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Black ice: How to drive safely in subzero temps

It's one of the most dangerous times of year for Minnesota drivers. When temperatures plummet for days on end, the potential for black ice increases exponentially. This nearly invisible hazard contributes to deadly accidents every year. In fact, across the country, more than 100,000 people are injured each year due to winter weather conditions.

What exactly is black ice?

Put simply, it's a thin, transparent layer of ice that commonly appears in below-freezing temperatures. Black ice forms when the moisture from vehicle exhaust, warmed by friction from the tires, condenses and freezes on the pavement. It's especially common in dry conditions when temperatures dip the lowest around dawn and late evening.

Unlike snow - which is visible and provides some traction - black ice is difficult to see. During the daytime, it may appear as a darker, glossy area of pavement. At night, it becomes almost impossible to detect, especially at highway speeds.

How to stay safe on the road

When driving in the winter, you should always be aware of the potential for black ice. Follow these tips to stay safe:

  • Know where it forms: Black ice is most common on heavily trafficked bridges, overpasses, entrance and exit ramps, sharp turns and intersections. Use caution when driving in these areas.
  • Slow down: Speed and icy roadways are a deadly combination. Don't overestimate your abilities. If you're driving at night, don't overdrive your headlights.
  • Don't follow too closely: Maintaining a safe distance behind the vehicle in front of you is vital for avoiding rear-end collisions, which are common this time of year.
  • Make sure your vehicle has the right tires: Snow tires (or all-season tires) with proper tread can make it big difference when it comes to traction.
  • Don't use cruise control: It can increase your chances of losing control and delay your ability to decelerate at a time when milliseconds matter.

What to do if you hit black ice

You can't always avoid black ice. It's important to know how to avoid crashing if you do encounter it.

First, don't overreact. Take your foot off the gas immediately and keep the steering wheel straight. Swerving can easily land you in the ditch - or worse, in an oncoming lane of traffic.

Don't hit the brakes unless absolutely necessary, as doing so can cause your vehicle to skid. If you must brake, be prepared to fishtail, and stay in control by steering in the direction the rear of your car is going.

By following these tips, you can increase your chances of emerging from a black-ice encounter unscathed - or better yet, avoiding it entirely.

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