In the culinary world, salt is one of a few truly magical ingredients which release taste and enliven sensory responses without relying on artificial chemicals that are detrimental to the human body. Any chef that cares about the quality of the ingredients they use typically encourages the use of salt. Thanks to salt’s ability to keep food preserved longer, it was valued highly in ancient civilizations because it made long-distance transporting and long-term storage much easier. Salt was so revered that it was often used as currency – and the word “salary” is based on salt because workers would often be paid their wages in the form of salt.
When that same sodium chloride is introduced into the automotive environment to keep roads clear during the winter, the wages of salt become detrimental corrosion. Over the last 100 years, salt has turned many works of automotive art into rusted pieces of junk, and it’s transformed the industrial heartland of the American northeast into “the rust belt”. To look at it another way, sodium chloride might be considered a poison which an ignorant government has administered to an unsuspecting world. While beautiful multicolored autumn leaves swirl in the wake of a classic 1970 Chevelle or 1988 560SL, the demon salt spreader is never far away – lurking in the shadows of a municipal garage poised to strike. And when the first white corrosive crystals hit the pavement, all automotive beauty and virtue must flee and seek refuge in winter storage in order to maintain their vanity and youthful good looks. While I curse road salt with a passion, my animosity isn’t born of ignorance or prejudice. Salt on the roads is an objective evil, worthy of our concerted efforts to banish it forever.
It is true that classic cars are more prone to show the ravages of the hateful brine mixture than ones built since 1990 or so. When iron in steel body panels combines with oxygen in the air, moisture, and salt, a chemical reaction occurs which creates iron oxide molecules. Because these molecules take up more space than plain old iron atoms, the metal starts to push apart from the expansion that’s taking place. Churlish bubbling under the paint, plague-like reddish discoloration, and lockjaw-like seizure of nuts and bolts which should turn freely are palpable symptoms of the dreaded cancer brought about by salt. While contemporary vehicles built with electrolytic and galvanic wizardry manage to stave off the wasting illness of rust, it’s only for a time. While it may take a decade to become visible on today’s cars, the grim reaper is at his hateful work. When the corrosion at last rears its ugly head, the battle is lost for whoever owns the vehicle at that time. The innards of the automobile are already spoiled and desiccated with corruption.
Long term, galvanized steel and clever alloys aren’t a cure all. Thus you, on the rapturous honeymoon of new car ownership, delude yourself unless you realize that salt is from the first day of exposure cruelly rending the inmost organs and most intimate charms of your beloved. The effectiveness of road salt varies depending on temperature, and its effectiveness at keeping ice in water form diminishes completely at 15 degrees Fahrenheit. So at warmer temperatures, a little salt melts a lot of ice. And at low temperatures, a lot of salt only melts a little ice.
Below 15 degrees F, more effective and caustic de-icers like magnesium chloride or calcium chloride are used that can work down to well below zero Fahrenheit. So basically the lower the outside temperatures are where you live, the stronger the rust-causing chemical mixtures end up being. The chemical rusting process doesn’t take place until 40 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, so keeping your salt-covered vehicle inside a nice warm garage actually does more harm than good.
It’s easy to take the effect of rust for granted and forget that things don’t need to be this way. A northerner from a rust belt state visiting a warm part of the country where there is no snow is in for an eye-opener. For example, southern California is literally full of old, battered Volkswagen Beetles and Ford Mustangs of 1960s and ’70s vintage still roaming the streets as daily drivers. Plus, it’s easy to find oddball cars still alive there that haven’t been seen since childhood. All of these disappeared from the roads back home decades ago – the victims of automotive cancer.
Have you ever noticed how eager politicians and city officials are to spread the salt upon the road at the first cold gusts of wintry wind? It might be natural to think they are concerned with your safety and well being at first, but realizing just how lucrative a business the procurement of road salt is will make you realize how naive that notion is. Furthermore, the contracting for its dissemination is rife with most foul patronage. Yes, road salt not only corrodes your car – it corrupts the body politic. Next time you see the political appointees or their surrogates spreading the sodium chloride think of the red ink of the municipal ledgers and the green hemorrhaging from your bank account with wasted tax dollars.
And what of society’s costly infrastructure? Roads, bridges, storm sewers, all these are ravaged by road salt. Works of civil engineering genius that might have survived like the Pyramids are laid waste within a cosmic fortnight. This enormously increases the cost of government and provides yet another avenue for unscrupulous politicians and their cohorts to suck the life blood of a supine electorate. Furthermore, in recent years we have heard many examples of vehicular accidents and loss of life that can be attributed to crumbling bridges and roads? Road salt worms its way into the retaining skeletons of critical structures – bringing them crashing down, almost without warning.
It is not only the timid who fear for the future in a world of environmental contamination. Sodium chloride which is spread on the roads finds its way into our ground water where it’s extremely harmful to flora and fauna alike. The next victim will surely be drinking water.
One of the largest causes of single car accident fatalities is the presence of salt-craving wildlife close to the side of the road. If you’ve ever wondered why deer gather by the side of the road when there is far less-threatening landscape to roam, the answer is road salt. Deer, moose, and other wild animals savor the taste of grasses and plants along the side of the road which have been salted by the spreader trucks. That’s why it’s so easy to find them concentrated there – and why it’s so easy to have a deadly catastrophe as a result.
In other parts of the world folks use sand in order to provide traction on ice and snow. Of course, in an era when full-time all-wheel-drive and part-time four-wheel-drive systems are commonplace, frozen precipitation should be an ever declining cause of concern. Furthermore, making skid pad training a central component of mandatory, universal drivers education would go a long way toward increasing winter driving safety.
(Contributor John Bleimaier is an attorney at law, active Mercedes-Benz club officer, and automotive journalist for The Star magazine.)