How to avoid hydroplaning

When it comes to rainy commutes, soggy moods rule the day. Road vision gets hampered, traffic backs up, and accidents accumulate. Not to mention those parking lot puddles that are perfectly placed to inspire new and imaginative curse words. Worse than arriving at the office with matted hair and wet socks, however, is not arriving at all, due to a very common, potentially dangerous, and surprisingly avoidable rain-induced occurrence known as hydroplaning – or aquaplaning to our friends from across the pond.

What is hydroplaning?

Hydroplaning occurs when a sheet of water wedges itself between the road and your tire, preventing the tire’s tread from properly gripping the road. You may have heard about a tire’s “footprint,” which refers to the part of the tread that physically touches the pavement and allows you and your car to turn freely and maintain unimpeded forward momentum. The bigger your tire’s footprint, or the more contact your tread has with the road, the more control you have. When you hydroplane, your car is basically losing its footing, which can lead to a loss of steering control, spins, and, at the very least, jangled nerves.

hydroplaning diagram
Click for larger image.

How does it happen?

While road conditions and tire health both increase the risk of hydroplaning, the main perpetrators are speed and water depth. Crash Forensics says that you’re at risk when moving above speeds above 45 MPH (example: the freeway) and when water depth on the road is at least 1/10th of an inch. Unfortunately, we can’t stop our cars and break out the rulers, so the safe bet would be to treat all wet roads as potential hydroplaning hazard zones. And while it is possible to identify the factors above, the truth is that hydroplaning often strikes unexpectedly, creating a scary and hectic few moments for everyone involved – especially those who are unprepared or unaware of the indicating factors. Taking a few precautionary steps can help you avoid ending up as one of the reasons the traffic commute is in the red.

Preventative measures to avoid hydroplaning

  • Rotate tires regularly and replace as necessary.
  • Makes sure your tires are properly inflated. You’d be amazed at how many dangerous situations you can prevent with this one quick, easy measure.
  • Check your tires regularly to ensure proper tread depth. Use the coin test!
  • Avoid settling into the outer lanes of the road, where excess water tends to accumulate.
  • Watch the drivers in front of you. If they begin to act erratically, there’s a chance you will too. And it goes without saying, but you always want to maintain proper distance as well.
  • Try to drive in the tracks created by the vehicle(s) ahead of you.
  • Turn off the cruise control. There are varying arguments as to how much cruise control actually increases hydroplaning risk, but at the very least you’ll stay more in tune with the conditions at hand.

Sometimes, even when you do take every possible precaution, Mother Nature doesn’t care and you can still end up in hydroplaning. If your vehicle does start to hydroplane, follow these steps – you still may be able to right yourself with the road and make it to work with nothing more than an increased heartbeat.

steps to prevent hydroplaning
Click for larger image.

If you end up hydroplaning...

  • DON’T PANIC. We know – this is easier said than done.
  • Don’t slam on the brakes. Ease your foot off the accelerator, and apply brakes gently if necessary to avoid further loss of control. In the rare case your vehicle does not have anti-lock brakes (check your vehicle’s manual if unsure), try to avoid braking altogether. If you must brake, “pump” the brake pedal gently.
  • Maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel and keep yourself pointed forward, or in the direction of the road, and be prepared to compensate when the tires regain control.
  • Be careful not to oversteer, as your momentum can throw you off course or into a spin.
  • Whether you have front-wheel or rear-wheel drive, you always want to maintain the course of the road. This may take a few turns of the steering wheel in either direction.
  • Take a deep breath and calm your nerves.

Choosing the proper tires

Because hydroplaning is so common and so potentially dangerous, tire manufacturers are always coming up with new designs and experimenting with various materials to help prevent it. This emphasis on hydroplane prevention means that there are many excellent tires designed to expertly expel water from their tread and keep you moving in a straight line.

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