The Hazard of Black Ice and How it Might Impact Your Personal Injury Case

Winter weather poses many challenges for drivers, and perhaps the most dangerous of them all is black ice.

What is black ice and how is it formed?

Black ice is a slippery, hard-to-spot, and potentially deadly road hazard that can be found anywhere that cold temperatures and precipitation mix.

“The biggest danger [with black ice] is that you are at the mercy of your vehicle and the ice until your car passes over it,” said Julie Lee, vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety.

Black ice is particularly an issue in Virginia where the weather may be too warm for snow, but the ground temperature is cold enough to convert rain or sleet into ice.  The ground temperature can cause the precipitation to freeze upon impact, thus creating ice. Black ice can also be created from sleet or the refreezing of snow or water.

Black ice gets its name because it blends in with the color of the pavement. “It’s called black ice because it tends to look like the rest of the pavement on the road, but it’s actually clear,” Lee said. This makes black ice extremely difficult to spot.

The best way to prepare for when roads are likely to be icy is to know when, where and how black ice forms. Black ice most often forms when temperatures are the lowest, typically between sunset and sunrise. Pay attention to your car’s thermometer to determine whether the temperature is below freezing and prone to the formation of black ice.

During the day, the best thing to do before getting in your vehicle is to look at the pavement. “If the pavement is dry but you are seeing spots of pavement that look dark and glossy, that is probably going to be black ice,” Lee said.

Black ice is particularly hard to see in the dark, so it is important to know the conditions before traveling.

Common sites for black ice are tree-covered driveways or roadways since the lack of sunlight can cause lower temperatures. Because of their tendency to freeze quickly, bridges and overpasses are also prime locations.

Tips for driving on black ice

While driving on black ice can be similar to driving on snow, the biggest difference between the two is the amount of traction the vehicle maintains on snow as compared to black ice. “With snow, there is still some traction; whereas on ice, there is no traction—and that’s where it becomes very dangerous,” Lee said. Due to a vehicle’s lack of traction on ice, the basic rule for driving on black ice is to stay calm and let the vehicle pass over it, according to Lee.

  • Keep at least a 5-second following distance from the vehicle in front of you. It takes twice as long to stop on black ice as on any other surface.
  • Do not slam the brakes. Hitting the breaks hard can result in loss of traction and lead to skidding. Instead, hold your steering wheel steady. Do not overcorrect if you feel your car sliding.
  • Be careful in the early morning after ice has formed from colder overnight temperatures.
  • Take extra care on bridges, overpasses, and tunnels. Black ice can form on these surfaces even when other parts of the roadway are clear.

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How can black ice impact your personal injury case?

Regardless of the weather, every driver in Virginia has a duty to drive their vehicle in a manner consistent with the conditions on the roadway. Even if the speed limit permits it, a driver should not drive faster than the road conditions allow. A driver who ignores the conditions of the roadway and causes an accident is liable for any damage caused.

But what if the driver hit me because he slid on black ice?

Winter weather contributes to a lot of driving accidents, and sometimes drivers try to blame the weather to avoid taking responsibility for causing an accident. Because drivers have a duty to be aware of the road conditions and tailor their driving to the conditions of the road, do not simply accept the weather excuse when you are injured in an accident. Consult a lawyer before assuming that the other driver is not at fault because of black ice.

Fortunately, Virginia limits the circumstances under which an at-fault driver can use the weather as an excuse. In 2009, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that judges should not instruct a jury that some accidents are simply “unavoidable.” (See, Hancock-Underwood v. Knight, 277 Va. 127 (2009)). Before this ruling, some at-fault drivers tried to get away with their actions by claiming to the jury that an accident could not be avoided. The opportunity to rely on that excuse is now very limited.

Some drivers who caused a collision try to claim that they were confronted with a “sudden emergency” due to inclement weather conditions and should not be blamed for causing the accident. Again, the Supreme Court of Virginia has limited this excuse. (See, Hancock-Underwood v. Knight, 277 Va. 127 (2009)). If a road condition is foreseeable—meaning the particular condition is something that could be expected on the roadways—then it is not a sudden emergency. Since ice and snow are to be expected in winter driving, it would be very difficult for someone to claim that skidding on ice in those conditions is a “sudden emergency.” That driver should have been operating his vehicle in a manner consistent with the likelihood that there was ice on the roadway, which could have included driving slower, leaving more space between vehicles, and driving more cautiously.

The lesson from this is that every driver has to adapt his driving to the conditions of the road and cannot rely upon excuses like black ice and other wintry conditions to avoid taking responsibility for causing an accident. Because the facts of every case are different, you should consult with an attorney before simply accepting an excuse based on wintry driving conditions.