Stop salting the roads

March 3, 2005
I've never forgotten a conversation I once had with a lady about winter driving.
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She lived in a community adjacent to mine in northeastern Ohio where a quirk of geography produces great variations in snowfall over just short distances. Her area gets much more snow than mine does, and her daily commute downtown often put her on roads with heavy snowfall.

Since I hate driving in snow, I asked her how she handles commuting over bad roads in the winter. "Oh! Snow doesn't bother me. The highway department keeps the roads well salted, so there is no problem driving downtown."

"You are glad they use a lot of salt on the roads?" I inquired. "Aren't you bothered by how salt destroys your car?" She gave me a blank look. She had no idea that salt destroyed automobiles. And so it goes with the mass of humanity. They always want to see salt trucks on the road at the first sign of snow, but they have no idea how the salt is dissolving their vehicles, often in very dangerous ways.

For my part, I think road salt is the greatest evil ever perpetuated on northern motorists. When I buy a vehicle, my intention always is to keep it forever. I once managed to keep a Pontiac Catalina in good shape for 19 years, our Buick Century lasted 14 years, and my Ford Ranger lasted 12 years. Almost every other vehicle I've bought new has lasted at least nine years, except for my Honda Accord, which fell apart mechanically after seven years.

I always tried to keep these vehicles in showroom condition. They approached the status of beater only at the very end. All were driven through winters where roads were incessantly over-salted. I was forced to do continuous and relentless maintenance to repair the ravages of salt, but in the end, I was always defeated.

Right now, the exteriors of my three and five-year-old vehicles look good. But when I crawl underneath them, I can see that salt is tearing away at the suspensions, steering systems, brakes, drivetrains, and frames. I can always repair and repaint body rust, but what bothers me is not knowing when salt will crack the frame, break a spring, eat through a brake line, dissolve a fuel line, or fracture a steering link. I know that in the end, the salt will win.

Here is something else interesting. People with high blood pressure ought to think about what road salt does to the sodium content of their drinking water. You can see mountains of salt around northern cities or along northern Interstates during the winter, and every bit of that salt eventually ends up in the lake, river, or aquifer that is the region's water supply.

Another deleterious effect is the way salt water dripping from cars destroys parking garages, often much to the surprise and annoyance of local officials. A municipal garage in our downtown had to be torn down and totally rebuilt at a cost of some $25 million thanks to the ravages of salt. In reinforced concrete structures, including highway bridges, salt seeps through porous concrete and attacks the steel reinforcing rods. That is one reason you always see orange barrels and road work being done around bridges all summer long in the north. Incidentally, airports never salt runways because of what it does to aluminum airplanes.

Protests raised against road salt turn out to be nothing more than voices in the wilderness. Average drivers, having zero skill in handling a car, love salt. They want to be able to step on the accelerator and make the car go forward, then step on the brake and make it stop.

Any suggestion that they learn how to manage traction between tires and a slippery surface is out of the question. As a teenager, however, I learned how to handle a car on snowy roads that were almost never salted. It is a skill you can learn if you are forced to. Alternatively, bring back studded tires. They were banished because they created pavement wear, but they aren't nearly as destructive as road salt.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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