Road Salting for Ice and Snow as a Prevention for Car Accidents

After Tornadoes and floods as the deadliest weather hazards across the United States, winter car crashes are being considered as a serious danger caused due to the uncontrolled weather conditions by killing a greater number of Americans every year. According to an analysis of transportation data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Auto Insurance Center, an average of about 800 Americans died a year in car wrecks because of snow, freezing rain, sleet or ice from the year 2011 to 2015. 

Ohio is the state with the highest number of winter car crashes with an average of 86 accidents per years and more than 420 deaths in the past 5-7 years. Being a standard effective practice for clearing the roads in the winters with heavy snowfall and bitter cold, road salting is playing a vital role in melting down the ice and snow causing these severe crashes. The science behind using salt as the de-icing agent is that it helps in lowering the freezing point of the water through a process called freezing point depression, by which the salt brings down the ability of water to freeze. Adding to this, it is also the most affordable method for de-icing as it costs only about $50 for a ton of rock salt. Does the road salt really effective in treating the road surfaces? Does it have any negative impact on the cars and environment? How safe is the salt to the road pavement and infrastructure? Is snow on roadway the only cause for winter crashes? Do the road authorities need to think of alternative precautions for road crashes in snow? Is Salting road the only step to be taken by the DOT? With much speculation, this topic has become a very curious argument. But I feel that rock salt even after being the most effective and affordable de-icing agent, has a negative impacts in the long run which needs to be considered as a serious concern. We also needs to think of the other causes of accidents that happen in winter like speeding, continuous snowfall and take necessary precautions to avoid the crashes.

All the salt that has been spread over the roads get melted and scattered. This salt usually gets dissolved and broken into sodium and chloride ions which are carried away by the runoff and combines with surface water or ground water. The DOT only see salt as an immediate solution for road clearance but doesn’t look into the excessive salt content in the water logged which further implies an extra cost with the desalination process while purifying the water. It also doesn’t consider the damage that caused by salt to the vegetation besides the roadway by raising the pH of the soil and making it less fertile. It can also inhibit the intake of a plant’s nutrients and sometimes end up killing the plant. It can indirectly effect the eco-system as the chloride highly affects the aquatic life. Sometimes the excessive content of salt in water doesn’t allow the circulation of water as the density of water becomes more and it tends to settle down which prevents the oxygen to penetrate deeper into the ponds and that makes the creatures die underwater. Application of salt attracts animals to come along the roadways , ending up with collisions with traffic killing them. Analysing all these impacts, Canada has categorized road salt as a toxic chemical and minimized its usage by setting up some new guidelines.

'It chemically turns that ice back into water so that the car tires can then reach the pavement for traction, instead of just sliding on top of the ice,'. This was said by the Manager of Vehicle Services at Firestone Complete AutoCare Joe Roger. But this is what it does for a short term goal. But, we have to broadly think of the impact it is creating on the condition of the vehicles in future. Corrosion can take a toll in this case. Free-floating ions of the road salt gets in contact with the metal parts of the vehicle. These ions are further combined with the oxygen and carbon dioxide which comes as a result of water precipitation. Rust starts forming through this reaction which usually goes unnoticed as most of the metal parts of a vehicle are exposed underneath the vehicle body. Rusting of certain parts of a car can lead to a slew of problems ranging from hydraulic brake system leaks to subframe damage. Most of the drivers are unaware of this horrifying fact about salt.

It is believed that salt does not affect the pavement by creating potholes as the hot-mix asphalt pavement is made in a way to resist the freeze-thaw cycle, so they doesn’t get damaged by salt. But road salt can also damage bridges, parking garages, railroads and other infrastructure facilities by corrosion of the steel reinforcement. Despite the mandatory protection of rebars with an epoxy coating, waterproofing membranes and deck overlays in all the construction suggested by the Federal Highway Administration, road salt still manages to corrode the infrastructure across the roadways.

Despite of all the disadvantages of using road salt for melting snow, many states still support the use of it by looking at the positive impacts it has. A study by the Marquette University on the highway accidents in the snow stated that road salt has reduced crashes by 88%, injuries by 85% and accident costs by 85%. There is also a severe drop in the number of fatalities caused by snowing.

It is definitely undeniable that salt is the most effective agent in preventing accidents. Based on a study from the American Highway Users Alliance, there is a reduction of 20% in road crashed for a betterment of 10% in the pavement surface friction created by salt. Salt also improves the fuel economy which is due to the better tire traction. However, road salt prevents the snow from sticking to the road by creating a brine layer between them and making it easy to remove the snow and increase the traffic flow.

Considering all the proc and cons of road salt, I have come to a conclusion. The DOT of every state should realise the dangerous effects of salt and start replacing it with alternative de-icing compounds like beet juice, sugarcane molasses, tomato juice and cheese brine or combining some percentage of those compounds with salt so that overall chlorine concentration is brought down and also done at a reasonable cost. We can also use salt smartly by applying it in an optimal way instead of just dumping the whole concentrated salt. Even Pre-salting helps in reducing the salt use by 41-75 percent as salt spread before the storm wouldn’t let ice stick to the road. Calcium chloride can also be used instead of sodium chloride as it also helps is lowering the freezing point, which doesn’t even affect the vegetation. Few of my suggestions cost more than the salt but it helps in reducing the future cost on repairing the damaged vehicles, infrastructure and mainly protects the eco-system unlike the road salt. When we broadly think about the accidents during winters, its not only the snow or ice on the road that causes all the collisions. 

07 July 2022
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