Everything You Should Know About Hydroplaning
Lower your risk with the right preparation.
We all would probably prefer sunny skies and SoCal weather for our daily commutes, but there’s nothing any of us can do about the weather. Regardless of how good a driver you are or how prepared you think you are, things can go sideways — literally. When you drive on wet roads, your tires have to work harder to maintain traction with the pavement. A little too much water on the road surface or a little bit too much speed from your impatient right foot can overwhelm your tires’ abilities to keep you heading in the direction you want to go.
When this happens, it’s known as hydroplaning — a scary but mostly preventable condition that can cause a complete lack of control in the worst cases. What causes it? What can you do to help prevent it? Car Bibles’ editors are here to help.
Let’s get rolling — carefully.
By: Chris Teague
What Is Hydroplaning?
Hydroplaning refers to the event when a driver loses steering and/or stopping control of a vehicle and it unexpectedly slides or skids on a wet road surface. Tires are designed with grooves and tread patterns, which are intended to displace water as the vehicle rolls over it. If there is more water on the road than the tire’s tread can displace, or if the vehicle is traveling faster than the pace at which the tire’s treads can keep up, the part of the tire that should be in contact with the road can lift off the road surface and skid across the water.
What Happens During Hydroplaning?
If the water pressure in front of the tire is strong enough, it can push water under the tire and lift it off the road surface. When this happens, the vehicle’s only method of control is removed from the equation. Tires are the only part of a vehicle designed to actually touch the road, and when hydroplaning occurs, all braking, steering, and control go out the window. The vehicle will tend to continue traveling in the direction it was heading before hydroplaning, regardless of input from the driver.
What Does Hydroplaning Feel Like?
When your vehicle begins to hydroplane, it can feel like steering becomes extremely light and floaty. You may notice that the wheel becomes slack or feels loose, which can mean that the front wheels no longer have proper contact with the ground. You may also notice that the car starts traveling in a direction you haven’t intended, or that there is a sound of water rushing around the vehicle.
When Is Hydroplaning Most Likely To Occur?
Hydroplaning can happen anywhere, and on almost any hard surface. Water is obviously a requirement, but it doesn’t have to be from rain. A broken water main, a fire hydrant drain, or any other source of water on the road can cause problems. The higher the vehicle’s speed, the more likely it is to hydroplane, but a skid can occur at almost any speed. This means that standing water on highways and high-speed roadways is more dangerous than a few puddles in your neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean you can speed through carelessly. Hydroplaning has been known to occur at neighborhood-friendly speeds of 20 or 30 mph, so keep your eyes open.
You may also have heard the old wives’ tale that the first few minutes after a rainstorm are the most dangerous. Unlike other baseless wives’ tales, like the one that suggests apple cider vinegar will make you skinny (it doesn’t, now I just have bad breath and heartburn), this one is true. The first few moments of a storm drop just enough water on the road to get all of the oils and other nasty stuff flowing around but haven’t had a chance to wash any of it away. Oil on the road can cause water to pool more quickly, or it could create another layer of substance that can get in between a tire and the road surface.
What Can I Do To Prevent Hydroplaning?
The only way to completely eliminate the risk of hydroplaning is to completely avoid driving in the rain, and we all know that’s not going to happen. The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to avoid sliding all over the place when the rain hits. Keep these tips in mind and prepare appropriately.
Maintain your tires
- Inspect your tires regularly to ensure proper tread depth and to find any signs of irregular wear or damage. Your tire’s tread is one of the few things standing between you and hydroplaning.
- Inflation matters here, too. When tires are underinflated, the tire can disform in ways that can create bigger pockets of space underneath the tires where the water can get trapped. Underinflation or overinflation also changes the contact patch, so tread might be less effective. Read the label inside your driver’s door jamb to find the proper cold inflation level for your tires. Using a tire pressure tool, read the pressures and inflate or deflate as necessary.
