As the Climate Changes, Our Driving Habits Must, Too

Climate Change and DrivingBeing prepared to drive in all seasons and various weather conditions is crucial for ensuring safety on the road. In different seasons, the environment throws different challenges at drivers.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that our “weather” is far from normal. The water off the southern coast hit 100 degrees this year – twice. It hit 100 degrees in Chicago on August 27th, and our heat index was 120 degrees – the highest on record. The West Coast experienced its first tropical storm since 1939. Wildfires have burned across the entire continent, affecting air quality for everyone, though Chicago had some of the worst reports there were. As we write this, Hurricane Idalia is making its way through multiple states. Floods, droughts, dust storms, tornadoes, earthquakes – extreme weather events like these are becoming common occurrences.

When these events happen, we tend to focus on two things: helping folks after the immediate disaster, and trying to stop these events from happening in the future. Both are noble goals, but we think we need to address the elephant in the room: adapting our behavior to that which is already here.

Because we’re injury attorneys, we started thinking about how these weather events are changing the way we travel. We don’t just mean being careful in the rain or trying to avoid driving during a snowstorm (both very good pieces of advice, by the way). We mean looking at how our world has already changed, and what we should all be doing to reduce our risks.

The effects of extreme heat

Extreme heat wreaks havoc on roadways. Scientific American explains:

Highway engineers call it “buckling” when overheated segments of concrete in highways expand and collide. Sometimes buckling creates a bulge that looks like a speed hump. Other times, it destroys enough concrete to create a road rupture that can break an axle.

Asphalt has an opposite problem. Triple-digit temperatures can render it soft, experts say, while continuous traffic on an asphalt-paved road can create a “wagon trail” effect that presses tire-track depressions into a highway. Constant pressure causes cracking, which in turn leads to potholes and erosion.

The roads are literally more dangerous when it’s hot outside. And if these weather events continue, “hot” is only the beginning. So if you’re going to reduce your risk of injury or a crash, there are a few things you should do:

  • Tire care. Regularly check tire pressure, especially in warm months, as heat can increase pressure rapidly.
  • Engine and A/C maintenance. Prioritize engine coolant checks and air conditioning tests before hitting the road. Get servicing if needed.
  • Overheating response. If the car overheats, turn off A/C, switch on heat, and consider pulling over. Call for help if there's steam or smoke, and wait for cooling before adding coolant or water.
  • Passenger safety. Prevent extreme temperatures inside the car by not leaving kids or pets unattended. Bring water and keep passengers hydrated.
  • Electric car awareness. High temperatures can decrease battery charge by up to 40%. Consider this when planning trips in electric cars.


Chicago is no stranger to these weather events, and we all have probably run through tornado drills at some point in our lives. However, if you are in a vehicle at the time that a tornado develops nearby, then you need to know what is safest to do.

According to the National Weather Service, “being in a vehicle during a tornado is not safe. The best course of action is to drive to the closest shelter. If you are unable to make it to a safe shelter, either get down in your car and cover your head, or abandon your car and seek shelter in a low lying area such as a ditch or ravine.”

Frost heaves

Frost heaves. We all know them, and we all hate them. Frost heaves form as a result of a unique combination of freezing temperatures and the properties of water. When the ground is saturated with water and temperatures drop, the water in the soil freezes and expands. This expansion creates upward pressure on the soil and pavement above it. As the ice continues to grow and push upward, it can lift the pavement, creating a raised area known as a frost heave.

This phenomenon is particularly common in regions with colder climates, where the ground experiences repeated freezing and thawing cycles. The expansion of ice in the soil and its subsequent impact on the pavement can lead to uneven road surfaces, presenting challenges for drivers and requiring regular maintenance to ensure safe and smooth roads.

The best tip for navigating these frost heaves is to be aware of your surroundings and of the road in front of you, and to slow down substantially before attempting to drive over them. You don’t want to be launched into the air by speeding over them.

Flash floods

Flash floods are unexpected, and usually result from too much rain. Chicago doesn't have to worry about things like storm surges, but we do have one other issue that some places don’t: a century-old sewer system, designed for a very different city. There were about 109,000 people living in Chicago in 1860, which was a few years after our system was built. There are almost 2.7 million who live here now. The system wasn’t built for this. And it certainly wasn’t built to withstand that much usage as well as excessive rain. At times, there’s simply no place for that water to go. And that can lead to serious, unexpected flooding, too.

Here is what is important to know when driving in or during floods:

  • Heed barricades. Pay attention to barricades; don't disregard them by driving past.
  • Avoid standing water. Just 12 inches of moving water can sweep away the average car. Flooded roads are prone to collapse. If you encounter standing water, find an alternate route to stay safe.

If there's no absolutely no choice but to drive through deep water:

  • Estimate water depth.
  • Drive slowly and steadily.
  • Avoid water with fallen power lines.
  • Watch for debris downstream.
  • Test brakes on a clear patch after driving in deep water.
  • Dry brakes by gently pressing the pedal while maintaining speed.
  • Minimize phone use unless reporting severe injuries.
  • Restart the engine if the vehicle stalls in deep water.
  • If trapped in rising water, exit the car for higher ground.
  • If unable to exit safely, call 911 for help.


Both excessive water and extreme heat can ruin a foundation of a building. Water can rot wood, and heat can crack concrete. When foundations rot or break under buildings, it can cause them to fall.

Now, remember that sewer system we talked about? To build it, engineers raised the city of Chicago by about four feet. And sewer lines run under homes and roads alike. So if the foundations fail – whether under a building or under a road – and if they fail catastrophically, there’s a risk of giant sinkholes opening up. It happened around July 4th weekend right in Englewood, after – you guessed it – excessive flooding in the area.

How climate change is making it less safe to travel overall

Each of these weather events poses its own set of risks, but it’s the overall damage that concerns us. Extreme weather destroys infrastructure. It corrodes metal, melts concrete, and shatters wood. It affects bridges, roads, and rail lines.

And the damage is already done. Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the whole country will be able to replace a lot of aging and decrepit infrastructure, but it won’t fix all of it by the time we need to repair and replace it all again.

So as drivers, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians, we need to think about the risks we face, and take precautions when we travel. We’re not saying there aren’t more pressing needs in the immediate aftermath of a weather event, or that the long term goals of reducing climate damage aren’t worthy. We’re simply saying that ignoring what’s happening now leaves us open to additional harm and injury. So we want all of you to take the necessary steps to ensure that you’re not in any more danger than you need to be when you get into your cars.

Gainsberg Injury and Accident Lawyers has served the greater Chicagoland area for more than 20 years. If you or a loved one is hurt because of the actions of someone else, we want to help. Schedule your free consultation by   calling us or completing our contact form.