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Preventing and dealing with aquaplaning

Aquaplaning: the log flume of driving

  • What is aquaplaning and how to avoid it
  • Tips on how to deal with aquaplaning

Aquaplaning is something everyone knows about but very few people understand. Also known as hydroplaning (by posh people in white coats), aquaplaning is the action of losing grip, usually between car tyres and the road, due to excess water on the road surface.

Aquaplaning happens to most drivers at least once, especially given the rainy weather we enjoy here in the UK. Mostly it’s only for a very brief second or two, driving over a puddle, and you’ve no sooner clocked it than it’s over with. But sometimes you’re on a long stretch of road with a lot of water all over it, and the next thing you know, your steering’s stopped working, you’ve lost all grip, and when you stamp on the brakes, you start to skid…

It’s scary. Whether you’re a learner, newly qualified or a seasoned driver, feeling a car aquaplane (and possibly start to slide) can frighten the life out of you.

Coping with aquaplaning

But there are things you can do to make sure you get through your ordeal unscathed. The first thing is to understand exactly what aquaplaning is, and the problems it causes.

Aquaplaning: cause and consequence

Aquaplaning occurs when your car tyres, instead of touching the road, drive over a layer of water (usually due to recent heavy rain or a water leak somewhere) and lose contact with the road surface. You can tell when this happens because your steering goes very light (it’s one of those things that, when it happens to you, you’ll know it’s happening instantly and is also associated with a drop in obvious road noise as the rubber on your tyres is no longer touching the tarmac, or road surface).

Unfortunately, because things like braking and steering rely on the friction between your tyres and the road in order to work, you momentarily lose those abilities. This makes your car extremely difficult to control. You can’t steer, you can’t slow down, you can’t speed up (although why you’d want to is a mystery).

If you want to help yourself avoid disaster before you even get close, you should:

  • Make sure your tyres are pumped up to the right pressure
  • Make sure your tyre tread is legal: the more tread you have, the more grip you get
  • Slow down if you see an area of water on the road, and possibly change down gears

Even with these precautions though, anyone can be caught out.

So what do you do?

When they start to aquaplane, most people panic. This is perfectly normal, and understandable; however, it’s not the best solution, as panicking has very little positive effect on your car.
Instead, you need to learn how to regain control of your wayward car, FAST.

Most people, when their car starts to aquaplane, instinctively come off the accelerator and onto the brakes. In theory, this should work: hazard + slowing down = safer driving. And if you slowed down gradually, then it probably would in real life too.

Sadly, most people don’t slow down gradually. They jerk their foot off the accelerator and stomp on the brake. This is where the problems start. By doing this, you upset the balance of the car. Once the balance goes, that’s when you start slipping, skidding, sliding and generally heading in a direction you’d rather not go for.

Instead, KEEP CALM. When you feel your car start to aquaplane, slowly ease your foot off the accelerator and whatever you do don’t brake suddenly, and don’t try to turn the wheel. If you do this, you’ll be through the water in no time and you should get full control back.

If you’ve already lost steering and you need to correct yourself, do so with the smallest of movements, and dip the clutch at the same time.

If you have cruise control on the car and this is on, turn it off via the switch (not by braking to disengage it).

If you were braking when you lost control, ease up off the brake peddle and if you really can't avoid some braking, pump the brake peddle rather than one hard jab (unless you have ABS where you can brake normally and the car will pump them for you).

And of course, a sure fire way to help you recover from any sticky situation is to stay calm. Most Aquaplaning usually only lasts a second or two, then you’ll be over the worst, you’ll get your grip back, and you can put your car back where it’s meant to be.

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