- Make sure you have the right kind of tires. Tires are not created equally. Winter tires and high-performance summer tires are not always the best with wet traction. Match your tires to the driving conditions for the best traction possible.
Modify your driving style
- Slow down, speed racer. The higher your speed, the more likely you are to skid across wet pavement.
- Avoid puddles. Believe it or not, avoiding water is the best way to prevent skidding across it.
- Give yourself plenty of time to stop and react. Tailgating or driving too fast drastically reduces the amount of time you have to stop your vehicle if something happens. Slamming on the brakes in the rain is a recipe for disaster.
- Drive as smoothly as you can and avoid all sudden inputs. This means accelerating gently, braking carefully, and avoiding sharp turns.
- Don’t slam on the brakes if you sense the car skidding. This will further reduce your level of control and is likely to make the skid worse.
Which Tires Are Best for Preventing Hydroplaning?
Summer tires, as long as they aren’t ultra-high-performance models with few treads, tend to perform well in rain. Many all-season tires do a good job as well. The Michelin Premier LTX, CrossClimate +, and Primacy MXV4 are good choices, but other brands offer great wet weather tires as well. The General Altimax RT43, Goodyear Eagle Exhilarate, and others will do just fine in wet weather.
How To React and What To Do When You Are Hydroplaning
Remember that scene in Jurassic Park, when everyone is trying to get away from the T-Rex and they can’t move? When they do, it’s done smoothly and quietly, and your reactions on the road should be the same. While you’re likely to be muttering a few curse words during a hydroplane skid, your movements should be smooth and deliberate. Lift off the accelerator gently and don’t make any sudden movements with the vehicle’s inputs. Avoid jerking the steering wheel or braking in panic. Your job is to use light steering, braking, and accelerator inputs to slow the vehicle down as safely as possible.
Car Bibles’ Glossary of Hydroplaning Terms
Welcome to Bible school!
As you drive, the rubber in your tires is under constant assault from friction and heat, road debris, and other damaging factors. This wears the treads down, which reduces traction and increases the chances that you’ll hydroplane. Maintain a minimum tread depth of at least 2/32 of an inch to prevent loss of traction.
When you brake hard, your car’s speed and mass can overcome the tires’ ability to grip the road. This happens even on dry pavement, but is more of a risk on wet pavement. Anti-lock brakes step in to help prevent this from happening by quickly pulsing the brakes on and off. In the moments when brake force is pulsed off, the wheels turn slightly, which helps maintain control and allow the driver to make a corrective action.
Aquaplaning is the same thing as hydroplaning. The terms can be used interchangeably, and may be heard in the same conversation.
Car Bibles answers all of your pressing questions.
Q. Can hydroplaning occur at any speed?
A. Yes, hydroplaning can occur at any speed if the conditions are right. The faster you go, however, the more likely you are to skid.
Q. Does all-wheel drive prevent hydroplaning?
A. All-wheel drive won’t stop you from hydroplaning. What it can do, however, is help you correct a skid caused by hydroplaning. Most AWD systems can shift power away from wheels with losses of traction, and this shift can help you maintain control under certain conditions. It’s not a silver bullet solution, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
Q. Can you hydroplane on a motorcycle?
A. Yes, you can. The physics of a motorcycle tire work similarly to those of a car tire, and that means water can work its way underneath the bike and cause the rider to lose control. If you ride motorcycles and aren’t comfortable riding in the rain, we suggest practicing in an empty parking lot after a good rain or pulling over when you’re caught in the wet.
Learn More From This Visual Aid Explaining Hydroplaning
Seeing hydroplaning in action gives a better sense of how quickly it can happen. Check out this demonstrative video from Consumer Reports below.
Car Bibles’ Favorite Hydroplane-Related Products
Hydroplaning is scary, and while no product can ever prevent the issue altogether, there are a few things you might want to pick up before hitting the road. They include the Segomo LCD Tread Depth Gauge, the Amazon Basics Tire Pressure Gauge, and Michelin Primacy MXV4 All-Season Tires.
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