I'm hoping that a story in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, "Black Ice, Near-Death, and Transcendence on I-91," will make people more aware of the dangers of black ice, and also reassure people like me who live in areas that don't get a lot of snow, but do regularly get black ice, that we aren't winter weenies.
(The title of the story in the print edition is "Six Skittles: the danger of black ice.")
First, the story makes clear something that it took me a while to realize after I moved to Oregon from California in 1971 and began hearing tales of black ice.
The ice isn't black. It is clear. So the color of a black roadway appears through the ice, which makes black ice a mostly hidden danger. Excerpt from story:
Black ice means any thin, clear coating of ice, without the trapped air bubbles that render thicker ice cloudy. If you take an ice cube from the tray and look at the bottommost layer, it will be clear. Black ice often forms at night, when the dew point is near freezing and the cold pavement turns moisture to ice.
John Seabrook, who wrote the story, lives in New England. He says, "Northerners know to fear black ice, but its deadly nature is not widely understood by people from more temperate regions, and figurative language doesn't help." (Again, since the ice isn't black.)
Those of us in Oregon, where winter temperatures often hover around freezing, and rain frequently falls through a colder part of the atmosphere closer to the surface (temperature inversion), producing freezing rain, learn to be wary of black ice.
My most notable experience with black ice was in central Oregon. I was driving our Volvo station wagon to a cabin in Camp Sherman that we co-owned with three other couples. A work party had been scheduled that weekend for a remodeling project.
I'd gotten off the main highway and started to head down the road that leads to charming Camp Sherman. When I got to the first curve, I realized that the car suddenly felt much different. It was like the tires were barely in contact with the pavement. What went through my head was, "If I make any sudden movements with the wheel, the brakes, the gas pedal, I'm going off the road."
It was a scary feeling.
So much so, if somehow I'd come across someone with a roadside stand that had a sign saying, "Snow tires, studded or studless, $2,000," I would have pulled out my credit card in a flash.
Since no stand of that sort appeared, I had to drive slowly and extremely carefully to the cabin. Getting off the asphalt and onto a gravel road felt marvelous. That's the thing about black ice: it's so nasty, there's a joyful feeling when you're out of its clutches.
The New Yorker story has a happy ending, thankfully. Seabrook was driving a Ford F-150 which ended up still drivable even after he'd spun off a black ice-encrusted road, narrowly missing a guardrail and a propane truck, and slammed into a snow bank.
He points out that ABS, which his truck had, is of no use if none of the wheels have traction. Ditto with all wheel drive, obviously. Seabrook says that studded tries are the only remedy for black ice, but I'm a big fan of studless winter tires, which I put on two of our three cars in mid-November.
From what I've been able to learn, modern studless snow tires perform almost as well on ice as studded tires, and they're much better on dry and wet pavement. So I figure it makes sense to use them, since mostly precipitation falls as rain here in western Oregon during the winter, not as snow or ice. Here's what Consumer Reports says about them:
Most winter tires are what we call studless, that is, there's no provision for installing metal studs to enhance grip on icy roads. Based on our past testing, studded models do indeed grip well on ice, but they do not always out-perform studless models, which have more advanced winter tread compounds that stay pliable in the cold.
Even though the two sets of snow tires are mounted on wheels, it's still sort of a pain to have a tire store mount and dismount them every year. But like I said, when you hit black ice, cost-effective thoughts fly out of the startled mind. The New Yorker story, by the way, includes considerable discussion of Seabrook's frame of mind during the few seconds it took for his accident to materialize.
Time slowed down. He felt calm. That's the source of the "Six Skittles" title -- he'd glanced at the back seat to check on his children when the accident was imminent and saw six skittles on the seat, a number that turned out to be correct.
Give the story a read. It has some scientific information about why black ice is so dangerous. Here's a sample:
Mine was garden-variety black ice. It formed the same way that the clear ice on my windshield formed. Even at higher elevations, where raindrops could be five degrees below freezing, they don’t crystallize into sleet or snow, which would be less slippery; instead, they remain in a liquid, “supercooled” state, until they “nucleate”—become ice—on striking anything hard, such as the road surface or a car.
“Warm ice” is the term used by Professor Erland Schulson, of Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering (Exit 21, Hanover, New Hampshire), for ice that is close to melting. That is the state of “most ice we encounter in the world,” he explained, when I visited his office. Melting ice with a thin layer of water on top of it is as slippery as the natural world gets—“nothing slipperier than that,” the professor said; hard frozen ice is much less slick.