If you’ve ever driven on wet or icy pavement, you have likely hydroplaned before. The more official term is hydroplaning, and it occurs when your vehicle’s tires come into contact with a wet or slick surface, and they skid or slide in response. Also known as aquaplaning, hydroplaning means your tires lose contact with the road surface. The sensation is temporary in most cases, but can be a terrifying experience if you are unprepared for how to handle it.
The weather conditions that increase the risk of hydroplaning correlate strongly with accident statistics:
- Over 50% of all accidents involve single-vehicle crashes.
- An average of nearly 1 million accidents occur each year due to wet pavement.
- This results in 4,700 deaths and 384,000 injuries.
- Wet pavement is also to blame for one in seven motor vehicle accidents and injuries.
- About one-quarter of all vehicle crashes are due to weather-related causes.
- 74% of these accidents occur on wet pavement.
- Inclement weather, including rain, snow, and fog, contributes to around 21% of all vehicle accidents are weather related.
Before you get on the road as a driver, it’s critical that you understand exactly what hydroplaning involves, how it impacts your car insurance and how you can prevent it.
What is hydroplaning?
When your tires cannot maintain traction due to the volume of water on the road, your tires can lose traction with the pavement, effectively eliminating your ability to steer or sometimes brake. When hydroplaning takes over, you can feel temporarily helpless. While in hydroplane, the following effects are common:
- Loss of steering
- Loss of brakes
- Loss of power control
When does hydroplaning occur?
When the amount of water on the road exceeds what your tire can scatter at a set speed, water separates the tires from the road, causing hydroplaning. This can occur any time that there is a wet road surface, but there are some instances where the conditions are especially conducive to hydroplaning.
- Most common weather for hydroplaning
Most drivers just don’t realize how dangerous the roadways can become when there is moisture present, and it doesn’t take much to cause an accident. National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data indicates that 46% of weather-related crashes occur during a rainstorm, just 17% for snow, and 12% for ice. It doesn’t require a rainstorm for hydroplaning to occur either; just a little light rain is enough to create slippery conditions, especially for drivers with older tires.
- Speed of the car for hydroplaning
When you add high speeds to slick roads, it’s a recipe for disaster. Studies show that when you travel at speeds of 35 miles per hour or higher, you significantly increase the chances of hydroplaning. Faster speeds reduce your ability to control the vehicle, and your tire treads are far less likely to find purchase on the ground.
- Hydroplaning in the snow
Hydroplaning is usually caused by rain or rain and oil mixing, but it can occur with snow as well. Snow can reduce friction significantly and increase the chances of sliding across the road. It also makes it much harder to stop. A common misconception is that you should double the braking distance in the rain, but in the snow, it is recommended to quadruple the distance to allow more time to ease your vehicle to a safe stop.
Many drivers underestimate the impact that rain can have on roadways. We may instinctively know to slow down and use extra caution when snow or ice is present, but because rain is more common, we are more likely to be used to these conditions and may not always use the utmost caution that the situation actually requires.
How to prevent hydroplaning
When you are driving during wet conditions, these are a few things you can do to help prevent hydroplaning.
The most dangerous time to drive is right after it starts raining. This is when the natural oils and residue on roadways rise to the surface and co-mingle with the rainwater, creating a slick and slippery surface. If you can, try not to be driving when it first starts raining to avoid the most slippery conditions.
When you drive fast in wet conditions, your tires are forced to displace water faster. Eventually, they cannot keep up with the buildup of water that comes between your tires and the asphalt. To mitigate the risk of hydroplaning, slow your speeds, give plenty of distance between cars and avoid any puddles or standing water on the road.
Check your tires
Your tires require some basic maintenance in order to keep them in the best shape for the road. This includes regularly rotating and balancing your tires. Most importantly, ensure your tires are properly inflated. A mechanic or tire specialist can check your inflation levels and condition of the tread. Tires that are worn and becoming bald can significantly increase your chances of hydroplaning when you drive.
Avoid cruise control
Cruise control can be convenient on long trips, but it’s not a good idea to use when rain, hail or snow is present on the road. By giving up control of both your speed and following distance, you can get too close to other cars and put yourself at higher risk of an accident. Instead, avoid cruise control and maintain manual control of the vehicle, managing speed and distance to other cars.
What to do when hydroplaning
If you find yourself hydroplaning, the loss of control can feel paralyzing, but there are some things that you can do immediately to help regain control and reduce your chances of an incident.
If your car is hydroplaning, try to stay calm and follow these tips.
- Turn the wheel.
When you feel the car begin to slide, turn the steering wheel in the direction that your car is hydroplaning to counteract the loss of control. This improves the wheel’s ability to regain traction.
- Stop speeding.
Gently lift your foot off the accelerator to gradually reduce your speed. Remember that speed increases the volume of water your tires have to displace, so letting your car naturally decelerate can gradually help the tires regain an advantage.
- Pump the breaks.
Resist the urge to slam on the breaks, which can exacerbate hydroplaning, and instead, lightly pump the brakes to slow the vehicle without adding to the skid.
- Drive in a lower gear.
Switching to a lower gear can help your car remain at a lower and more stable rate of acceleration, thereby reducing your chances of an accident. While it might be too much of a distraction to try and down-shift mid-hydroplane, driving in a lower gear at the outset of rain may help prevent hydroplaning from occurring at all.
- Take time to breathe.
Hydroplaning is intimidating for most drivers, no matter how long you’ve been on the road. If you experience hydroplaning, pull over when it’s safe to do so and take a moment to collect yourself and steady your nerves. Driving calmly improves your ability to take extra time and slow down or avoid pooling water.
Who’s at fault if you’re in a hydroplaning accident?
When you hydroplane, the matter of fault is not always straightforward. If there are injuries during a car accident, the insurance company will want to establish fault in order to know who is responsible for compensation.
There are certain factors that a driver can generally control that could make the driver responsible for a hydroplaning accident. Speed is one major factor, and if a driver is found to be driving at unsafe speeds relative to the weather or road conditions, the insurance company could find the driver at fault. If a driver has bald or under-inflated tires, that dramatically increases the chances of an accident and could also make a driver negligible.
Who is at fault in a hydroplaning accident?
Fault in a hydroplaning accident depends on several factors. For example, if there is a defect found in your tires, the manufacturer could be to blame. If the driver was shown to be speeding or otherwise negligible, then the driver would typically be found at-fault.
Does my insurance cover a hydroplaning accident?
Car insurance coverage protects you from a number of incidents that can happen on the road, including natural accidents that occur — such as hydroplaning. Insurance companies will typically analyze the accident in more detail or rely on a police report before assessing who is at fault and responsible for damages.
Does all-wheel drive prevent hydroplaning?
Controversy surrounds whether or not all-wheel drive (AWD) actually helps prevent or increases the risk of hydroplaning. Some car manufacturers indicate that AWD technology will redistribute power away from hydroplaning tires and effectively help regain traction, so check with your manufacturer if you are concerned about your AWD vehicle.
Can tire pressure affect the chances of hydroplaning?
Tire pressure is one of the leading causes of hydroplaning because it impacts how much contact your tires have with the road. When tires are under-inflated, they are less likely to grip and hold the road, instead allowing for water to come in between. That increases your chances of hydroplaning. To be safe, always check your tire pressure and ensure that your tires are properly inflated and aligned.