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                Friday, December 6, 2013 - 2:33PM

The Top 7 Icy Road Myths

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These are the most common myths about icy roads I see in various places, including forum discussions, media articles, video comments and more:

The Top 7 Icy Road Myths

Myth #1: Most serious icy road crashes are caused by careless drivers.

While it is true that some accidents on icy roads are the result of drivers not exercising due care in the face of a visually apparent hazard, the actual data shows that many cannot be classified this way. The reports show that it is everyday people, like you and me, who are driving at normal speeds when they suddenly and unexpectedly encounter ice and crash. Most of the more serious accidents result from drivers who were not operating their vehicles in a careless manner, but had no advance warning of an icing hazard being present before they encountered it. This is especially true for bridge icing, which will have few visual indicators until the driver is about to cross the bridge.

There is also currently not a high level of awareness of exactly how dangerous the road ice threat to life and property really is. It is viewed as, and often portrayed as by official sources and the media, a 'travel nusiance' that is simply an inconvenience for the motorist.

Myth #2: I'm a good driver, and I have the skill and experience to drive highway speeds in ice and snow conditions.

No one has the skill to drive at normal highway speeds on icy roads. A factor in many of the serious and fatal crashes is overconfidence in one's abilities and/or equipment (traction control, antilock brakes, stability control, winter tires). Some feel that they have sufficient experience in winter driving, and can therefore continue normally (at or above the speed limit). But a fishtail on ice that occurs at highway speeds is usually unrecoverable by even the most quick-witted and experienced drivers. A person who enters a high-speed slide will quickly learn that it is something they can't handle - but all too late.

Any time you drive above 45mph on icy roads, your vehicle enters a highly unstable state on the brink of loss of control. At that point, all that is needed is some type of trigger to set in motion a loss of control sequence that you will most likely not be able to recover. That trigger can be a slight steering motion, a lane change, a gust of wind from a passing truck, a tap of the brakes or a push of the accelerator. Even below 45mph, the loss of control potential exists (namely with black ice) - the difference is at lower speeds, the chance of you leaving the roadway is reduced, and if you do hit something, the impact is less likely to cause serious injuries.

Read more on this topic: No vehicle can safely go highway speeds on icy roads

Myth #3: Winter tires, 4WD, AWD, stability control, ABS and/or traction control allow for safe travel on icy roads at highway speeds.

The reality is that there is no technology, no tire nor any vehicle type that allows SAFE travel on any type of icy road (snow, sleet or freezing rain) at speeds greater than 45mph. Not traction control, electronic stability control, 4WD, AWD, antilock brakes or the most expensive brand-new snow tires. While all of those safety features will improve a vehicle's handling and control to some degree, they do not eliminate the danger of losing control at highway speeds over 45mph* in any type of road icing condition (more severe types of icing may require slower speeds!).

Infographic: No vehicle or driver is immune to icy roads!
Infographic (click to enlarge): No vehicle or driver is immune to icy roads!

Nearly all of the icy road accident fatalities I have documented have involved vehicles traveling at or above 45mph*, with the vast majority occurring on interstates or rural two-lane highways. Many, if not most, of these vehicles were equipped with some or all of the modern-day safety equipment and features. I have personally witnessed, and captured on video (see it yourself), modern vehicles equipped with good tires, traction control, AWD and/or 4WD crashing on icy roads.

The general driving public has been poorly informed about this critical point. Most assume that icy road accidents are caused by either an inexperienced or reckless driver, or a vehicle with bad/worn tires. Advertisements for tires and vehicles with new safety technologies are misleading, showing cars speeding through snow with ease. This certainly is a contributing factor to road ice accident numbers, implicitly suggesting that the product allows a the driver to continue normally in icy conditions without a reduction in speed.

It all boils down to the laws of physics, specifically the coefficient of friction between rubber and ice. No tread pattern or computer program will change this fundamental law of nature. Driving above 45mph* on icy roads is beyond the limitations of anything currently available to prevent a vehicle from fishtailing, oversteering, understeering or slowing/stopping on an incline.

*45mph is the UPPER LIMIT for icy roads - some more severe types of icing may require slower speeds! You can slide off of the road in some types of icing at 5mph, or even when completely stopped.

Read more: Winter tires: Myths and Facts >
Read more: No vehicle can safely go highway speeds on icy roads >

Myth #4: Everyone should buy winter tires - that would prevent most icy road accidents.

