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What is “Black Ice?”

BY: Andrew Giorgi
A red compact car sits on the side of a highway after getting in a single-car accident in the snow.

Whether you can believe it or not, the end of the year is fast approaching. You may still have some last-minute gift shopping left or a long-awaited vacation to look forward to. Regardless of your end-of-the-year plans, depending on where you live, you still have a few more months left of winter weather. And with that comes the freezing temperatures, snow, sleet and even hail that can create unsafe driving conditions for inexperienced drivers. 

Even seasoned motorists can have issues with one of the often underlooked yet most dangerous aspects of winter driving: black ice. That’s why it’s essential to understand the importance of properly dealing with this winter road condition.

So to help prepare you, let’s explore some essential black ice driving tips and tricks to help you have safer travels for the rest of winter.

What is “Black Ice?”

Black ice is a thin, transparent layer of ice that accumulates on road surfaces when temperatures are below freezing, leading to icy roads and an increased chance of you losing control of your vehicle. It’s caused by freezing rain and other cold weather precipitation (snow and sleet). The term “black ice” comes from how the ice looks when frozen to the asphalt.

Not all roadway moisture stays frozen when temperatures are below freezing, as sunlight or heat from the asphalt or pavement can cause snow to melt. However, that moisture will begin refreezing when the sun sets or the temperature drops, creating the perfect opportunity for black ice to develop. 

Above-ground surfaces like bridges and overpasses are frequent spots for black ice to develop as the cold air that circulates underneath them reduces the temperature more quickly. This is why you will see warning signs about icy conditions on the roads near these areas. However, black ice can be found on rural roads, shade-covered streets, driveways and sidewalks, meaning even pedestrians must be cautious of this winter hazard. 

How to Safely Drive on Black Ice

Sometimes, there’s no way to avoid driving on black ice. So when faced with these slippery conditions, taking precautionary steps is vital to prevent any potential accidents or collisions

  • Plan Ahead: The best way to deal with black ice is to avoid it altogether. When possible, pick a route that bypasses black ice “hot spots” in favor of a less dangerous route. It’s also smart to check forecasts for current weather conditions and if there’s a winter storm on the horizon. Having a winter emergency kit onboard is crucial, too.
  • Recognize the Hazards: Certain roadway areas, like bridges and overpasses, are prone to developing black ice. Be alert for these dangerous spots, especially when there’s little or no sunlight. It’s also helpful to keep an eye on the outside temperature gauge (if your car is so equipped) for freezing or near-freezing conditions. Some vehicles, particularly European models, have a special indicator that signals when the temperatures reach a level ideal for black ice conditions. 
  • Reduce Speed: The number one way to help you stay safe when dealing with black ice (or almost any other inclement weather year-round) is to drive slower. Reduced speed helps you maintain control of your vehicle and is a safeguard if the car skids, swerves or fishtails. 
  • Brake Only When Needed: While braking is a natural part of driving and a part of any safe-driving practices, stomping on the brake pedal in a black-ice situation can lead to spin-outs. Avoid slamming on the brakes in favor of gently pumping the brake pedal. This technique still provides stopping power but reduces the risk of a skid. Don’t assume that all-wheel drive and an anti-lock braking system will help; these technologies are helpful but don’t make a car entirely invulnerable to black ice. Snow tires won’t make a difference, either.
  • Observe A Distance: Keep in mind “space is safety.” The further you are away from other vehicles and objects (like trees), the more room there is for braking and accident avoidance. Avoid the temptation to tailgate (and hopefully, other motorists will do the same). It’s an approach that’s tied in with driving more slowly. 
  • Stay In Control: Driving over black ice requires the person behind the wheel to fully control the vehicle. This means you should disengage cruise control and any semi-autonomous driving systems your car may have. 

Whether you’re a new driver or a pro, black ice can be challenging to drive on. Luckily, following some essential tips can help limit your chances of an accident or collision whenever black ice forms. If you do happen to lose control, however, learning what steps you should take can help ensure you stay as safe as possible.

What to do When Losing Control on Black Ice

Despite careful preparation and diligent driving, you may be faced with an out-of-control vehicle thanks to a patch of black ice. By taking the time to learn these tips, you can help give yourself the best chance of regaining control of your vehicle.

