Hydroplaning: Why It Happens and How You Can Avoid It
Driving safely on wet roads or in the rain can be challenging. When the road you’re driving on doesn’t drain well or the rain is heavy enough for puddles to form, it can become downright dangerous — especially if your tires are not ready for those conditions.
If you’ve ever driven on a wet road and felt your vehicle slipping or skidding for a split second or more, you were likely hydroplaning.
What is hydroplaning?
Hydroplaning is skimming or sliding on top of a film of water between your tires and the road, resulting in a loss of steering capabilities and braking effectiveness. It happens when you drive over a wet surface faster than the tires can displace the water underneath them, resulting in loss of contact with the road.
Chances of hydroplaning increase when driving above 45 mph on roads with a water depth as little as 1/10". Of course, it’s not actually possible to measure water depth while you’re driving, and hydroplaning can happen on any wet road surface, so be safe and treat all wet roads as potential hydroplaning zones.
How to avoid hydroplaning
Losing control of your vehicle even for a moment can be very unnerving, but there are steps you can take to try and avoid hydroplaning.
Ensure adequate tread depth on your tires Worn tires have less tread depth, which means they don’t have the deep channels that are needed to move the water away effectively. This will cause the tires to ride on top of the water more easily, and if you’re on top of the water, you don’t have traction.
Checking tread depth is something you can easily do yourself: Insert a penny in the center of your tire tread with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you; if you can see all of Lincoln’s head, you have less than 2/32" of tread, and that’s not enough to safely drive on a wet road.
Reduce your speed The most dangerous time to drive is immediately after it starts raining. The instant a drop hits your windshield, it is a good idea to slow down. Rain mixes with oil and rubber on the road, creating a slicker surface. Once the water pools even a little, hydroplaning is possible. The faster you drive in wet conditions, the less time your tires have to channel the water away. No matter how good or new your tires are, they will hydroplane at a certain speed.
Don’t use cruise control It is never safe to use your cruise control in inclement weather, because you may need instant control of your speed in the event the car surprises you with a change in direction.
Drive in the tracks of the vehicle ahead Following the tracks of the car in front of you allows you to drive on strips of road where the amount of road water has already been dispersed by the previous vehicle, which means less water for your tires to navigate. Make sure to keep a safe distance.
Avoid puddles It takes only a small layer of water to hydroplane, so it’s best to stay out of puddles altogether if you can. Keep in mind that the longer it rains and the deeper the puddle, the more likely you are to hydroplane.
What to do if your vehicle hydroplanes
The appropriate reaction in a moment like this can be the difference between recovery and further loss of control. Much like driving on ice, the best reaction is to not overreact.
Safe recovery is more about finesse than brute strength. If you panic and brake hard or try to speed up, you risk making the skid or slide worse.
If you feel your car changing direction on its own, let off the gas but don’t hit the brake. Then, although it may seem counter-intuitive, gently steer your car in the direction you are skidding. This is called “turning into the skid” and will help you regain control by realigning your tires with the direction your car is traveling.
Stay calm and wait for your tires to get their grip; stay alert for any other possible hydroplaning hazards ahead.
Thankfully, most hydroplaning situations last only a few seconds. Although it’s important to know good techniques to deal with them, the best defense against hydroplaning is to make sure you have good tires and to maintain them properly. Check your tread depth and air pressure regularly and have them rotated every 3,000–6,000 miles or during each oil change.
Summertime is prime road-trip season. But before you hit the open road, there are a few simple tire tips that will give you some peace of mind and keep you safe while driving longer distances during the hot summer months.