Black Ice: Everything You Need To Know This Winter

No, it’s not Mountain Dew’s latest flavor.

byJonathon Klein|
Cars 101 photo

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Oh no. There it is, the first sign that your tires are no longer gripping the road. You’ve come to the realization that you’re no longer in control, you’re merely a passenger. The dreaded black ice has won, and you’re now stuck in a ditch looking at a $200 towing fee.

What if we told you it didn’t have to be that way?

Encountering black ice is a common occurrence for anyone living in an area where winter routinely chills everything as if shot by Mr. Freeze in Batman: The Animated Series—we’re repressing Schwarzenegger’s turn as the frosty villain. Dangerous black ice forms when rainwater or snowmelt coincide with a drastic temperature drop and freezes on the ground. The result is a sneaky transparent sheet of ice that looks like regular tarmac from a distance.

How then, does one navigate the slippery situation? How do you drive on black ice, what should you do, what shouldn’t you do, and can studded tires save you? Well, buckle up, pour yourself an icy piña colada, and educate yourself with The Drive’s guide for everything you need to know about black ice. All right, everyone, chill!

Black ice can occur almost anywhere., Depositphotos

What is Black Ice? 

Black ice is created when water crystallizes on a road. Unlike when a road is covered in visible snow, however, black ice is translucent and blends in with the tarmac. This renders it far more dangerous than snow or other ice, as most drivers are caught unaware of the ice in their intended path of travel.

How Does Black Ice Form?

Black ice forms when the temperatures of the air and the ground fluctuate around and cross the freezing point. After rain, sleet, or melted snow hits the ground, the moisture freezes and creates a thin layer of ice across the surface. The result is an invisible obstacle that is far slicker than snow or rain.

Rarely, black ice can form due to morning dew or fog following the same warm-to-freezing cycle.

What Do I Need to Safely Drive on Black Ice?

Here’s where we sit you down, hand you a cup of piping hot cider, and tell you the bad news: “We’re sorry, (insert your name here), but there’s only one thing that can make driving on black ice safe, and they’re illegal in most locales. Care for some more cider?”

Truth be told, the only way you can obtain a semblance of safety while driving on black ice is with studded snow tires. Studded tires are like your average snow tire, featuring deep grooves, lots of sidewall, and a rubber compound designed for sub-30-degree temperatures (in Fahrenheit). Unlike regular snow tires, studded tires feature tiny metal studs inserted into the tread designed to bite into ice packs, which in turn nets the car traction even in the slickest of circumstances.

And we know what you’re thinking, “Why aren’t studded tires the norm for whenever Snowmageddon occurs?” Many cities and states in the U.S. have banned them, or only allow their use during highly specific circumstances, as studded tires tend to tear up tarmac. And local politicians don’t want to add to the bill.

Studded tires can also cause issues on regular pavement. Without a rubber contact patch gripping the road, studded tires can be as slick as black ice. Plus, they spark on concrete and could ignite a fire. You know, little things!

There are a few methods to apply, and not apply, when you do encounter black ice. Here are The Drive’s best practices for when you lose traction and your car’s earthly bonds slip.

Be extra careful for black ice at night., Depositphotos

How Not to Drive on Black Ice

First, let’s discuss what you absolutely should not do when you drive on black ice.

Sudden Steering Inputs

The worst thing you can do when you feel the car slip out from underneath you is yank the steering wheel or, if you’re really batty, “let Jesus take the wheel.” 

Sudden Brake Inputs

Similar to sudden steering inputs, sudden braking is just going to make everything worse. Slamming hard onto your brakes will assuredly initiate a slide and take you on a lovely ride to crunk town.  

Sudden Throttle Inputs

This is absolutely not the time to “when in doubt, throttle it out.” No, just no. 

Give adequate space to the car in front. , Depositphotos

How to Drive on Black Ice

Instead of relying on the reptilian part of your brain searching for any swift action to save your butt, let’s think this through and stay disciplined with our inputs.

Steering Input

You’re the proverbial tortoise racing against the hare here. Slow and steady steering inputs, stay as straight as possible, and if the rear of the car begins to want to be the front, steer into the turn. But again, steady inputs are key.

Braking Input

If you need to come to a stop or wish to slow down, lightly press the brake pedal. Not three-quarters of the way down, not halfway, just barely apply pressure until you’ve slowed to a safer pace.

