Icy Road Safety: What to Do If Your Car Breaks Through the Ice

Edited by Admin
Icy Road Safety: What to Do If Your Car Breaks Through the Ice
Icy road safety tips can help to keep you safe. Learn more about what to do if you have to cross an ice road.

Icy Road Safety

Did you know that Canada has more than 5310Km of icy roads? These roads, which are created when the ice on rivers and lakes freezes hard enough to accommodate motor vehicles crossing over them, are common in northern Canada, where they become a lifeline for bringing goods into isolated communities during winter months. But most provinces have a network of icy roads (also known as “icy covers”) used during the winter by commuters, lakeside residents, and ice fishers. While accidents are relatively rare, drivers who use these roads should recognize that there are hazards inherent in this type of travel and take all necessary safety precautions.


In addition, scientists point to the climate crisis as a reason for concern. Data shows that Canada’s icy roads are freezing later and melting earlier than in previous decades, making travelling this way particularly unpredictable. Even in the dead of winter, authorities have had to close long-established icy roads for days at a time, due at least in part to more frequent storms and thawing associated with climate changes. And on average, icy roads are opening two weeks later and closing two weeks earlier than in previous decades.


It can be difficult for long-time users of icy roads to recognize that the ice is less reliable than in previous years and change their behaviour. In 2019, five vehicles went into Lake Winnipeg on a single day! Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but three people had a narrow escape when the truck they were riding in plunged cabin-first into the icy water.


Staying Safe on Icy Roads

Official icy roads are tested by provincial or territorial government workers who monitor the ice daily, testing the thickness and declaring the roads open or closed. These workers may use technology such as ground-penetrating radar that scans the ice and water below and logs the data on a laptop computer. Ice must be eight to twelve inches thick for a car to cross it safely and must be thicker for trucks and heavier vehicles. Because ice can shift and vary in thickness from spot to spot, driving on ice is never completely safe, even after being tested. Thickness is not the only safety indicator, either: ice is not all the same. For example, ice that forms when snow is falling is less pure and therefore weaker than ice that forms crystal clear. Cracks can also be an indicator of safety. A certain amount of cracking is good, since it means that the ice is flexible. However, cracks can also form due to excessive loads, snowbanks, water fluctuations, or dynamic waves, and those can mean trouble. If you suspect that the ice is weak, thawing, or that it has not been thoroughly tested, don’t drive on the surface. It’s better to be safe than sorry!


If you feel confident that the ice is safe enough for your vehicle, roll your windows down slightly before driving onto the icy surface. In case the vehicle does plunge into the water, the window provides the best escape route, since water pressure can keep the doors from opening. Experts also recommend removing your seatbelt during the time it takes to cross the ice. Should you need to escape the vehicle, this will save time.


What to Do If the Ice Breaks


Despite taking precautions, you may find yourself in a situation where the vehicle goes through the ice and into the frigid water below. This is a life-threatening situation, so be prepared to act quickly and decisively. Here are some measures to take if it happens to you:

  • Don’t panic. You will need to focus all of your energy and attention on survival. There’s no time for panicking. Do not stop to try to call 911. Odds of survival increase if you can get out of the car within the first 60 seconds.
  • Lower the window. As quickly as you can, lower the window as far as it will go and exit the car.
  • Swim to unbroken ice. The temperature of the frigid water will numb your body, making it difficult to swim, so as quickly as you can, get to an unbroken patch of ice. Kick rapidly and focus on your destination.
  • Use your upper body. Once you reach the ice, use your elbows as support and pull yourself carefully up and over the edge of the ice. Do not stand up!
  • Roll. Roll carefully away from the open water and onto solid ground or more solid ice.
  • Stay as warm as possible. Find shelter or some way to keep yourself as warm as you can until help arrives. Hypothermia can set in very quickly and can have serious consequences.
  • Call for help. As soon as you can, contact help, whether that is 911 or a friend who can take you to shelter.
  • Contact policy and insurance company. Let policy know what happened and contact your insurance company about the accident.
  • Talk to a personal injury lawyer. If you have been injured during the ordeal, contact a personal injury lawyer to learn more about your options.


Enjoy winter and all its pleasures -- but stay safe on the ice!