Cars fall through ice more often than you would 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 five ice fatalities for the 2018-2019 winter season, which runs from November to April, and two for the 2019 -2020 season, according to the Ice-Related Fatalities report by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In some cases, dozens of cars frozen in ice all at once. At an ice fishing tournament several years ago at Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin 36 ice fishers came back to find their vehicles through the ice. While most trucks were only up to their wheels in water, 18 trucks fall through ice.

Key Highlights
  • Your insurance will pay for the damage to your car covered in ice, only if you carry comprehensive coverage.
  • Comprehensive insurance coverage will also pay for the extraction of your vehicles falling through ice.
  • If you don't have comprehensive coverage, you will have to bear the cost of extraction, repairing/replacing your car.
  • Check with your insurance company to know about the exclusions in your policy before you file any claims.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the lake

While you can always catch another fish, extracting your vehicle from the lake is going to be a lot more difficult and much more expensive.

Even if your car is worth less than the cost of retrieving it, you have to do so. Extracting your vehicle is your responsibility and is required by law in most states.

Spokesperson Joanne Haas with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says, "In Wisconsin, owners have 30 days to remove their vehicles from the water. We do work with the responsible parties if weather or unsafe ice conditions delay the retrieval." Most states have similar laws in place.

How do you get a three-ton car or truck off the lake floor, while not dumping the rescue vehicle into the water as well? 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? Dive and Ice 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," says Herman, "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 a half a mile and pull the cars frozen in ice out that way."

Every company has a different method, Clarence Turner, with Clarence Turner Towing in Nisswa, Minnesota, explained his process in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune interview.

  • The ice thickness is tested with a chainsaw before the retrieval begins; it must be 13 inches thick.
  • A crane with a horseshoe pedestal (to evenly distribute the weight) and a winch is towed to the spot and a 12x12 foot hole is cut in the ice.
  • A scuba diver is hired to attach the cable to the vehicle.
  • The winch then pulls the frozen vehicle straight up out of the water

Does insurance cover cars falling through ice?

If the vehicle (car covered in ice) was completely submerged, it will 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, field claim executive at Marsh Private Client Services, based in New York, New York.

You are covered, provided you have comprehensive coverage on your insurance policy. "A customer who drove on the ice for the purpose of ice-fishing would be covered under comprehensive coverage if their car fell through the ice. The extraction of the vehicle would be also covered," confirms Penny Gusner, senior consumer analyst for CarInsurance.com.

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 things such as theft, fire, falling objects and damage done by animals.

Comprehensive is not a required coverage in most states but if your vehicle is currently financed or leased, your bank will require this type of coverage.

However, there are situations where comprehensive would not cover the damages. Michael Barry, Vice President with the Insurance Information Institute explains, "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. According to Barry, "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 fall to you.

Gusner warns there can be exclusions with this type of claim. "Policies do vary and some have exclusions for off-road recreational activity which parking on ice to go ice fishing would fall under. If there is an exclusion your claim would be denied," says Gusner.

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 medium truck.
  • Look for clear ice. Clear ice is generally stronger than ice with air bubbles in it or with snow on it.
  • Watch out for pressure ridges or ice heaves to avoid your car or truck going through ice. These can be dangerous due to thin ice and open water.
  • Remember that ice is never completely safe under any conditions.
  • Be prepared to leave the vehicle in a hurry. Roll windows down and discuss an emergency plan with passengers.
  • Contact local sport 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.