What to do if you hit a patch of black ice

January 10, 2021 by PEMCO Insurance

‚Äč"Black ice." Even the name sounds ominous, and if you're a longtime Northwest driver, you've probably learned to expect it at least a few times a year.

Black ice isn't really black. It's actually transparent, and that's what makes it so dangerous. It looks like a shiny, wet stretch of pavement (the "black" is just the color of the pavement showing through). Many drivers recognize it only after losing traction.

GettyImages-1285483222.jpgClues to spot black ice

Black ice forms most often overnight and in the early morning, when sunlight can't warm the pavement. It occurs right around the freezing point when the road surface has dropped to 32 degrees F. but there's still moisture present from fog, rainfall or a poorly drained road shoulder.

Bridges and overpasses (which cool more quickly than other surfaces) and shady spots are notorious for black ice. A glossy spot on the road when the rest of the surface appears dull is a tipoff. One big difference between black ice and frosty looking ice: BIack ice occurs in patches, often less than 20 feet long.

What to do

To avoid the sudden loss of control that comes with hitting a patch of black ice:

Slow down when temperatures approach freezing. Even if the pavement seems dry, you don't want to be traveling at regular highway speed if you suddenly encounter a frozen section.

Turn on your headlights. Their reflection may help you spot icy pavement ahead. Slow down before you reach it.

Increase following distances and watch the car ahead of you. If you notice the driver avoiding sections of the road or slipping, there's likely ice ahead.

Do as little as possible. Because black ice tends to occur in short patches, the best strategy may be to try to allow the car to coast over it safely. Keep your steering wheel straight and take your foot off the accelerator. Hard braking or swerving (as in any icy situation) will make things worse.

Correct gently if you start to skid. Keep braking to a minimum and steer the car in the direction you want it to go. Sometimes you hear it called "steering into a slide," but that term can be confusing. If, for example, the rear of your car is sliding to the right, the front of your car will point slightly to the left. Turn the wheel to the right to re-center the car in its lane. Once it begins to respond, start straightening the wheel to avoid over-correcting.

Don't assume you're "ice safe" if you have all-wheel or four-wheel drive. Regardless of your vehicle, ice leaves your tires with nothing to grab for traction.   

Ready for more winter driving tips? Test your snow-driving smarts.

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