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ICE is Nice in Summer, but …

By MR. MONTE NACE, Staff Writer

Ice is nice in a cold beverage on a hot summer day, but ice on the road on a cold winter day is a different story. Even worse, invisible “black ice” on roads can be fatal to any driver, perhaps especially to those who sit inside comfy cars with heated seats and heated steering wheels, sipping on a hot latte and listening to their favorite tunes as they drive—unaware that road conditions have deteriorated.

WHAT IS BLACK ICE?

You might think you will recognize this enemy when it appears. The problem is, black ice can be difficult to see, and you may not know you are on it until it is too late. What is it exactly?

Black ice is a very thin layer of ice that usually shows up when it rains and the ambient temperature is near freezing. This causes the precipitation to freeze on impact. But it can also occur when sleet falls or when snow melts.

Notice I said it “usually” shows up as rain during “near” freezing temperatures? That is because road surfaces can freeze before water does—particularly bridges, underpasses and overpasses, tunnels, and shady spots. Also, condensation from dew can freeze on roads, and sudden blasts of cold air can affect areas that do not usually freeze such as in the southern United States.

On January 3, 2018, a snow, sleet, ice, and rain storm engulfed Tallahassee, Florida, leaving it colder there than in Juneau, Alaska. In January 2014, over a million people jammed highways in Atlanta, Georgia, amid a few inches of snow. School buses were stuck in traffic until midnight, and several thousand students spent the night at school.

HOW CAN YOU AVOID BLACK ICE?

While black ice is tricky to identify, you can gather a few clues before you get in the car. Look around you. Is the pavement completely dry or do some spots shine? Because the ice is camouflaged against a backdrop of asphalt, tar, concrete, or other roadway material, your best bet when it is cold is simply to assume that a shiny road equals black ice.

Once on the move, it helps to know where you may be more likely to find black ice. In addition to those mentioned previously (bridges, overpasses, etc.), watch for pavement that looks dry but appears slightly darker in color and for low-lying areas that may have water runoff. Also, stay abreast of local weather reports through traditional or social media.

Take care of your vehicle. Top off windshield washer fluid for those moments when passersby splash liquid onto your vehicle, and make sure your defrosters are working properly. Do not get too comfortable with your vehicle’s “outside temperature” display, either. Depending on where the sensor is located, it could be chillier than you realize and thus freezing.

WHAT IF YOU ENCOUNTER BLACK ICE?

Unlike snow, which can provide traction, it only takes a light glaze of ice to wreak havoc on roadways. Once a driver starts to lose control, especially on a busy thoroughfare, those who follow may lose control as well, leading to a devastating multi-car pileup that can involve dozens of vehicles—sometimes a hundred or more.

You will know when you find a patch of ice. Hopefully, however, you are not going too fast when it happens. Instead, drive a safe speed—slower than you would otherwise think is necessary—and without cruise control. If your vehicle begins to slide, stay calm and remove your foot from the accelerator.

Do not apply the brake, and do not overcorrect by jerking the steering wheel! If your car starts to spin, turn the steering wheel gently in the direction of the spin. That tends to go against most people’s gut instinct, so you would be wise to practice driving on ice if you have an opportunity and a safe place to do so.

The following additional tips may also improve your odds of safely navigating black ice:

  • Maintain tires with good tread because it increases traction. If authorities recommend snow tires where you live, use them.
  • Use four-wheel drive, if you have it. It will not keep you from sliding on black ice but it may help you recover.
  • Even with excellent tires and four-wheel drive, proceed slowly and with caution. Remember, posted speeds are for “ideal” conditions. Black ice is never ideal.
  • Back off, Jack! Maintain more than enough space between you and the vehicle ahead of you. An 8- to 10-second following distance allows extra time to stop and helps keep road spray from other vehicles off your windshield.
  • Keep your lights and all windows clean. Black ice is hard to see in daylight and it is even less visible at night.
  • Assume other drivers can’t or won’t stop at stoplights and intersections. This gives you a little extra time and distance to take evasive action. Sometimes “a little” time is enough!
  • Buckle up and ensure passengers do, too.

Finally, do not be fooled into thinking you are such a good driver that dying in a car wreck is impossible. Remember that professional race car driver Dale Earnhardt died in a fatal collision, as did actor Paul Walker and Princess Diana. It can happen to anyone. A single moment of distraction or a single incorrect decision, especially on black ice, is all it takes to suddenly spell THE END.