Updated February 13, 2023 | Reading time: 6 minutes
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Wintertime driving can be dangerous, and it’s an unfortunate reality for roughly 70% of the country. Every year, about 117,000 people are injured and more than 1,300 die in accidents on snowy and icy roads.
Black ice is a culprit in creating unsafe driving conditions because it’s often impossible to see until it’s too late. But you can do plenty of things to protect yourself, including learning how to drive on black ice.
What is black ice?
Black ice is a very thin layer of ice that coats road surfaces. It’s called “black” ice because when it forms on asphalt pavement, it looks black, just like the underlying road surface. However, the ice itself is clear. You often can’t see it when you’re driving, but it still creates the same effect of driving onto an ice rink.
Black ice forms when there’s liquid water in the environment and temperatures on the road surface dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the freezing point. The liquid can come from a few different places, such as melting snow, rain, or even just condensation or fog in the air.
When temperatures drop below freezing, the water freezes solid into a clear, transparent sheet. This usually happens at night and early in the morning, before the sun warms up the roadway surface.
Black ice can also form where it might be cooler than surrounding roadways, like on top of bridges and overpasses, on less-traveled roads, and on shaded roadways.
The easiest way to avoid black ice is to know when and where it forms and then avoid those places when you suspect it might be a problem.
If you’re driving to and from places with regular winter weather events, like mountains, don’t do it after a late-winter rainstorm. Wait until the temperature warms up, and even then, time your travel for midday instead of late at night or first thing in the morning.
If you can’t avoid driving when the chance of black ice is likely, keep your eyes peeled for the signs. Turn your headlights on and scan for a telltale icy glare from the road surface. Pay especially close attention when you’re driving over parts of the road that might be colder, like shaded areas and bridges.
If you can, try to take an alternate, safer route. Instead of taking the scenic route through windy canyons, stick to more well-traveled main roads. Avoid roads with steep hills and sharp turns if possible.
7 tips for driving on black ice
You can’t always entirely avoid driving on black ice. Sometimes, you need to get to work early in the morning, or there are no alternate routes to your destination. If you do find yourself driving in areas where black ice might be, here are some tips for staying safe:
Practice driving on ice when it’s safe. Don’t wait until you’re already skidding to learn what to do. Go to an empty lot on a snowy, icy day topractice drivingand braking. Learn how your car handles these conditions, what a skid feels like, and how to get out of it.
Consider your tires. Make sure your tires have plenty of traction going into winter since bald tires slip much more easily. If you live in an area with snow and ice all winter long, consider purchasing winter or studded tires.
Drive slower. If you slide out of control, it’ll be easier to regain control if you’re driving slowly. And if you do end up sliding into something, at least it’ll cause less damage or be easier to get unstuck.
Drive in higher-traction areas. If you can see obvious glare from black ice, try steering gently onto areas with more traction. If tracks from passing cars are icy, for example, try driving just to the side so that your tires are actually traveling over snow, sand, or other non-icy pavement.
Take your foot off the accelerator. When your foot is on the gas pedal, your tires spin, which can make it harder to regain control. Instead, take your foot off the gas so your tires stop spinning as much, which will help you regain traction.
Steer into the skid. Don’t try to counter the skid by steering away from it, which can make things worse. Turn the steering wheel slowly in the direction you want to go. If your back end skids to the left, for example, gently turn your wheel left too.
Brake appropriately. Don’t slam on the brakes at the first sign of a skid. Only use the brakes as a last resort if you’re going to hit something or go off the roadway. Then, if you have antilock brakes (ABS), press the brake pedal down firmly and hold it. If you don’t have ABS, quickly pump your brakes.
If you lose control while driving on black ice, try your best to aim for safe areas. As soon as your tires leave the icy roadway, you might not be able to stop moving off the road — but you might get a few precious moments to steer into a soft snowbank instead of another car.
If you’ve crashed into another object or a snowbank, take a breath and try to stay calm while you assess the situation. Put on your hazard lights, and if it’s safe to get out, call emergency services. Be careful if you’re on a busy roadway since you can easily be involved in a pileup or be hit by another car.
Be aware that even though the black ice might have caused you to crash, you could still be held liable. That’s because, legally speaking, you’re responsible for driving your vehicle safely regardless of the conditions — including on black ice.
If you’re the at-fault driver in an accident on black ice, a few different types of insurance policies could come into play, depending on the state you live in and the details of the accident:
Collision coverage: This pays to fix your vehicle if you run into most other things, including other cars, trees, or buildings.
Driving on black ice FAQs
Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about driving on black ice.
Is it hard to drive on black ice?
Yes, it can be extremely difficult to drive on black ice because you can easily lose control of your vehicle. Plus, it’s hard, and sometimes impossible, to see black ice, so you can’t avoid it as easily as other road hazards.
What should you do if there’s black ice on the road?
Always drive slowly and cautiously if you suspect there might be black ice on the road. Be prepared to take evasive action if you start sliding, like taking your foot off the pedal, steering into the skid, and pumping the brakes or using your ABS if you’re headed for an imminent crash.
How do you avoid sliding on black ice?
The best advice for what to do when driving on black ice is simple — don’t. Avoid driving at all if you can. If you must drive, make sure your tires are in good shape. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled for black ice as you drive. If you do spot any, try to steer gently onto adjacent areas with a bit more traction if available, such as snow- or gravel-covered surfaces.
Should you use four-wheel drive on black ice?
Does four-wheel drive help on black ice? Not really. Four-wheel drive helps you get going by sending power to all four tires, but it doesn’t suddenly help you gain traction if you’re already sliding. That said, if you do slide into a snowbank, it might be able to help you get out better than a vehicle with two-wheel drive.
What does driving on black ice feel like?
You won’t always know if you’re driving over a patch of black ice. Since black ice patches are short, it’s possible to glide over them unaware. But if you do start sliding, it’ll feel just like that — you’re expecting to travel one way, but suddenly your car is actually going another.
Lindsay VanSomeren is a freelance personal finance writer living in Suquamish, WA. Her work has appeared with FICO, Credit Karma, The Balance, and more. She enjoys helping people learn how to manage their money better so they can live the life they want.