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Winter Road Safety – Insights from the Salt Institute

Road Safety Resources from The Salt Institute

These articles are taken from The Salt Institute but can no longer be found on their website. Bisnar Chase has re-published this article due to it’s relevance to keeping drivers safe in dangerous conditions.

Winter Road Safety

Winter storms endanger roadway users and paralyze economic activity. Sensible Salting keeps roads open and safe.

Highways are the arteries linking our economy and our society. But only if they are open and safe. Driving in a snowstorm increases a driver’s risk of a crash far more than driving impaired by alcohol or drugs. We need to operate our roads so that would-be highway users can be assured that they and their cargos can arrive safely within a predictable window of time. Snow and ice contribute to congestion and traffic crashes. Winter weather congestion affects 70% of U.S. roadways.

Effective snowfighting provides assured access and safe driving conditions during and after winter storm emergencies. The cost of failure is steep, both economically and in human life. Allowing impassable roads costs jobs, sales, tax revenues … and lives. Snowfighting costs for an entire season are less than economic losses from a single day of icy paralysis. Effective snowfighting cuts injury accidents by 88%. Salt is the deicer of choice for its quick action, economical cost and ease of use. Dozens of other deicer products are available, but none has matched salt’s cost-effectiveness.

To maintain traffic safety and mobility during snow and ice emergencies, highway operations agencies use rock salt, solar salt and to some degree, evaporated salt, mostly in Europe. That’s been true since the 1940s in snowbelt regions worldwide. Development of the new technique of preventive anti-icing has brought new focus on using salt to combat winter ice storms on roads in what has been considered the sunbelt.

Sodium chloride melts ice at temperatures down to its eutectic point of –6° F (-21° C). The important variable is not the air temperature in this case, but the pavement temperature. Depending on whether the storm occurs early in the season or at the end of a particularly cold period, the pavement may be warmer or colder than the air, but even in the dead of winter, pavements are more often warmer than the air. Most snowstorms occur when the air temperature is between 20° F (-7° C) and 32° F (0° C), the temperature range where salt is very effective.

Salt is used on highways in two primary strategies: (1) traditional deicing strategy accomplished by applying dry salt or prewet salt to remove snow and ice bonded to the roadway surface, considered a reactive strategy, and (2) anti-icing, the application of salt prior to the formation of a bond between ice and the roadway, usually by spraying nearly-saturated brine on the dry pavement or applying a prewet solid, considered a pro-active strategy . When sprayed on as a liquid for anti-icing, the brine dries leaving sodium chloride on the pavement and its presence slows or prevents the development of a between the snow or ice and the pavement “buying time” until further storm response can arrive. More than 40% of dry salt produced in the United States is used for highway de-icing.

How Does Road Salt Work?

Even though salt may be applied dry it does not begin its snowfighting job until it dissolves into brine. A chemist would explain the process in terms of colligative properties. The brine is a solute and the concentration of grains in the solute (in this case, salt brine) determines its freeze-point lowering potential. Any substance that dissolves in water has this effect, but each substance will have varying outcomes. While sugar or molasses can be a solute and lower water’s freezing temperature, for example, salt’s lower molecular weight gives it almost six times the effectiveness of sugar in lowering the freezing point of water – actually even more in this example since sugar isn’t an electrolyte at all. This is the same principle you use when you put antifreeze into your car’s radiator.

Salt applied as a liquid or prewet solid can begin to act immediately lowering the freezing point of water. On a pavement where the temperature is 30°F (-1° C), one pound of salt melts 46.3 pounds of ice. One inch of ice on one lane-mile of road would weigh 70 tons. To melt that much ice would take 17 tons of salt. But the objective is not to melt the snow and ice off the pavement, only to prevent or destroy the bond on the surface of the roadway between the pavement and the ice or snow. In our example lane-mile with an inch of ice, most road agencies would use 500 pounds or less, less than 2% of the amount of salt needed to melt the ice.

