What Is Hydroplaning?

A hydroplaning car
(welcomia / Getty Images)

By definition, hydroplaning is when a vehicle starts sliding uncontrollably due to the tires encountering more water than the treads can displace. When driving at high speeds over wet pavement, the water begins to push the front tires off the ground slightly, creating a thin film between the tire and the road. That film, and the resulting separation of the road and tire, causes the driver to lose control of the car and possibly end up in a crash.

Hydroplaning can be terrifying if you are unprepared, and most people will tend to panic when they feel their vehicle spinning. However, everything you need to know about hydroplaning is included here: what causes it, how to safely recover from it, and how to avoid it. Read on to find out how you could save yourself and others in a potentially dangerous situation.

What Causes Hydroplaning?

Hydroplaning can be triggered in a few different ways, most commonly by speeding on a wet road. When driving in the rain, water that is displaced by the tires tends to gravitate towards the front of the tires. If the buildup is large enough, the tires may lose contact with the pavement, which can cause the car to lose control. When you’re speeding, the possibility of the water buildup lifting your tire from the pavement becomes much more likely.

While it may not be considered hydroplaning, the most dangerous time to drive is during the beginning of a rain storm. This is because the oils on the pavement that are left by vehicles rise from the ground and make the pavement slippery.

One of the most helpful driver assistance features in cars today is cruise control. Just set your vehicle’s speed, take your foot off the gas (but keep it near the brake just in case!), and have a relaxing highway drive. However, using cruise control in the rain can cause your car to hydroplane. If you are using cruise control when your vehicle starts hydroplaning, you should immediately turn the cruise control off and try to safely slow your vehicle down.  

Remember to avoid any sharp turns when the pavement is moist, as quick movements on slippery pavement are a perfect way to end up hydroplaning. Don’t drive through puddles and standing water, since you don’t know how deep the water is. Do your best to stay off of the painted road lines. When rain starts coming down, they can be the slickest part of the road.

What Do I Do if I Start Hydroplaning?

Pavement with slow down
(gustavofrazao / Getty Images)

So you’ve turned off your cruise control, brought down your speed, and avoided every puddle on the road, but that doesn’t mean you’re 100 percent safe. If for some reason you find yourself spinning in the rain, your first thought may be to slam on the brakes. You should resist that urge. By slamming down on the brakes, your car will lose whatever traction it had left with the road. Modern vehicles equipped with anti-lock brakes and traction control are less likely to spin under hard braking. Even in vehicles with these systems, it’s better to stay calm, don’t overreact, bring your foot off the gas, and start correcting your spin.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, you should turn your steering wheel in the direction the car is sliding. If the back of your car starts sliding right, turn your wheel to the right. Then, as your car slowly starts to straighten out, mirror that movement on the steering wheel. Just as well, if the back of your car starts to sliding left, mirror that by moving your steering wheel to the left.

Finally, once you’ve corrected your spin and are facing the right way on the road, pull over and take a few deep breaths. You should always take a bit to gather yourself after an intense moment on the road, as you’ll probably be quite flustered.

How to Minimize Your Chances at Hydroplaning

Now that you know what hydroplaning is and how to correct your vehicle when it’s spinning, make sure to follow these tips to minimize the chances of your vehicle hydroplaning. Try to drive in the tire tracks left by other vehicles. Most of the water will have already been displaced, meaning there’s more space for your tire to make full contact with the pavement.

Use common sense, if a heavy rain starts coming down and you’re driving well over the speed limit, slow it down. It’s better to arrive safe and late than to never arrive at all. Losing control at high speeds over wet pavement can lead to bigger consequences than just a small spin you can steer out of.

One of the biggest ways to avoid finding yourself sideways on the highway is to make sure your tires are inflated correctly, have been rotated recently, and have enough tread left. Read our tire guide to find which tire is best for you and your vehicle.

Lastly, if you don’t feel comfortable driving through a heavy rain, play it safe by putting your emergency lights on and pulling over to the side of the road. Take some time to gather yourself before deciding to jump out on the road.

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