Spring is in the air, and that means flowers are blooming, birds are singing and cars are flying off the roadways because drivers got overly confident after the winter ice started to melt.
As winter gives way to longer days and more sunshine, many parts in the country are thawing out after months-long freezes. More and more people will be getting back to normal, non-snowy driving. But if you're in an area that experiences heavy winters and hard, icy conditions, things may not be completely safe yet.
With the ice beginning to melt, the roads are full of new hazards. That could include water on the roads, a slushy mix of ice and dirt, limited visibility and even grime from other vehicles. It's critical to watch out for these things because all of them could potentially cause an accident. In addition, the icy weather may not be going away just yet, which could lead to surprisingly challenging conditions on the road.
We've compiled a list of 5 hazards to watch out for when the roads start to thaw. The weather may be getting warmer, but your fellow citizens aren't getting any better at driving, so keep these in mind when you're making spring plans.
Potholes are an irritating inconvenience that can damage your car's suspension and throw off its alignment. Unfortunately, you may hit plenty more of them when things start to thaw out during the spring.
This time of year is more prone to potholes because when snow thaws, the water seeps into the cracks in the pavement. This softens the gravel, and if it freezes again it expands, cracks and breaks, causing potholes to form.
What's even worse is that potholes are very hard to fix during this time of year. The asphalt mix used during the winter months is a "cold mix" that does not harden like the "hot mix" used during the summer. That means that some potholes have to be filled and re-filled several times until the temperatures warm up for good.
So what can you do about potholes? Not much, really -- besides trying to avoid them when you see them coming, that is. Not only can they damage your car, they can also cause accidents.
Water on the Roads
The problem we just mentioned -- water from melted snow -- is just as much of an issue on the surface of the road as it is when it seeps into the asphalt. With the snow and ice starting to thaw out, that water will stick around and make the roads slippery. Spring showers won't be helping things much either.
Watch out for the roads to be extra wet this season. As always, drive with caution on days when there will be a lot of water on the roads, and try to avoid large puddles -- you never know if one of them is covering a huge pothole that's lurking beneath the surface. Also, try to avoid splashing other drivers with water. You don't want their vision being obscured by dirty water either, as this could lead to an accident.
This is also a good time of year to make sure your tires are in good condition, and to swap out those old winter tires with all-season ones if you need to.
In addition, while things are starting to thaw out, there's no guarantee temperatures won't drop again. That means you need to be mindful of ice on the road as well. Keep your winter driving skills in mind and take things slowly, and do your best to avoid black ice on the road.
You know that gross, gray, sludgy mix of snow and dirt that forms on the side of the roads when the ice starts to melt? That slush can create serious problems when you're driving, and it's very different from driving in ice and snow.
While driving on snow and ice usually means proceeding carefully so your tires don't slip, slush is grabby and can suddenly slow your car down. Way down. Slush can also grab at your tires and make lane changing a difficult operation. Remember to drive extra slowly in and around slush, and don't panic if you lose control of the car; stay calm and regain control by lifting off the accelerator or gently applying your brakes.
Another problem with slush is that it can accumulate on your windshield, which blocks your vision. Sometimes you'll have to pull over to wash it off because your windshield wipers simply won't cut it. Slush along with dirt, grease and chemicals from the roads can also accumulate on the bottom of your car and cause corrosion. So make sure you're keeping your car properly clean during these conditions.
The Thaw-Freeze Cycle
You thought that with spring on the horizon, the freezing winter conditions were over, right? Well, that's not always the case.
Weather patterns fluctuate as the seasons start to change, and so there's no guarantee that things won't freeze over again before they get permanently warmer. This is known as the thaw-freeze cycle, and it's not an uncommon occurrence for things to warm up during the day and then freeze again at night.
This constant thawing and re-freezing can be a big contributor to so-called "black ice," which is nearly transparent and therefore hard to spot when driving. This makes driving on bridges and overpasses especially dangerous because they are so prone to overnight freezing.
So what do you do when it's constantly freezing and thawing out, and the ice is hard to spot? Reduce your speed and keep a safe distance from other motorists, for one. Also, know the conditions on the roadways before you set off on your trip. In addition, know the limits of your vehicle and don't try to exceed them.
Improperly Maintained Vehicles
The winter months can be pretty hard on our cars. All the ice, water, cold temperatures and bumpy roads can be bad for engines, suspensions, tires and more. After a long winter comes to an end, it's a good idea to inspect and replace a few things on your vehicle. With any luck, other motorists will do the same, because a vehicle that isn't properly maintained is just as dangerous as inclement weather.
First and foremost, replace your windshield wipers. Those should be replaced every six months or so anyway, so now is a great time to do it after they've seen a lot of use during the winter. Worn out wiper blades aren't able to clear water and dirt off your windshield, blocking your vision and making driving unsafe.
Next, wash your car carefully. This may seem like a purely cosmetic move, but it's important to remove all the built up snow, salt and chemicals from the roadway that might have accumulated on and underneath your vehicle. These things can cause corrosion and lead you to a premature trip to the body shop.
Check your brakes and tires for excessive wear. Those also tend to take a lot of abuse when the weather is bad, so make sure your tread isn't too worn and replace your brake pads and rotors if necessary.
Finally, check all your fluid levels and make sure everything under the hood is in proper working order. You don't know what might have happened to your engine during the cold months, so now is a good time to find out before you get left on the side of the road.
HowStuffWorks talks with some scientists to find out whether to drive around until you find a close parking spot or take the first thing you see.
Author's Note: 5 Hazards to Watch for When the Roads Start to Thaw
I live in a part of the country that rarely sees winter freezes, let alone thaws. As such, I didn't have much personal experience in how to drive in such conditions, so I actually learned a lot from writing this article. If you live in an area affected by harsh winters, just remember to drive safely and keep your vehicle in proper working order. Or you could move to Texas where you'll never have to deal with any of that, because we consider "cold" to be anything below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) -- and it generally never rains.
- Top 10 Car Winterizing Tips
- 10 Most Dangerous Distracted Driving Habits
- 5 Things You Can Do to Make Your Car Safer for Driving in Foul Weather
- 5 Common Mistakes You Should Avoid While Driving in the Snow
- 5 Completely Wrong Ways to Drive in the Fog
- 5 Completely Wrong Ways to Drive in the Rain
- How Road Rage Works
- How Crash Testing Works
- MotorTrendCertified.com. "Common spring road hazards." (March 13, 2012) http://www.motortrendcertified.com/article.php?id=800724056
- StreetDirectory.com. "Time for Spring Vehicle Maintenance!" (March 15, 2012) http://www.streetdirectory.com/travel_guide/58423/car_repairs/time_for_spring_vehicle_maintenance.html
- Towne, Leigh Anne. "Potholes Already Causing Problems." Fox17Online.com. Jan. 27, 2012. (March 12, 2012) http://www.fox17online.com/news/fox17-freeze-and-thaw-cycle-affecting-roads-potholes-posing-problems-20120127,0,5360692.story
- Washington State Department of Transportation. "Tips for slush driving." Dec. 24, 2008. (March 15, 2012) http://wsdotblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/tips-for-slush-drivinggood-stuff.html
- Virginia Department of Transportation. "Thaw-freeze cycle begins." Jan. 31, 2010. (March 15, 2012) http://www.virginiadot.org/newsroom/lynchburg/2010/thaw-freeze_cycle_begins44850.asp