How to Drive on Black Ice Safely

Drive on black ice

Driving during the winter season in the UK can be challenging. Apart from adjusting to changes in traffic flow and navigating roads laden with fog, snow, and ice, you must also tackle issues of decreased visibility. However, one of the most concealed hazards to be cautious about is black ice.

Ensuring safety during winter necessitates an understanding of how to navigate black ice. In this guide, we’ll illustrate how to identify it, highlight areas where it’s most prevalent, and provide invaluable advice to help you navigate it with confidence. 

What is Black Ice and How Can You Spot It?

Black ice, often referred to as “invisible ice”, forms when water freezes on road surfaces, creating a thin, glossy layer of ice. Contrary to what its name suggests, black ice is not black in colour.

It’s transparent, which means it takes on the hue of the underlying road or pavement, often making it appear dark or black. This transparency is precisely what makes it so perilous; it’s incredibly deceptive and difficult to spot.

The menace of black ice stems from its elusive nature. At times, if the light hits just right, you might observe a subtle shimmer or glossiness on the road. In cold conditions, this sheen should serve as a warning of potential black ice.

However, there will be instances where you won’t realise its presence until your car is already on it. This sudden loss of traction can be alarming and can lead to panicky reactions, which can be detrimental, especially if one isn’t equipped with the knowledge to handle such situations. 

Black ice typically forms in areas deprived of sunlight. When moisture settles on these sections of the road and freezing temperatures ensue, the absence of direct sunlight ensures that this ice remains for extended periods.

Consequently, places like bridges, flyovers, roads shielded by trees, tunnels, and thoroughfares during the night hours are hotspots for black ice formation. Always exercise extra caution in these zones, particularly during the colder months.

What should I do if I encounter black ice?

Stay Calm

Maintaining your composure is crucial when facing black ice. Although natural instincts may propel you into a panic when faced with such unexpected road conditions, it’s vital to suppress those feelings. Like any other challenging situation on the road, a clear head will allow you to assess the situation and make the safest decisions for yourself and fellow road users.

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Avoid Hard Braking

Our immediate response to danger often prompts us to brake instantly. However, with black ice, pressing hard on your brakes can exacerbate the situation. Rather than helping, it can induce uncontrollable skidding or even cause your car to overturn.

Reduce Speed Gradually

On detecting black ice, it’s essential to slow down. Ensure you have a firm grip on the steering wheel with both hands and gently lift your foot off the accelerator. There’s no immediate need to hit the brakes. The sheer act of decelerating will offer you better control as you navigate the icy patch.

Steer into the Slide

In the unfortunate event that your car begins to swerve or skid, avoid battling the slide. Instead, lean into it. For instance, if your car veers to the left, steer slightly left. This counterintuitive step can help stabilise your car and prevent a disastrous spin.

Consider Controlled Braking

If, after adopting the above measures, the situation deteriorates, you might need to use some braking techniques. Given the patchy nature of black ice, there’s a possibility of finding traction.

For those with an Anti-Lock Braking system (ABS), press the brake pedal firmly; the system will manage the braking pattern for you. Without ABS, lightly pump your brakes and gently steer in your desired direction.

Controlled braking when driving on ice

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be better prepared to confront black ice. Moreover, to enhance your driving skills in adverse weather, it’s beneficial to arm yourself with strategies for managing treacherous road conditions, thereby minimising accident risks.

Tips for dealing with black ice safely

Do You Really Need to Travel?

Driving on black ice can be incredibly challenging, even for the most seasoned motorists. If you anticipate encountering black ice or other icy conditions during your travel, it’s crucial to evaluate whether your journey is truly needed.

Sometimes, postponing the trip by a day or so can be a game-changer, as the ice might have melted by that time.

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This isn’t just an overcautious stance. The Highway Code strongly advises against driving in icy or snowy conditions unless your journey is absolutely essential.

Consult the Experts

Suppose you’ve concluded that your journey is unavoidable. In that case, before setting out, it’s important to check the safety of the road conditions. Start by checking your local weather forecast. If it warns of perilous weather conditions, it might be better to delay your travel.

Additionally, tune into local radio stations for any major road closures or travel warnings. These advisories are not issued to disrupt your plans, but to ensure public safety.

Get Your Car Ready

Once you’re committed to venturing out, ensure your car is equipped for the journey. Begin by checking your windows and mirrors to ensure clear visibility. If they are obstructed by snow, ice, or dirt, clear them thoroughly.

Furthermore, ascertain that all your lights, including headlights, are fully functional. Travelling with malfunctioning headlights, especially in treacherous conditions, can be very risky.

Be prepared for the worst

If, unfortunately, you encounter a challenging patch of black ice and your car breaks down, being prepared can make a significant difference. Always travel with essential items that can assist during emergencies.

You might find yourself stranded for an extended period, and having provisions such as a blanket can be invaluable. Other essential items include:

  • Additional clothing
  • Sturdy boots
  • De-icer and ice scraper
  • Torch or flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Jump leads
  • Emergency provisions like food and drinks

Furthermore, familiarise yourself with the steps to take if your car breaks down. For those living in areas prone to severe winter conditions, switching from summer to winter tyres can be a sensible move. Winter tyres offer improved traction on snowy surfaces and are more resilient under adverse conditions.

Allow Plenty of Time

Navigating roads laden with heavy snow or ice will inevitably prolong your journey. You’ll need to drive at reduced speeds and might face detours or delays.

It’s essential to allocate extra time for your travel. Setting out with the expectation of reaching your destination as quickly as you usually would is unrealistic and potentially unsafe.

When on the road with black ice

Take Extra Care

No matter the urgency of your journey, prioritising safety is paramount when driving under adverse conditions. Even if authorities have gritted the roads, patches of black ice can lurk unexpectedly. Encountering even a minor stretch of black ice can lead to unforeseen and dangerous situations.

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Thus, it’s important to drive at a reduced speed compared to standard conditions. Speeding makes it challenging to react quickly when faced with sudden obstacles or hazards. Furthermore, sharpen your hazard perception while driving. For instance, if you observe vehicles ahead slowing down, it could indicate deteriorating road conditions.

Maintain an Increased Following Distance

Braking distances might not be at the forefront of your mind daily, but they become critical when navigating slippery roads. As highlighted by the RAC, braking distances can increase x10 on icy or snowy surfaces. To put it in perspective, if you’re travelling at 70mph on snow, stopping might require a distance equivalent to over seven football pitches.

Given the extended stopping distances, it’s vital to maintain a generous gap between your car and the one ahead. This means avoiding tailgating and being cautious about your surroundings.

Avoid Unwarranted Risks

While driving with care is a universal recommendation, it is even more important during icy conditions. Always assess situations carefully. For instance, if emerging from a junction seems risky due to limited visibility or incoming traffic, it’s wise to wait for a clearer and safer opportunity.

Similarly, overtaking another car requires judgment. If you’re uncertain about completing the manoeuvre safely, it’s best to be patient. Remember, haste can lead to perilous outcomes. Your safety is paramount, but equally important is the safety of fellow road users. Making cautious decisions ensures everyone’s safety.