  • Go Easy on the Brakes: At the first sign of a swerving car, a driver instinctively wants to slam on the brakes. But this can make the situation much, much worse. Instead, ease up on the accelerator to slow down the vehicle and gently apply the brakes, as this will help you regain some control.  
  • Downshift to Reduce Speed: Reducing vehicle speed is key to returning a vehicle to regular operation. After taking it easy with the gas pedal and carefully using the brakes, shift the transmission to a lower gear (even with an automatic). This action gives a driver significantly more control of the vehicle in this situation.
  • Steer Straight: It’s easy to feel the urge to turn the wheel, so avoid over-correcting the steering if you’re in a swerve or skid. Keeping the steering wheel straight will minimize the chance of running into oncoming traffic or winding up off the road during a winter driving situation. If you find yourself losing control, look to turn the wheel in the direction you are spinning/skidding, not the opposite direction.
  • Look for Traction: It may be challenging to do, but keep an eye out for areas of the road or shoulder that may have some traction, such as gravel or hard-pack sand. A tire can gain extra grip here and help return control of the car. 
  • Keep Calm: While it’s not always easy to do at the moment, staying calm can lessen your odds of making a mistake when losing control of a vehicle. Just take a deep breath or two and remain focused on driving. If needed, and after you’ve regained control of the car, find a safe area to stop and relax for a few minutes. Don’t park on the shoulder of the road; you’ll be vulnerable to other vehicles (if you have black ice troubles, so will other drivers). 
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: Nothing beats experience behind the wheel, so use winter weather as an opportunity to sharpen your skills. Look for an empty parking lot to test your reaction to braking and driving on ice. Importantly, this area should be free of cars, pedestrians, lighting poles, barriers, curb strips or anything else that might interfere with the encounter. Gently test the brakes as you drive over an icy surface to see how the car responds. Try the same thing with turning. The point here is not to go crazy but to become more familiar with how your vehicle responds in winter road situations. 
  • Get Help: Dealing with black ice may leave your car stuck on the side of the road. With an Endurance auto protection plan, however, you don’t have to worry, as you’ll have complimentary 24/7 roadside assistance and towing services. Your insurance provider may also be able to provide you with roadside assistance help, as your policy would likely cover any damages or repairs caused by collisions or accidents involving black ice.

Hitting a patch of black ice and losing control of your vehicle can be frightening, but remaining calm, scarcely using your brakes, and properly countersteering can help you stay safe and limit any potential damages. But while your car insurance provider can help you deal with repairs due to incidents like this, any unexpected breakdowns from general wear and tear use would be left on you to pay, especially if you have an older, used car. With an Endurance auto protection plan, however, you can get comprehensive breakdown protection for your car’s vital components to protect you from repair costs not covered by your insurance.

Even better, every Endurance plan comes with several complimentary benefits, including roadside assistance, trip interruption coverage AND rental car reimbursement. You’ll even enjoy a year’s worth of Elite Benefits, including tire coverage and collision discounts, while also being able to take your vehicle to any ASE Certified mechanic or repair facility. So no matter where you are, you know Endurance will have you covered.

Winter Driving Confidence with Endurance

Knowing how to drive on black ice is part of safe driving during the winter. Take a few minutes to become more familiar with this potential danger; it can make all the difference whether you are driving across town or the country and encountering slippery roads. Confidence also comes from an Endurance auto protection plan; it’s peace of mind coverage for breakdowns and surprise bills. 

Endurance offers numerous options, including plans for high-mileage vehicles, select luxury vehicles, commercially-used cars like those used for rideshare or delivery services, and more. Every policyholder enjoys a 30-day money-back guarantee, flexible payment terms, and the ability to choose any ASE Certified mechanic or repair facility. Other standard features include 24/7 roadside assistance, rental car reimbursement, and trip interruption protection. That’s not all, however, as you’ll also be eligible for a full year of Elite Benefits, including tire repairs and replacements, collision discounts and more.

Discover all the benefits of an Endurance protection plan by requesting a free, no-obligation quote or speaking with an award-winning Endurance customer care member by calling (800) 253-8203. In the meantime, check out the Endurance blog for other articles on everything automotive, including DIY maintenance tips, vehicle buying guides, extended warranty coverage comparisons and more.

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