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What Is Black Ice? And How to Protect Yourself From It

No one likes to hear the words "black ice" in the weather report. Here's how to prepare and protect yourself and your home from this slippery risk.

what is black ice

While the winter season can bring beauty in the form of fluffy snow and glittering ice, it can also bring potential dangers. Around your home and while you’re driving, winter precipitation poses many dangers, including black ice, which can cause accidental slips and slides on walkways, driveways and the road. What is black ice? Learn more about this risk and how to stay safe when the weather forecast calls for slippery conditions.

What Is Black Ice?

Despite its nickname, black ice is actually clear. It’s often compared to a “glaze” and can form on all kinds of surfaces, especially roads, sidewalks and driveways.

Since black ice is transparent, it coats and blends into whatever it covers, and that’s part of what makes it so dangerous. Black ice is also extremely slippery and has several causes, including freezing rain and the melting and re-freezing of ice and snow.

How Does Black Ice Form?

If roads are wet — from rain, melting snow, etc. — when the temperature drops under 32 degrees Fahrenheit, black ice can form. Another cause is when “moisture in the air condenses and forms dew or fog, and then the temperature drops below freezing,” according to The Weather Channel. Sometimes, black ice happens when the heat of tires on the highways mixes with freezing conditions.

Keeping an eye on weather reports is a must in the winter, and investing in your own thermometer isn’t a bad idea either.

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Where Does Black Ice Form? 

Black ice can form almost anywhere under the right conditions, but there are a few places that are more likely to freeze this way compared to others.

“Bridges and overpasses are prone to black ice because cold air is able to flow underneath the road surface, since it is elevated, therefore lowering the pavement temperature,” The Weather Channel explains. “Shaded spots on the road are prone [too,] since they receive less warmth from the sun during the day.”

The roads beneath overpasses and at the bottoms of hills are other common places. Black ice also occurs more often during early morning and at night, when there’s no sun and the temperatures tend to be colder.

Around the house, paved driveways and shaded walkways are susceptible to black ice.

black ice protection

How to Recognize Black Ice

One of the most dangerous aspects of black ice — besides being so slick — is that it’s difficult to see. While black ice can sometimes be seen in certain lighting, most of the time, it’s practically invisible. When conditions are slippery, be especially mindful of your surroundings and what is coming up ahead. When the temperature is low, glossy surfaces could potentially mean black ice. Whether you are in the car or on foot, slow down.

Black Ice Protection

Winter can bring many hazards, like damaging winds and heavy snow. To protect your assets this winter, make sure your home and auto insurance policies are up-to-date. When it comes to car accidents or slips and falls where you’re responsible for causing personal injury to someone else, these policies should cover you.

“However, unlike the cost of repairing your car, [personal] damages can be much larger,” says Ray Eng, AAA Northeast vice president of insurance sales. “That’s why we typically advise our members to consider an umbrella policy that provides additional liability coverage in excess of the coverage provided in someone’s auto or home policy.”

You should consult your agent when considering an umbrella policy, because there are some requirements that need to be met in terms of the coverage limits you purchase with your auto and/or home policy.

What to Do in the Car

If the temperature is at or below freezing, try to avoid driving if you can. If you have to be on the road when it’s icy, keep these tips in mind.

Let Your Car Warm Up 

Today’s vehicles only need a minute or two to warm up in cold weather. “Unnecessary engine idling wastes fuel, pollutes the air and only warms the engine — not the other mechanical parts of the car,” says John Paul, AAA Car Doctor. It’s best to go easy on the gas until you start to feel heat coming from the vents.

Improve Visibility

Clear snow/ice off of your windshield and windows to have the best visibility possible. Many northeastern states have laws about removing snow or debris from your car before driving, and failing to comply could result in a fine.

Check Your Tires 

Checking the tread on your tires is important, since worn tread will have less traction. Paul advises using a quarter to measure tread. “If the tread depth isn’t up to Washington’s head, the tires should be replaced.” He also suggests winter tires for the best traction. “Tires are the only part of your car that touches the road, so you want them to be in good shape.”

Leave Extra Time and Space

Leave yourself a little extra time and drive slower than normal during winter journeys. While you should never tailgate, leave ample room between you and other cars when road conditions are slippery. This will give you more time to react to sudden changes in traffic.

More winter driving tips from AAA.

What to Do at Home

Getting ahead of a snow storm can save you time, energy and peace of mind later on. Before winter precipitation arrives, make sure gutters and drains are unblocked so melting snow/ice will have a place to go.

In addition to shoveling or snow blowing, one trick is to lay out a sturdy cloth or tarp before the snow or ice comes. You can cover your car, porch, stairs, walkways, etc. and then simply remove the snow-covered cloth or tarp when it’s time to leave the house.

If snow has already fallen, clear the driveway and walkways so the sun can dry away any moisture. If the weather anchors are calling for snow, ice or a wintry mix — with no sunshine to be found — consider a deicer.

There are lots of options out there, but you should use deicers with caution. Most are harmful to pets and the environment and can damage grass, plants and walkways. Though they all have pros and cons, try not to over-salt regardless of which deicer you choose.

A calcium magnesium acetate-based deicer is a less corrosive and more environmentally friendly option, but it’s less effective below 20 degrees. Both calcium chloride and magnesium chloride work at sub-zero temperatures, but these deicers can damage plants/grass, metals and concrete. Rock salt is cheap and semi-effective, but it can be lethal to pets, harmful to vegetation and damage asphalt, concrete, brick/stone and wood.

If you would like to add some extra grit to your driveway or walkway, you can sprinkle fine gravel, sand, cat litter, coffee grinds and/or wood ash.

Winter can be a divisive topic; many people either love it or hate it. Regardless of your sentiment toward the season, you can feel more prepared by being proactive, protecting your assets and staying informed.

Protect your home from black ice-related liabilities and more with AAA home insurance. Learn more

Do you have a word of caution or advice about black ice or black ice protection? Share it with us in the comments. 

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