Of all the possible driving hazards that are present in our four-season Michigan climate, winter presents the greatest number of challenges, especially to a new driver. One of the most feared/dangerous of these is the dreaded black ice. Itís hard to spot, especially if you donít know what youíre looking for ó and can easily be missed if you are distracted by a smartphone or the vehicleís audio system.
The first place to start in educating someone about the threat black ice poses is to make your young driver aware that just because the road has been cleared of snow and the sun is shining does not mean there is no risk of ice. For this reason, the best rule of thumb to have while driving in winter conditions is to always expect the unexpected. (Make sure your new driver adapts this notion!)
What Exactly Is Black Ice?
Black ice is a thin coat of glazed ice on the road surface. Black ice isnít actually black ó itís transparent ó but it takes on the dark coloring of the asphalt. Because it is so thin, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to see.
How Does Black Ice Form?
Black ice can form many ways but the most common is from melting snow on or beside the road. After a winter storm, when temperatures climb above freezing during the day, snow melts, causing water to run onto the road surface. Once the temperature drops back below freezing, either later in the afternoon or during the night, that thin film of water will then freeze and behold: black ice.
Where Is Black Ice Most Likely To Form?
Black ice can form anywhere on the road. New drivers should be extra vigilant while traveling on roads that donít get much sun exposure, and ice is, therefore, less likely to melt. Additionally, bridges and overpasses cool from both above and below and freeze much faster than other parts of the road, causing ice to form. Youíll notice many overpasses have ice-warning signs for this reason. Even water vapor from adjacent rivers and streams can, under the right conditions, freeze into black ice on the roadway.
So What Do I Do If I Hit Black Ice?
Easier said than done, but try to remain calm and not panic. While you may be able to spot black ice just before you cross over it, itís more likely that youíll feel a sudden lightness in the steering wheel. Keep the steering wheel straight and DO NOT hit the brakes. Unfortunately, anti-lock braking systems (ABS) canít stop you if there is no traction (and there is not on black ice), so try to resist the urge to brake. Instead, it is best to release pressure from the gas ó but not too quickly as it could upset the balance of the car and send you into a spin. Just release the gas and steer the car in the direction you want it to go. To avoid spinning on black ice, try to avoid using your cruise control in the winter. It takes longer to disengage and it could actually cause your car to spin. So itís best to leave it off during snowy months.
Modern Studless Winter Tires To The Rescue
Probably the best investment you make, not just for black ice, but for all winter driving conditions, is to purchase a full set of modern studless winter tires. These tires have been developed specifically for winter conditions, ranging from providing extra traction in the snow to actually being able to grip at the iced pavement. Tire manufacturers actually take cars fitted with their modern studless tires onto hockey rinks to demonstrate how well a car equipped with these tires can stop and turn on icy surfaces.
So whether youíre a new driver who has never encountered black ice before, or youíre an old hand at winter driving, keep these important tips and preventative measures in mind as you drive through the dark months.