Know what to look for and how to navigate around it.
It's the "hidden" road hazard — one that many motorists discover too late.
That would be black ice, a practically invisible stretch of smooth, clear ice. Because it's so transparent, drivers will mistake this for a dry roadway, able to spot black ice only if they see a shine due to optimal lighting conditions. If not, then the potential for an accident looms.
"Black ice is very difficult to detect," says Bill Windsor, Associate Vice President of Consumer Safety for Nationwide. "You could be driving along and everything seems normal. The next thing you know, you're on pure ice, and you may feel yourself starting to slip."
Here's how to minimize risk under these circumstances.
Stay informed. Always check weather and road reports before getting in a vehicle. If they reveal moisture combined with frozen air, don't drive unless it's absolutely necessary. (This includes the scenario of snow melting during the day, only to freeze at night.) "Black ice tends to form most frequently early in the morning, and early in the evening," Windsor says. "During the day, the sun will melt it. So remember that dawn and dusk are the most hazardous times in these conditions."
Also, be careful on bridges, which are magnets for black ice because cold air blows both above and below their surfaces.
Steady behind the wheel. If you have to get on the road, drive slowly and double your distance beyond the standard two to three seconds behind the car in front of you. "Shift into low gear if you can," Windsor says. "This moderates your speed — even if you're going downhill — and that establishes more control."
Cool-headed precision. Should you still hit a patch of black ice, stay calm and continue steering in the same direction as you were before, to maintain momentum. Take your foot off the gas, but don't hit the brakes. If you feel yourself swerving and lose your sense of control, gently turn toward the direction of the skid to safely straighten out.
Moving along. You may be tempted to pull over on the side of the road after a skid, if just to collect yourself. But it's best to move along to a solid, protected area first, far away from where the black ice is. "Some people park on the shoulder right next to it," Windsor says. "That's not advisable, because you're still right there where the danger exists. Another motorist could slip in the same location and crash into you."