Every spring and fall, the roads witness more than a few car accidents from hydroplaning. Drivers go out in the rain with bad tires, drive a little faster than they should, and find themselves headed for the nearest ditch or telephone pole.
Car accidents from hydroplaning are a common side effect of driving in bad weather. They also happen when young drivers encounter serious rain for the first time, when drivers fail to maintain their tires, or when the roadway is improperly graded or drained.
If you’ve been involved in a hydroplaning accident, you'll never forget the feeling of the rubber leaving the road. There are ways to avoid hydroplaning, and the best way is never to get in the situation to begin with.
What is Hydroplaning?
Hydroplaning, sometimes called aquaplaning, happens when a layer of water gets between the road surface and the tires of the car. When you're driving, only about six square inches of tire touch the road on each wheel. The grooves or tread of your tires act as channels that push water away from the contact surface as the tire rotates.
When there is too much water on the road for the tires to handle, more than eight gallons per second, the water remains in a thin layer between the tire and the road. When that layer exists between all four tires, your car will hydroplane.
Once a car begins hydroplaning, it continues moving forward in the last direction the wheels were pointed. If you were paying attention in high school physics, this is because a body in motion tends to remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force. A 4000-pound car moving at 60 miles per hour that is no longer in contact with the road is literally flying and will keep flying forward until something makes it stop.
What Causes Hydroplaning?
“Water!” is the obvious answer, but not the only one. Your tires are designed to push water to the sides and back of the tire as the car moves forward. As long as the water is shallow enough to flow through the treads, you will not hydroplane.
If you are driving too fast for the amount of water on the road, then even with deep new treads on your tires, the water will accumulate faster than the tread can sweep it away. In heavy downpours, microbursts, or flash floods, even the best tires simply cannot keep up with the water choking the treads at high speeds.
If your treads are worn down, the volume of water they can handle is proportionally lessened. Underinflated tires will nearly always hydroplane, as will, surprisingly, overinflated tires. In both cases the surface area of the tire touching the road is compromised. Keep your tires at the optimal pressure.
The road surface has as much to do with hydroplaning as your tires. The grooved, rough-riding cement freeway surface was designed to channel water off the surface of the road in the same way your tires’ tread was designed to channel water to the rear of your tire. A properly graded and crowned road should drain water away from the center of the road and towards either the median or the shoulder.
On older roads, poorly maintained roads, and bridges, water tends to pool in unusual places. Drivers need to pay close attention to where they are driving and keep to the driest, highest portions of the roadway. If the center of the road is not graded to shed water, you shouldn’t drive there.
Recovering From Hydroplaning
If you are driving in hazardous conditions and find your car beginning to drift, do not panic. If it’s your first time in a hydroplaning situation, you probably will, but try not to. The car is not going to stop unless you stay calm and control the vehicle.
- Do not slam on your brakes. If you have ABS or anti-lock brakes, you may not be able to. Instead, you will feel the nerve-wracking sensation as the ABS pumps the brakes for you, slowing your car without making the slide worse. If you have an older vehicle without ABS, you will have to pump the brakes manually.
- Turn the wheel in the direction of the slide. This takes concentration, as you may be sliding towards a tree or ditch—or another vehicle. If the ABS is doing its job, you shouldn’t hit anything too hard.
- Do not jerk or yank the wheel the other way. Overcorrecting can cause the wheels to leave the road altogether. Remember, your wheels have lost contact with the roadway. Pulling them suddenly in a different direction can cause the car to flip.
- You should feel the wheels touch the road almost at once. Continue gentle pressure on the brakes. As soon as you have some control, come to a complete stop. Then steer off the road. If this is your first hydroplane incident, take a minute to recover.
There are no simple instructions on how to avoid hydroplaning. It is possible to do everything right and still find yourself gliding along the road without any control over your car. But there are a few steps to keep your tires on the pavement most of the time.
- Keep your tires fully inflated, with sufficient tread at all times. The “penny test” is a handy DIY measurement anyone can do for a quick check of their tires. Slide a penny into the tread with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing out. The tread should touch the top of his head. If not, you have less than 2/32” of tread, and need new tires.
- Slow down. Driving fast may be fun, but in heavy rain it can be a fun way to die. Unless you have Formula 1 rain tires (capable of channeling 17 gallons of water a second at 150 mph), if there is water on the road, you should reduce speed.
- Check the road conditions. Even if your tires are fine, the road may not be. Standing puddles, poor drainage, and low-lying roads create hydroplaning conditions. When the roads are in poor shape, be careful of where and how you are driving.
- Stay off the brakes. Even with ABS, the impulse to slam on your brakes in bad weather is a reflex you can’t avoid. Don’t ride your brakes because you might need them in a slide.
- Avoid driving in severe weather if possible. If you can postpone travel until after the worst rainfall has passed, you should do so. Consider alternate routes that don’t go through low-lying areas or along poorly-maintained roads.
A Word About Snow
The same warnings about hydroplaning apply about snow and ice, but the mechanism of the slide is a bit different. In icy conditions, your wheels have already lost contact with the road, because there is a layer of snow or ice on the ground. The rubber can grip the snow in the same way it grips the road, but not as firmly.
When driving in snowy or icy conditions, do not make the mistake of thinking that snow tires, four-wheel or all-wheel drive, or a pickup truck will get you out of a jam. In the winter, the ditches are filled with 4WD pickups with big snow tires being pulled out by tow truck drivers.
In winter driving, vehicles slide along the top surface of the snow or ice in the same way they slide on water, but the wheels will not make contact with the road if you brake or slow down. Instead, slowing down creates sufficient friction for the rubber to grip the snow again.
If you find yourself driving in winter, keep a few things in mind. Slow down, especially in a passenger car or SUV. If chains or snow tires are required, use them. If there are reports of black ice on the road, seriously consider staying home. If you must drive in icy conditions, give yourself plenty of time to drive slowly and avoid main highways.
Recovery from a slide on snow or ice is done in the same way as on water. Slow down, stay off the brakes, steer into the skid. If you are on a freeway, you should try to get off as quickly as possible. Many multi-car collisions occur on freeways as drivers scramble in black ice conditions.
Bad-weather driving creates hydroplaning conditions. If you know what to do if you're hydroplaning, you should do so. If you can’t, then keep these tips in mind. Keep you car well-maintained, and your tires in top condition. And always slow down in bad weather.
If you do get into an accident as a result of hydroplaning, don’t wait to consult an attorney. No matter how it was caused, a serious personal injury accident needs the advice of a skilled legal team to evaluate your injuries and property damage and suggest a proper response. You will need to file your documents in a timely manner so you can receive compensation swiftly and get on with recovering.