Black ice is the most dangerous natural hazard drivers face on the road. Speak to anyone that’s encountered it and they will tell you it sends a shiver down their spine just thinking about it.
Many parts of Britain are currently experiencing harsh winter weather. However, with some sensible precautions, driving on black ice doesn’t have to be a white-knuckle ride.
We asked Paul Ripley to explain how drivers can safely tackle the often-invisible danger. One of Britain’s most respected advanced driving instructors, Ripley has coached police forces, vehicle engineers and thousands of drivers looking to improve their skills behind the wheel. Little wonder he has earned the nickname ‘God’s chauffeur’. These are his tips for driving on black ice.
What is black ice?
Black ice is a very thin coating of ice that forms over a road surface. Because it is so thin and smooth, it can be difficult to see. In fact, from where a driver’s sitting, sometimes there is no discernible difference in the road conditions.
It forms when the road surface is wet and the temperature falls to 0 degrees Celsius or below. Black ice can also appear if moisture in the air condenses and forms dew or fog, and then the temperature dips below freezing point.
Why is black ice so dangerous?
“They call it invisible ice,” says Ripley. “And if your car loses control there is literally nothing you can do to regain it.”
Ripley explains that the steering won’t work, the brakes will have no effect and sudden changes in the position of the accelerator could lead to trouble. “You’re a passenger and a lot of luck is involved from that moment on,” adds the advanced driving expert.
How to drive safely on black ice
It sounds frightening, doesn’t it? But there’s a lot drivers can do to avoid a costly crunch caused by sliding off the road.
For starters, says Ripley, think before you set off on your journey. “Do you know if there may be black ice on the road? Yes you do – because you have just scraped ice off your car’s windscreen and windows. That means, think ahead, try and use main roads that are more likely to have been gritted, and reduce your speed.”
That last point riles Ripley. “Too few drivers adjust their speed according to the conditions. If you lose control on black ice at 50mph, the likelihood is you will crash at 50mph, because there’s no way to slow the car once it’s on the ice. So reduce your speed and look ahead.”
Ripley adds that on snow or ice, any gap to a vehicle in front should be 10 times what it is on dry roads because it takes so much longer to stop the car. He adds: “Don’t be fooled by four-wheel drive: it won’t help you one bit on black ice.”
What if your car loses control on ice?
You will feel the steering go light and it won’t respond. “Ease off the accelerator,” says Ripley. “Look where you want the car to go and hope that it’s a short stretch of black ice. Your brakes will have no effect, and sawing at the steering wheel could make matters worse.”
Ripley says drivers shouldn’t panic and must look for an escape route. He suggests that in some situations – such as when descending a hill – they may have to hope that their car is stopped by a wheel striking a kerb, rather than colliding with other vehicles.
Where black ice might be hiding
On main roads, black ice often forms on bridges or overpasses because they are elevated which allows cold air to pass beneath. It means the temperature of the road surface will be lower than at ground level.
Also beware of so-called frost pockets; on your local roads, you may well know where these are. They tend to be at the bottom of hills or valleys. And be wary of shaded stretches of road, where the sun can’t melt any ice. If you know of areas prone to running water, take extra care.
Paul Ripley is a world-respected authority on safer driving and driver education. Visit his website here