The objective being to prevent the bond if possible (not melt all the ice), liquids are appropriate when applied in a pre-storm anti-icing application to be in place before freezing precipitation arrives. It also explains why agencies use larger particles for application of dry salt to ice- and snowpack-covered roads since they need to have the weight and mass to bore down to the pavement where the real work is done.

The concentration of the brine and the temperature of the pavement are the key variables determining whether and how fast the salt will act. When salt dissolves in water, the resulting brine is generated at the saturation level, 25-26%, the same level as the salt crystals form in a solar saltworks. But the brine is quickly diluted by the snow or ice it contacts. As dilution proceeds, there is less salt to depress the water’s freezing point, so the freezing point will rise, assuming the temperature is unchanged. If the temperature falls, the loss of melting power accelerates. That is why intense storms may require multiple applications, to keep the brine concentration from become too dilute to do its work.

A more detailed explanation

A number of researchers have conducted experiments on particle penetration and ice disbondment characteristics of various deicers. Variables include deicer unit weight, particle size, atmospheric conditions, substrate temperature, etc.

Reaction times range from a few minutes to several tens of minutes. Data from experiments indicate the initial ice-melting reaction begins almost immediately upon application, depending on the deicer’s eutectic and the temperature of the ice, pavement, and air. Undercutting at the ice-pavement interface takes longer because the particles must penetrate the snow-ice mass to reach the pavement interface. Lower temperatures flatten the curve. For example, Nixon, et al. compared deicer penetration and ice undercutting capabilities of NaCl wetted with CaCl2 and untreated NaCl. The authors showed that NaCl penetrated ice immediately and undercut the ice in 5-6 minutes at a temperature of 10 ºF (–12.2 ºC). Their work indicates that NaCl wetted with CaCl2 accelerates penetration reaction time for the first few minutes after contact. The curves become parallel within approximately ten minutes.

McElroy, et al. (1988) compared ice undercutting rates and deicer application rates for seven deicers and mixtures of deicers. Variables include temperature, time, and application rate. The authors presented laboratory data showing that CaCl2 begins undercutting a 1/8 in layer of ice in 7-8 min at 15 ºF. Similarly, NaCl begins undercutting in 17-18 min; and KCl and urea begin undercutting in >60 min. Dickinson (1959) compared amounts of ice melted by mixtures of calcium and sodium chloride at different temperatures and time intervals. He showed that CaCl2 melted 2.5 lb ice/lb of deicer and NaCl melted 1.6 lb ice/lb in 15 min at 20 ºF. Dickinson’s Table 2 includes data for temperatures from 0 ºF to 26 ºF and time intervals of 15 min-6 hr. These data indicate that ice melting begins almost immediately. Sinke et al. (1976) Compared ice undercutting rates for NaCl and CaCl2 at various temperatures. They showed reaction times for NaCl of approximately 5-8 min at 15-25 ºF and reaction times for CaCl2 of 2-5 min under the same conditions.

Kaufmann (1960), referring to B. C. Tiney (1934), showed comparative melting capacities of calcium and sodium chlorides at various t temperatures. NaCl melted quantities of ice varying from 3.2 lb at -6.5 ºF (eutectic) to 46.3 lb at 30 ºF. 77%-80% CaCl2 melted 3.7 lb of ice at -6.5 ºF and 31.1 lb of ice at 30 ºF. Kaufmann also reported on penetration time in minutes of grains of NaCl in ice, based on grain size and temperature. A 1/8” salt grain penetrated >1” in 20 min at 25 ºF and 1” in approximately 50 min at 8 ºF. Larger particles penetrated to a greater depth. A ¼” particle penetrated 2” in 50 minutes at 25 ºF and 2” in 120 min at 8 ºF.