While winter tires certainly do improve traction and handling to some degree during snowy conditions, they do not allow a vehicle to safely travel at normal highway speeds when roads are icy (see the previous myth). Most fatal accidents happen at high speeds, a condition that is beyond the limits of winter tires to completely prevent a loss of control.

Winter tires

The regions with some of the highest icy road injury and death incidence are places that see only a handful of winter precipitation events each season - in some cases, only 2 or 3 days per year (such as the southern states in the US). Furthermore, in warm weather, winter tires wear quickly and have worse handling characteristics during rainy weather. So, in locations where icy roads are seen only a few days a year, it isn't practical or economical for all drivers in these regions to buy winter tires.

Read more: Winter tires: Myths and Facts >
Read more: Road ice risk zones: Plains, Midwest rank highest >

Myth #5: The worst icy road dangers are during big winter storms.

The road ice hazard isn't the minor fender-benders or slide-offs common during snowstorms. The real danger is the serious, highway-speed crashes during light icing events that take drivers by surprise.

When a major snowstorm hits, communities are typically highly aware and prepared for the event prior to its impacts. Schools and workplaces close. Highways officials close many of the high-speed roads, including the interstates, that are the usual spots for fatal icy road accidents. When the storm is in progress, the sheer amount of snow prevents vehicles from easily reaching the speeds that are often associated with fatal accidents. Most accidents in snowstorms happen at the onset of the storm or on its fringes, where accumulations are lower.

Accident scene during light snow

Snow accounts for the most icy road fatalities during the winter, but it is the minor events - from a dusting to a couple of inches of accumulation - that cause the most serious snow-related accident outbreaks. That little dusting at morning rush hour - the one that never makes the news until after it's caused chaos - are the ones to watch out for. With minor snowfalls, people tend to be in 'business as usual' mode, not as aware of the hazards as they'd be for a big storm.

Read more on this topic:
The road ice hazard defined: what it is, and isn't >
Big snowstorms are low-risk icy road events >

Myth #6: Salt, sand and plow truck crews are there to make roads safe for high-speed travel during snow and ice conditions, 100% of the time.

DOT salt and plow crews exist to keep roads passable during ice and snow conditions. They cannot be everywhere at once, and icy patches are still a threat even with rigorous plowing and salting. A treated and plowed road is nonetheless still not safe at highway speeds. Patches of ice are common on treated roads, and during heavier precipitation, treated roads can re-ice quickly.


It is never safe to travel at normal highway speeds during icy conditions, even with the best salting and plowing crews.

Myth #7: Icy roads are a bigger threat in colder climates where ice and snow is common.

The fatality and death rates per mile and per hour of winter precipitation events are actually higher in regions that only see a handful of snow and ice events each year.

Read more on this topic: Road ice risk zones: Plains, Midwest rank highest >

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The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:

An icy road danger that is common in Montana occurs when there is a sudden warm up (chinook) after a period of extreme cold. If the dew point temperature rises above the pavement temperature, the road will become frosty and icy. This can occur with bare ground (no snow cover). Occasionally, it will contribute to a high number of accidents.
- Posted by Greg Forrester from Glasgow, MT
I'm well aware that bridge surfaces freeze before roadways, but I'm wondering why icy patches form UNDER overpasses when the rest of the highway is simply wet.
- Posted by Phlup from Michigan
I am sure that you have created this website with all good intent, but you fail to mention probably THE most important step in preventing total loss of control in a skid .... BEFORE braking, select NEUTRAL (auto) or depress clutch (manual / stick shift). There are many videos that clearly show front wheels locked and rear wheels still turning under engine power, with inevitable expensive results.
- Posted by Mike Sugar from Hampshire, UK
very good information,thanks
- Posted by jorge mansilla from fl
I didn't see tire chains mentioned at all. Big oversight. Also, some of the "facts" aren't. For instance you say that sliding or skidding always means you were going too fast. I've had slides from a standing still position, with NO movement at all until gravity took over. However if I had been moving fast enough in the right direction, my momentum would have prevented the slide. Those "always" and "never" statements are USUALLY false.
- Posted by Jeff from south

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Past Blog Archives
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Educational Winter Driving Videos - Watch for Free:

Video: How to correct a slide on an icy road (and how to prevent them)Video: Icy Bridges: Weather's underrated killerVideo: Deadliest Weather: Freezing Rain

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