Throttle Input

Don’t touch it. You don’t need it. Just leave it alone. Stop. Seriously.

Let's make sure your tires are up to snuff. , Depositphotos

Are My Tires Worn Out?

Before any drive, it’s best to know if your tires are worn out, especially the winter tires you only slap on when fall hits. Here at The Drive, we’ve come up with a handy-dandy tire health checklist that you can easily follow. Below is everything you’ll need to make sure your tires are safe to use. 

Tire Health Checklist

A lot can go wrong with a tire, so it’s important to constantly check that it’s up to snuff. Look for and be aware of these factors when examining the health of your tires:

  • Pressure: Measured in pounds per square inch (PSI), this refers to the air pressure inside the tires.
  • Tread depth: This refers to how deep the exterior ridges of the tire are.
  • Punctures: Check for anything that has penetrated the tire that could cause air to leak out.
  • Cracks/dry-rotting: Look for cracks or splits in the tire. If found, the tire is not safe for driving and should be replaced immediately. 
  • Over/under inflation: Inflating a tire with too much or too little air will cause uneven tread wear and will detract from its full performance capabilities.
  • Balance: The mass distribution of tires needs to be even and balanced in order to function properly.

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A Mitsubishi Evo encounters a slippery situation and goes full WRC!, Depositphotos

Pro Tips for When You Encounter Black Ice On a Drive

Over the years, The Drive’s editors have made friends with professionals across the industry. For this specific task, we asked our friend Trevor Wert, who’s one of the instructors at DirtFish Rally School in Snoqualmie, Washington, to give us his top tips for safely driving through the snow and black ice. You’ll want to pay attention!

Look Up

The one thing that I personally focus on very heavily at DirtFish is having good vision, but it’s even more important when you’re driving in the snow. One of the amazing things about the human body is that we naturally adjust what we’re doing based on what we’re focused on, including looking where you want to go. Naturally, your body will do everything it needs to make it there, so whatever you do, DO NOT look at the object you’re trying to avoid, you will hit it.

Slow Down

Slow down! Slippery conditions increase the amount of time and distance it takes to stop and/or slow. There is less available traction for your car to stop, turn, and accelerate, so any inputs while on snow and/or ice will take much longer than even in the rain. Slowing down allows time to process situations, reduces a vehicle’s tendency to continue straight, and if nothing else, limits how long it takes to stop. 

Leave Extra Room

As we all know, driving in slippery conditions is unpredictable. If we know that it takes longer to slow down, then we also know that it doesn’t leave a lot of room to stop or turn. If we approach an intersection or follow a car at the same distance that we would in the dry, we don’t leave ourselves the option of slowing, stopping, or turning if the unexpected happens.

Don’t Panic

For most drivers, if a slide happens it’s often an unpleasant experience (unless you’re at DirtFish, we love it!). This causes a situation of either “freezing” or overreacting, and unfortunately, neither ends well. By remaining calm, a driver is able to think clearer and find ways to fix the situation rather than make things worse. Ultimately, the best situation is to not get into trouble in the first place by following the first two recommendations.

FAQs About Black Ice

You’ve got questions, The Drive’s informational team has answers!

Q: What Are Winter Tires?

A: Winter tires are made from special rubber compounds that are designed to stay pliable and provide grip even when the thermometer dips below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. They typically feature deep tread patterns and several small grooves called sipes, which “bite” and grip in snow.

Q: Are Winter Tires Like All-Season Tires?

A: Absolutely not. If you want a full and detailed guide, check out the differences between winter tires and all-season tires here.

Q: I Have 4WD, Do I Really Need Winter Tires?

A: Do you like having traction? Then yes, you do. All 4WD does is get you going quicker. It doesn’t help you turn or brake better.

Q: How Much Are Studded Tires?

A: You’re looking at a bill ranging from $150-$250 for a single tire, depending on the size of the tire as well as the tire’s manufacturer.

Q: How Much Are Winter Tires?

A: You can expect to spend about $150-$250 per tire, depending on the size of the tire as well as the tire manufacturer. 

Q: Are Studded Tires Legal In My States?

A: Studded tires are illegal to use in Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Texas, and Wisconsin. Though, some parts and counties in Maryland allow them.

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