Black Ice Isn\'t a Joke and It Hits Worldwide
|   Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Where we live in the northern U.S. right now, there's a combination of drizzle and snow and ice that we call snizzle. That may sound funny and look funnier, but it is a dangerous situation now that we've hit our first winter driving conditions. With the dry winter we had last year, very few people remember how to drive in snow and ice.

How bad is it?

In the 50-feet between my home and the dumpster where we place our trash after dinner, I slipped and slid like I had skates on, except I was wearing hiking shoes with deep grooves in them.
I purposely put my foot down hard on the driveway surface and it slid so I walked very gingerly home and we decided against going to a holiday concert because the driving just isn't worth it.

So, how bad is it right now? It's bad, but there are those who still have to drive in this mess and there's a right way to do this and a wrong way.

The wrong way

Letting your car warm up with a remote so that the windows are cleared before you get behind the wheel and the interior is nice and toasty – it's 25 right here, now – putting your car in gear and driving as if that black stuff you see on the road ahead is just water.
It's not water folks, it's black ice – it's the kind of ice that can kill and maim.

It's no exaggeration, either. About four decades ago, give or take a year, when we were working for a daily newspaper as an editor -- this is the pre-cell era – we called in to check to see whether we had to come in at all because the roads were black and traffic was backed up on major routes, just crawling, for miles.

The answer from the Page One editor and Copy Chief at the time just said five words: "Get yourself in here now." The hour was 4 a.m.

Test drive car

At the time of this little incident, we were approaching our fifth anniversary as the paper's new-car reviewer and so I was driving a 1977 Lincoln Town Car. Suffice it to say that Town Car's handling was, to put it nicely, nonexistent. It was during the areas when you more or less aimed big, smooth-riding boulevardiers, instead of driving them. The recirculating ball steering was essentially numb and returned no road feel. That was aided and abetted by a front suspension that seemed to like to run in five directions at any given time.

Even on dry roads, the Town Car, though comfortable with extra plush seats and every power option of the era, wasn't really a handler. It was a handful as the handling through turns was a by-guess-and-by-god-occupation. There was no predictability. The ride and handling were more like taking a ride in a pleasure cruiser on a calm day because it floated with its roughly 5.6-liter V-8 and rear-wheel-drive, as well as its manifest underspringing.

So what happened?

The answer is easy. It took me about three-hours to do a 40-minute run and most of that three hours was spend sideways with a feeling of terror as the Town Car fought me and the slippery black ice roads and we know how to drive in these conditions, so they were bad and my boss' judgment was just as bad – he lived 4 minutes from the office.

Well after fighting with the Town Car I finally bailed out about five or six miles from my office and called in again and the message was the same. The walking, by the way, was just as bad and I had to make the hike to the office.

About halfway there, I ended up taking a header, slapping the back of my head on the sidewalk and watching about $1,000 of camera equipment in my gadget bag turn into camera pieces (I needed an upgrade anyway). A passing motorist delivered me kindly to my office where I stayed until after the edition and then the guy who told me to drive in, in the first place, let me go to the hospital where I was diagnosed with a mild concussion.

All of this because of black ice and a boob for a boss (he wasn't boss for long). The rather long description, though, illustrates the greatest danger of black ice. No matter how slowly or carefully you drive, you just can't control your car at any speed, sometimes even crawl.

The right way

So, what should you do if you hit a situation like this? Here's a bulleted list of important ways to handle black ice or an ice storm:

With today's technology and the spread of the Internet, you have the option of working from home which is really what you should do – stay off the roads until they are safe.
Keep at least three to five days canned or ready-made food available, just in case your office lets you work from home and the ice storm is severe
If you must drive on ice, wait until the temperature has risen to its highest point for the day (sometime between noon and 3 p.m. in the winter)
Ensure that your defroster system is working correctly and that your car has been serviced for the winter and be sure the tires are, at the very least M/S (Mud and Snow), although snows are better (up front and rear in front-drives, although it does change handling and ride a bit)
Ensure that your heater is also working because cold can be deadly if you get stuck

If you've done all of the above, you have to:

Drive as if you have an egg under the accelerator and any undue pressure will crack it
Exaggerate all your moves. If you are going to turn, for example, slow down on black ice at least two to three times further ahead than you normally would and then hand-over-hand the turn at a low rate of speed
Forget you have a brake until your car's speed is almost nil
If you go into a skid, get off the accelerator and stay off the brake and then you will have to do what is known as countersteering. You can relax because it is a normal behavior, though no one tells you that
In a skid, if you've straightened out the car and you have the room just let it roll to a stop
If you have an issue, dive for the curbing and let your wheel and tire take the brunt of the stop. You can replace them, you can't replace yourself

We could go on, but this pretty much covers it except for one last note and that is if you are in a skid ABS is absolutely no use and AWD gives you four wheels driving you into the skid. You still have to drive as outlined.
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