This past weekend was a strange one for transportation in general. In addition to news of a commuter train derailment in New York City that killed four, we also learned of a massive 65-car pileup on I-290 West in Worcester, Massachusetts early Sunday morning. The accident was caused by black ice, and sent 35 people to the hospital– two for serious injuries.
Black ice is one of those things we are always warned about as young drivers. As we get older and develop our driving skills, we tend to get a bit of hubris when it comes to driving in unfavorable conditions– but black ice can render even the most seasoned driver helpless.
Black ice isn’t really black. It’s a thin, clear coating of ice that allows the color of the asphalt below it to show through. This is dangerous because A) it looks like there is no ice on the road, and B) in order for ice to be that transparent, it is also very slick. For many of the drivers in Sunday morning’s crash, there was no way to stop when one of three tractor-trailers jackknifed on the highway. You may be driving along without issue, but when you need to make emergency maneuvers, the car is unresponsive, as you slide into the braking vehicle next to you. I happen to know this stretch of highway, and it is tight, with small breakdown areas.
Though sometimes an accident is unavoidable, there are steps you can take to handle driving in conditions when black ice might be the most likely. The first is to simply drive slowly. This might sound overstated, but the faster you are driving on the highway, the less time you have to react. You might think you have good reaction time, but when you hit the ice you need those extra moments for the vehicle to respond.
A simple and practical step you can take is to keep your windshield clear when driving in the winter. Many people have a tendency to scrape off the window just enough to see out the front, but the window needs to be completely clear, and the de-fogger has to be working.
Also, know your car’s powertrain and tire selection. Audi loves to tout Quattro all-wheel drive, but even systems as well as Quattro can fail when the tires are either the wrong type or are worn out. A rear-wheel drive car with winter tires can handle just as well (if not better than) an all-wheel drive car with summer performance tires.
Finally, it all comes down to you paying attention and knowing what to do when you hit the ice. When we went to the Porsche driving school, we were instructed to “Correct, pause and recover.” That means, when you hit the ice, put in a corrective steering input, and give the car a moment to respond, when the car finally responds to that steering input, apply throttle again to get yourself out of trouble.
In some cases, even these steps and skills will not get you out of trouble, and even the best drivers can get caught up in large accidents like the one from this weekend. But it is best to be prepared, and remember that anything can happen on out on the open road. That said, Comedy Central’s Key & Peele have their own take on the subject of “black ice”: