, watch the vehicle in front of you. If the wheels aren’t leaving tracks or spraying water, it is likely black ice.
- Do not use cruise control. And learn to “feel” the road with your feet that cruise control cannot do.
- If you drive a manual transmission, shift to a lower gear for more control.
- Do not be lulled into a false sense of security if your car has anti-lock brakes. Antilocks are most useful in correcting skids on rainy, wet roads where there’s a modicum of traction — not on icy roads.
If your car does begin to slide:
- Stay calm and keep the wheel steady. Don’t make any sudden movements.
- Ease your foot off the gas and gradually steer into the direction of the skid (the direction your vehicle’s rear end is moving).
- Do NOT hit the brakes or over-correct your steering, because that can only make matters worse.
- Hopefully your tires will soon find traction. Once they do, try to find a safe location (not the shoulder of the road) to park, or keep progressing slowly once you correct the skid if that seems a better solution.
- The best thing to do is take EVERYTHING slow.
And if you’re walking on the sidewalk and encounter black ice, if you can’t get around it, be careful and carry on by walking like a penguin.