Black Ice: What It Is and How to Handle It

driving in icy winter conditions

Keep your eyes out for black ice. Picture this. You’re driving your car on a northern highway in British Columbia. It’s just before 8 am on a frosty February morning. While the road appears bare, you do notice snow along the side of the highway as you drive.

Should be clear sailing – right? Don’t be so sure.

This is exactly when you should be on the lookout for black ice, so don’t let your winter driving guard down just yet. Even though our maintenance contractors are out on BC highways, day and night, doing their part to keep travellers safe – it’s your job to slow down, drive to winter conditions and always expect the unexpected.

What exactly is black ice?

Black ice is a thin coat of glazed ice on a surface. And it isn’t black – it’s actually clear, but it takes on a dark colouring from the pavement below it. Because it is so thin, it is often invisible to the human eye.

Black ice can form in many ways but the most common way is from melting snow on or beside the road. After a winter storm, when temperatures climb above freezing during the day, snow will melt into water. Add another sharp dip in temperatures later in the afternoon or during the night and any standing water will freeze into black ice.

Where is it most likely to form?

Be extra vigilant while travelling on roads that don’t get much sunshine, like the floor of a mountain valley or along a tree lined street. Bridges and overpasses cool from above and below and freeze much faster than other parts of the road. Even water vapour from rivers and streams can, under the right conditions, freeze into black ice on the roadway.

Our highway maintenance contractor for Central and North Vancouver Island, Mainroad, produced these educational videos explaining what black ice is and how they deal with it for traveller safety.

What to do if you hit black ice

Stay calm. Keep the steering wheel straight and DO NOT hit the brakes. Instead, ease off the gas pedal and if you can – shift into a lower gear to gain more control. Steer the car in the direction you want it to go.

What to do if you lose control on black ice

If you have to brake, try to brake as little as possible. If your car has an anti-lock braking system, put your foot firmly down on the brake and the car will pump the brakes as you skid; if you don’t have ABS, pump the brakes lightly. Another tip while driving during winter conditions – avoid cruise control. Using cruise can actually make you lose control. Not a good thing.

How do our maintenance contractors tackle black ice?

Our maintenance contractors monitor road and weather conditions 24/7. If they see conditions in the forecast that can create black ice, they hit the road with a variety of anti-icing tools to battle it including: salt and sand – even beet juice! We’ll do whatever it takes to keep the travelling public safe and black ice is no exception.

So, there you have it: black ice de-mystified. Safe travels out there!

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Page 1 of 26 comments on “Black Ice: What It Is and How to Handle It”

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  1. I have learned a lot. One thing I did not know was sometimes when you hit black ice your car stops we started ours again about 3 mins later. I never even thought of that and we were able to drive it out of the way of other vehicles before they hit our vehicle.

  2. An old seasoned truck driver said foot of gas, to shift into neutral which gives you better steering control while steering
    into the skid. This article says foot off gas, shift into a
    lower gear and steer, but nothing about shifting into
    neutral. Is that a good idea or not.

    • Hi Mary David – thanks for your question. If you drive a standard vehicle you could keep the car in neutral to gain control of the vehicle over the ice but the benefit is marginal and we recommend keeping your car in gear to assist with maneuvering the vehicle once you have passed over the icy spot. Hope this is helpful.

  3. Where can i make a suggestion for a “Watch for Black Ice” or “Road Ices” sign? There is a particularly dangerous hairpin turn on West Coast Road that caught me and several other drivers off guard yesterday because the air temperature was well above freezing but the corner was still covered with black ice until 1:30 in the afternoon with an 8 degree Celsius air temperature. The hairpin turn is at the bottom of a steep descent between two ridges and being well shaded in a frost hollow beside a Loss Creek makes the location the most ideal location for ice to form as I have ever seen and it is very localized and dangerous. There was no precipitation the night before just water vapour from the creek had coated everything in ice. Additionally, there is no cell service in the location so I after standing on the roadside and warning several drivers for an hour I went to the next town to call for a tow for a stranded vehicle there. When I got to town the woman at the service station told me there were several accidents in that same location the day before also.

    • Hi there Matthew – thanks for connecting with us here. We have shared your concern with our staff in the area. They have asked if you could share a link (google maps coordinate url would be great) of the precise location near Loss Creek. Thanks!

  4. I hit black ice once driving like an idiot in a 4×4 pickup thinking I was invincible. Of course I did everything wrong and thankfully hurt no one. I re-evaluated my driving from that day forward and will never forget.

    • Hi Jim – thanks for your question. Just to clarify – are you asking if we (the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure) are responsible, the person doing the water pumping, or the driver involved in the accident are liable?

  5. black ice should not be on the highways because sand is still available and must be applied ahead of any freezing condition and all contractors need a thermometer on board so there is pre warning of the freezing event and the price of a load of sand is prevention of a major accident worth injuries and or death our system should be tied to ICBC accident so the true cost of accident is known applying $ 2000.00 worth of sand to prevent a 2 .3 million dollar accident is a great investment and lessen and lessen pain and suffering

    • Hi Robert,

      Our maintenance contractors across the province monitor weather and road conditions and work proactively with sand and de-icing agents to keep BC highways safe for all travellers.

        • Hello Linda,

          Thanks for your message. Have you shared your concerns about Highway 18 with the maintenance contractor directly? They are responsible for logging incoming messages and this helps us with our monitoring and auditing of their performance.

      • The highway maintenance in and around Castlegar-Trail-Rossland-Fruitvale needs to be investigated thoroughly. There has been many avoidable accidents for at least 5 years now due to poor road conditions. No or next to no sand or salt. I don’t understand why ICBC has not had some input for the contractors that maintains these highways.

        • Hi Joanne,
          We can’t speak to the factors that may have caused crashes. The maintenance contractor that services that area is Yellowhead Road & Bridge (YRB). We do audits regularly to determine of the maintenance contractors are meeting their requirements as well. Do you have a specific example (location, timeframe)? It would help us follow up more than generalities.

  6. I hit black ice recently and within seconds shot across the hwy. I managed to get the car under control after crossing the centre line several times. So should I have applied my brakes. I do have a 2010 with ABS brakes?

    • Hi Kathy,

      Braking should be avoided if at all possible. It sounds like you were able to regain control of your vehicle which we were glad to hear. Taking your foot off the gas steering the car in the direction you want it to go are the best steps to take.

  7. The advice on what to do if you encounter black ice is confusing. The first piece of advice advises the driver not to touch the brakes, while the second piece discusses the proper use of anti-lock brakes and black ice. Since every car sold for the past several years must be equipped with ABS braking systems, I think the advice of not touching the brakes, which applies to old style purely manual brakes, has become outdated.

    • Thanks for your feedback Robert. You are correct – modern cars do come equipped with ABS brakes, however; there are still vehicles travelling on BC highways without them and in order to provide useful information to all travellers, we presented both scenarios. Better safe than sorry 🙂 Regarding our advice on braking – braking should only be done if easing off the accelerator does not help you regain control of your car. Hope that this helps.

  8. I wonder if it might be good to rewrite the paragraph on What do to if you skid on black ice?

    Would it be better to say:

    If your car has an anti-lock braking system, put your foot firmly down on the brake and the car will pump the brakes as you skid. Remember that if you use ABS you are trading some ability to steer for increased braking.

    If you don’t have ABS, brake as little as possible and pump the brakes lightly. Steer the car in the direction you want it to go.

    Another tip while driving during winter conditions – avoid cruise control. Using cruise can actually make you lose control. Not a good thing.