Cars fall through ice more often than you think, though no one keeps an official tally. But in states where ice fishing is big, dozens of cars fall through ice in a normal winter.
Minnesota tracks fatalities out on the ice. There were six ice fatalities for the 2021 winter season, which runs from November to April, according to the Ice-Related Fatalities report by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Here’s what you need to know if your car falls through the ice.
- Your insurance will pay for the damage to your car covered in ice if you carry comprehensive coverage.
- Comprehensive insurance coverage will also pay for the extraction of your vehicle if it falls through ice.
- If you don’t have comprehensive coverage, you will have to bear the cost of extraction and repairing/replacing your car.
- Check with your insurance company to know about the exclusions in your policy before you file a claim.
After falling through ice, you must extract your car
Even if your car is worth less than the cost of retrieving it from the bottom of a lake, you have to extract it because it’s required by law in most states.
How do you get a three-ton car or truck off the lake floor, while not dumping the rescue vehicle into the water? Very carefully and very slowly.
The cost can range from $1,000 to $5,000 depending on the size of the vehicle and the depth at which it is sunk, according to Don Herman, owner of SUNK Ice and Dive Service. In an average year, Herman pulls roughly 30 to 45 objects out of the lake.
So, how do you get the vehicle back on dry land?
“Every job is different,” Herman says. “On average, an extraction involves five or six guys and takes between four and eight hours.”
The extraction method depends on the conditions of the ice. Herman has a variety of methods and equipment at his disposal.
“In one situation, we had to cut a path through the ice for almost half a mile and pull the cars frozen in ice out that way,” he says.
Does insurance cover cars falling through the ice?
If the vehicle was completely submerged, it would most likely be totaled.
“The advanced electronics and hundreds of feet of wiring in modern vehicles would be destroyed which would result in the vehicle being totaled in almost all cases,” says Scott Congiusti, vice president and field claim executive at Marsh McLennan Private Client Services, based in New York, NY.
You’ll be covered if you have comprehensive coverage on your insurance policy. Comprehensive insurance covers damages to your vehicle that are the result of perils not related to a collision. In addition to sinking your vehicle to the bottom of a lake, covered perils include theft, fire, falling objects and animal strikes.
Comprehensive is not required coverage in most states, but if your vehicle is financed or leased, your bank will full coverage, which includes comprehensive.
However, there are situations where comprehensive would not cover the damages.
Michael Barry, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, says that “if your insurer determined the original purpose of driving onto the ice was to have the car intentionally totaled, it would likely cite fraud and not pay the claim.”
If you were out on the ice for a race, you could also be out of luck. Barry says that “most auto insurers have exclusions in their policies indicating they will not pay out for damages arising out of a race.”
If you are not carrying comprehensive, the entire cost of the extraction and repair/replacement of the vehicle will be yours.
Tips for driving on ice
The Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources offer the following tips for people who are considering driving or spending any time out on the ice:
- Ice thickness guidelines for vehicles: 8 to 12 inches. For a car or small pickup, 12 to 15 inches for a medium truck.
- Look for clear ice: Clear ice is generally stronger than ice with air bubbles or snow.
- Watch for pressure ridges or ice heaves: These can be dangerous due to thin ice and open water.
- Be prepared to leave the vehicle in a hurry. Roll windows down and discuss an emergency plan with passengers.
- Contact local sports shops about ice conditions on lakes and rivers.
- Wear a life jacket or float coat to help stay afloat and to conserve body heat.
- Carry a spud bar to check ice thickness while traveling to new areas.
- Do not travel in unfamiliar areas or at night.
When it comes to driving on ice, you can never be too careful. Remember that ice is never completely safe under any condition.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Minnesota Ice-Related Fatalities 1976-2022.” Accessed January 2023.