Black Ice


DATE: 12/30/2009


REFERENCE: FMCSA Driver Training – "Driving Too Fast for Conditions"


How the Incident Occurred

A beautiful sunny winter day melted away the snow but it quickly re-froze as the sun went down causing a treacherous condition known as "black ice" on a hilly Midwestern rural highway. Unfortunately, an unsuspecting motorist failed to recognize this hazard before losing control of his passenger car as it rounded a curve and he crashed into the right guardrail. A nearby police officer pulled in behind the disabled motorist and stopped to assist. With his emergency lights on, he exited the squad car. As he attended to the crash site, a tractor trailer rounded the same curve at approximately 65 – 70 mph. The truck driver swerved to the left and applied heavy braking, causing his rig to jackknife on the black ice. The rear of his trailer swung to the right and struck the squad car (similar to a bat hitting a baseball) knocking it forward into the passenger car.

Injury/Damage Information

Both the police officer and motorist suffered severe life-threatening injuries and were emergency life-lined for treatment. Although both victims survived, the police officer sustained permanently disabling injuries. Both the squad car and passenger car were totaled. After jackknifing, the truck slid into a bridge railing, rupturing the fuel tank. Escaping diesel fuel contaminated a waterway and resulted in significant environmental remediation, citations and subsequent fines. The uninjured truck driver was cited for failure to maintain control of his vehicle. Since this was his third serious violation conviction, his CDL was suspended for 120 days.

Causative factors

  • The ultimate causes of this collision were the failure of both the auto driver and the professional truck driver to recognize the black ice condition caused by the thawing and re-freezing of winter snow.

  • The truck driver failed to adjust his speed and was driving too fast for conditions.

  • The area was known for black ice conditions - the truck driver had observed at least four vehicles in the ditch just prior to the accident scene.

  • Although he was experienced driving in winter weather conditions, the truck driver had become over-confident in his abilities and underestimated the treacherous black ice conditions before it was too late.

  • His sudden lane change in combination with brake application on the icy road caused the tractor trailer to jackknife to the right and the trailer to lose traction on the black ice.

  • Because of his inappropriate speed, as he rounded the curve and observed the prior accident, he was unable to respond in a safe and appropriate manner. As a result, the driver, in spite of his many years of experience, panicked and took inappropriate actions that resulted in this tragedy.

Remedial actions

  • Adjust speed to conditions. 65 mph is safe only in perfect driving conditions.

  • As darkness falls, reduce speed by at least 5 – 10 mph.

  • In wet conditions (rain, mist, melting snow, etc), reduce speed at least 5 – 10 mph.

  • In winter weather (temperature below 40° F), reduce speed at least 5 – 10 mph.

  • Recognize that hazards may be present beyond vision barriers such as hills, curves, road markers and terrain features that obstruct vision. To compensate, reduce speed at least 5 – 10 mph.

  • With all four conditions present, you should be travelling at least 20 – 40 mph slower than ideal conditions, putting your maximum safe rate of speed at 25 – 45 mph. In this instance, travelling at 65 – 70 mph, the driver was going more than twice the recommended safe rate of speed.

  • Be aware of black ice conditions during winter driving, particularly at early evening, at dusk, on overpasses and bridges, while exiting from underpasses and tunnels and especially when rounding highway curves or cresting hills.

  • Be aware of existing causative factors. Recognize that other accidents in the vicinity are a dead giveaway that, unless you are adjusting to the conditions, you are likely to become involved in the same, or worse collision as other motorists who have failed to drive professionally.

  • Minor vehicle defects become even more critical during extreme winter weather conditions. Be sure tires, brakes, lighting, steering, wipers, coolants, emergency equipment and other safety devices are functioning safely throughout the winter while conducting pre/post trips inspections.

  • Never become overconfident in your driving abilities. Recognize that you are not in control of 99% of the critical elements that affect yours, and others’ safety. All we can do is remain vigilant and constantly adjust to present driving conditions. Any collision involving loss of control of the vehicle brings us to the sobering reality that we are not in control of the vehicle – it is actually in control of us!