  • Dickinson, William E. 1959. Ice-Melting Properties and Storage Characteristics of Chemical Mixtures for Winter Maintenance. Highway Research Board Bulletin 220. 38th Annual Meeting January 5-9.
  • Kaufmann, Dale W. 1960. Sodium Chloride, The Production and Properties of Salt and Brine. Reinhold Publishing Corporation. Chapter 23, pp 562-565
  • Kersten, M.S., L.P. Peterson, and A.J. Toddie, Jr. 1959. A Laboratory Study of Ice Removal by Various Chloride Salt Mixtures. Highway Research Board Bulletin 220. 38th Annual Meeting January 5-9.
  • McElroy, A.D., Robert R. Blackburn, and Henry Kirchner. 1990. Comparative Study of Chemical Deicers – Undercutting and Disbondment. Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting. January.
  • McElroy, A.D., Robert R. Blackburn, Jules Hagymassy, and Henry Kirchner. 1988. Comparative Study of Chemical Deicers. Transportation Research Record 1157.
  • Nixon, J.G., D.R. Larrimore, and E.H. Mossner. 1979. A Laboratory Comparison of Prewet and Untreated Rock Salt as Ice Removal Agents. Dow Chemical Company.
  • Sinke, G.C. and E.H. Mossner. 1976. Laboratory Comparison of Calcium Chloride and Rock Salt as Ice Removal Agents. Transportation Research Record 598. Maintenance Management, The Federal Role…
  • Tiney, B.C. 1934. Highway Research Board, Proc. 13:333
  • Trost, Susan E., Frank J. Heng, and E.L. Cussler. 1987. Chemistry of Deicing Roads: Breaking the Bond Between Ice and Road. Jour. Transp. Engrg. Vol. 113, No. 1. January 1.

Benefits of Road Salt – Mobility

Roads cost a lot of money. Each year, the U.S. invests nearly $100 billion to build or reconstruct roads. Society doesn’t do this to create jobs in the highway construction industry. We pay our gas taxes and vehicle fees for mobility: to deliver ourselves, the goods we want and the services we seek, in a reliable, efficient, cost-effective manner. A nation’s highway infrastructure is directly related to its international competitiveness and job creation. Claiming our dividend on this investment depends on how well roadway agencies the highway system, perhaps even more than the number of lane-miles we’ve built.

When weather, construction zones, traffic incidents, etc. close or clog our roads, the congestion is more than just inconvenient, it’s expensive. Our roadways are arteries of commerce well illustrated by the development of just-in-time logistics. Snowfighting failures cost workers their wages when businesses and factories close – and, longer term, can cost them their jobs since jobs disappear from communities that cannot assure reliable highway operations. Some retail sales will be postponed if a blizzard closes the roads, but other sales just “disappear,” economists calculate. When economic activity stalls, so do tax revenues. In 2004, the Salt Institute commissioned Global Insight, Inc. to model these variables and project the impact of a day when snow and ice closed down the roadways. The study found enormous costs associated with blizzards which might shut down roadways in a state or province. The methodology was conservative, considering only three variables, not including crash data or personal injuries. For example, in Iowa, a single day’s paralysis would cause workers to lose more than$38 million in wages, merchants to forego $20 million in lost retail sales and governments would collect $4.5 million less in taxes. The survey included 12 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

State/Province Lost wages
Lost retail sales
Lost tax revenues
Total per day
Iowa 38.35 19.91 4.51 62.67
Illinois 220.66 98.48 30.43 349.57
Indiana 88.23 41.18 10.94 140.35
Michigan 165.33 71.50 21.65 258.48
Minnesota 97.79 40.32 13.35 149.46
Missouri 90.70 39.05 10.45 140.19
New Jersey 174.44 80.66 25.77 280.87
New York 381.63 161.76 54.18 597.57
Ohio 179.29 79.07 23.14 281.50
Pennsylvania 214.17 93.17 29.37 336.70
Virginia 130.39 56.95 17.64 204.98
Wisconsin 84.82 38.78 10.76 134.36
Ontario 272.02 33.33 51.79 357.14
Quebec 142.77 19.23 28.01 190.01

The Salt Institute has more resources and information about road safety located here! Read more and stay safe on the roads this winter!

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