Kentucky is notorious for the unpredictability of our weather. Today, you can look outside in February and see both snow and crocus shoots. Even our favorite meteorologist, Chris Bailey, only gets it right 99 percent of the time! This roller coaster weather that Kentuckians bemoan – almost as much as Duke basketball – is caused by the jet stream that falls across KY, dropping cold air down from the Great Lakes or pulling tropical moisture up from the Gulf. It’s this deadly duo of cold and rain that can combine to create patches of black ice on our Kentucky roadways. These hard-to-spot, translucent layers of ice occur when temperatures are 32 degrees or below at the surface and rain is falling. These conditions can cause the rain to freeze on impact – posing an invisible risk for drivers.
What Can Be Done?Short of moving to Florida, what is a driver to do? Awareness is the most effective accident avoidance system when there’s black ice on the road. Awareness of the Causes of Black Ice: An analysis of national crash data shows that most weather-related accidents occur in Southern states – including Kentucky. We simply have higher levels of precipitation. As a border state, it is also useful to know that states in the Midwest have the highest rate of crashes in the snow / sleet. In fact, the Midwest has more winter-related crashes than the Northeast. Can you see where Kentucky gets caught in the middle between the precipitation of the South and the cold from the Midwest? Being aware of the weather risks is essential to safe driving. Awareness of Current Conditions: Since black ice poses an invisible threat, staying aware of the current temperature and precipitation can help you recognize potentially dangerous conditions quickly. Most vehicles come equipped with a thermometer that can keep you informed of the ambient air temperature. While you may be toasty in the car, remain aware of the outside temperature, and if it drops below 32 degrees, watch out! Awareness of Your Vehicle’s Maintenance: When was the last time you had your tires changed? Winter tires are made with a special rubber that helps improve traction by gripping the asphalt better. Thin or balding spots in your tire treads create a slick surface that will act against you when encountering black ice. It might not instantly make sense why having well-maintained wiper blades can help you avoid an invisible threat like black ice, but, in fact, properly maintained wipers help you spot conditions favorable to black ice. Black ice first forms in shaded areas of the road or on bridges. Keep a look out for shiny, glossy, wet areas on the road that can signal danger. Awareness of the Dangers: Drivers can often suffer from the “Not Me” mentality. We all believe that it won’t happen to us. Either we’re too good a driver; our vehicle is too heavy to lose control; or, we simply have better luck than the other guy. The truth of the matter is that none of the people who died in weather-related crashes on Kentucky roads last winter expected it. Of all vehicle accidents, 17 percent are weather-related. That is 178 weather-related crashes every day, or over 673,000 injuries each year nationwide. It CAN happen to you. Avoiding the “Not Me” mentality and staying aware of your own overconfidence can help keep you safe.
What to Do When You Hit Black IceDespite a high level of awareness, it is impossible to entirely avoid black ice on Kentucky’s roads. When you notice conditions are favorable for black ice, remind yourself of these safety tips:
- Reduce speed when you suspect black ice might be a risk.
- Be particularly cautious on areas where black ice is likely to form – shaded areas of the road and on bridges. Keep in mind that black ice is most likely in the early morning or at night, when the sun can’t warm the asphalt.
- If you suspect conditions are favorable for black ice, do not activate your cruise control.
- If you hit a patch of black ice, remain calm. Don’t swerve unnecessarily, don’t hit your brakes – keep the speed and steering wheel steady.
- Remove your foot from the accelerator and allow the vehicle to naturally slow down.
- If the car begins to slide, do not overcorrect.
- Black ice tends to form in small patches less than 10 feet long. If you start to lose traction, understand there is a beginning and an end — and once you feel traction again, slowly accelerate.