Hydroplaning 101


If you want to understand what hydroplaning is, here is everything you need to know about this phenomenon so that you can take to the road safely, and confidently, no matter the weather conditions.

Written by: Bradley Hayes
Automotive Blogger & Director of Marketing, Autoscope European Car Repair

One of the most common, and avoidable, causes of automobile accidents on the road today is hydroplaning. It’s what allows a single rain cloud to turn the steady, rhythmic flow of traffic into a grid-lock nightmare. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know first-hand just how abruptly it can happen – and how scary that loss of control over your car can be.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be scary, and you certainly don’t have to relinquish your control. While you can’t always control the conditions you drive under, you can equip yourself with everything you need to navigate these conditions with confidence, and help ensure the safety of yourself, your loved ones, and your fellow motorists.

The first step is simple: (to paraphrase Sun Tzu) “know thyself, know thine enemy, and you need not fear the results of a hundred conflicts”.  He may not have been referring to hydroplaning, specifically, but the philosophy is no less applicable.  So, let’s get to know our “enemy”, shall we?

What is Hydroplaning?

In broad terms, hydroplaning (sometimes referred to as “aquaplaning”) is uncontrollable sliding on a wet surface. Essentially, your tires have lost their grip on road, and are instead riding on top of the standing water. This can lead to an assortment of undesirable, and sometimes dangerous circumstances; the car can turn sideways, veer into other lanes/the guard-wall/off the road completely, and even flip in some cases. For all intents and purposes, hydroplaning turns your car into an expensive, uncontrolled 2-ton sled.

It’s important to note that hydroplaning does not require there to be extensive water on the road; it can occur during the periods after a light-shower just as easily as it can when the rain is coming down sheets. Anytime there is water on the ground, traction is compromised to some degree.

What Causes Hydroplaning?

Hydroplaning has several contributing factors. As the name suggests, the primary component is water. Other factors include:

  • Water Depth
  • Pavement Ruts/Texture/Cross-Slope & Grade/Width
  • Speed
  • Tire Inflation/Tread Wear/Tread Aspect Ratio
  • Vehicle Weight/Type

The tread on your car’s tires is designed to disperse water out from underneath of it, so that it maintains traction on the pavement. When there is more water than your tires can dissipate, your tires lose that traction, and your vehicle begins to hydroplane. This means that the risk of hydroplaning increases with the wear on your tires, since it diminishes the tread depth, and subsequently, the amount of water the tire can dissipate before losing traction.

How You Can Help Prevent Hydroplaning

As discussed above, hydroplaning can be caused by a multitude of different factors. Some of them are out of your control, sure – but, others are well within it. Because of this, these are the best 4 options for preventing (or, at the very least, greatly reducing the risk of) hydroplaning available to you.

1 – Slow Down

It may sound obvious but the faster you go, the more you run the risk of hydroplaning. If you’re on the road when it starts raining (or, after you know it just rained), your best course of action is to maintain a reduced rate of speed. The level to which you reduce it depends on the type and quality of the road, the condition of your tires, and the circumstances you’re driving under.  That said, it’s usually a good idea to cut back to about 5 or 10 mph under the posted limit as a rule of thumb, but nevertheless, always drive to the current conditions.

2 – Avoid Water (When Possible)

Again, this may seem pretty obvious – but a lot of the time when we’re driving, we’re focused on a lot of other things; time, maintaining the appropriate speed, making sure we’re positioned to turn/exit when we need to, getting the right climate and ambiance in the cabin, kids/pets making noise or getting out their seat-belts/restraints, and – unfortunately – our cell phones. So, we’re not always looking for that puddle of standing water, until it’s too late. It’s important, during periods of rain (as well as those after rain) to be mindful of potentially dangerous areas; especially areas that are known for their flooding potential. Planning your route ahead of time, using the radio, or the internet, or even waiting out the storm (if possible), can do wonders for lowering your chances of being caught in a skid resulting from hydroplaning.

3 – Maintain Tire Quality

One of the best methods of prevention for hydroplaning starts with the tires you choose for your car. Higher quality tires afford you both better and longer lasting tread – which, in turn, helps maximize the water dispersion for longer, while minimizing the frequency for tire replacement. Regardless of the tires you choose, it’s still equally important to maintain them. Keeping them properly inflated, as well as regularly rotated and balanced, will ensure that you get the most life and performance out of your tires. Tire balancing and rotation should be performed at every other oil change, or every 7,000-10,000 miles.

4 – No Cruise Control

There’s no argument that Cruise Control can be a very useful and efficient feature, especially on long drives. Set it and forget it, right? Well, while this provides an almost unmatched level of convenience on open stretches of dry pavement, it’s the opposite of convenient on drives in the rain, or on wet roads. In the event that your car begins to hydroplane, you will need to disengage the cruise control – which takes valuable time, and forethought in a situation where time is not on your side, and panic could be affecting your brain’s ability to process things clearly. The less you have to do, the less you have to worry about, and the more time you have to focus on the appropriate counter-measures (see below).

How to Know When You’re Hydroplaning

While it may seem obvious to some, there may be people out there who haven’t experienced it. Or, because hydroplaning most often results in only a split-second skid, there may be a lot of people who have experienced without ever being aware that it was happening.

  • Your car is probably going to start feeling loose and may start to veer left or right
  • If only the Front Wheels Hydroplane, your car will begin to slip to the outside of the bend
  • If only the Back Wheels Hydroplane, the rear of the car will begin to swing out to the side, skidding the car sideways
  • If All Wheels Hydroplane, the car will skid in a straight line

Depending on how you’ve been driving, as well as any differences in quality between your tires, your car will behave differently. These are the most common scenarios, so other instances of hydroplaning may present in a variation (or combination) of these.

What You Should Do if Your Car Hydroplanes

If you find yourself in this situation, the most important thing you can do is not panic. Losing control of your vehicle, especially on a busy roadway, can be quite scary, but we’re here to show you how to regain control of your car and navigate this situation safely and confidently.

Do NOT hit the brakes!

This is the most important thing to remember, but can be the first thing we forget while we’re “in the moment.” Which is understandable, because “brakes stop the car.” And that is true – it’s what they were designed to do – but they do this by stopping the wheels, and using the friction between them and the pavement to bring the whole car to a stop. When you’re hydroplaning, the wheels have left the pavement, and stomping on the brakes can cause the vehicle to begin skidding completely out of control.

Instead, take your foot off the gas pedal.

Accelerating while skidding can not only cause you to skid more, but if your tires regain their contact with the pavement, can cause a burst of speed in whichever direction they’re in as a result of the skid.  Once you feel your tires disengage, simply lift your foot off the gas pedal – not too fast, not too slow.

Note: if your foot was on the brake pedal when you entered the skid, you’ll want to promptly remove your foot from the brake pedal.

Turn INTO the Skid

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the best method for getting your car positioned correctly.  A good way to think about it, is to “turn the wheel in the direction you want to go.”  Keep your grip firm on the wheel, and carefully turn it in the direction of the skid (or, the direction you’d like to be going). Do NOT jerk the wheel  You may need to turn it back the other way, if you’ve over-corrected.  In fact, you may need to do this a couple times to get your car positioned just right.  So, if you don’t get it the first time, do not panic, just calmly adjust course back the other way.  Another important thing to remember is that multiple small turns on the steering wheel is key, and can help you prevent a lot of unnecessary over-correcting, and panic (which could lead to wheel-jerking).

Wait for the Car to Reconnect to the Pavement

You will feel the car’s wheels reclaim their traction on the road’s surface.  The previous step was to make sure that your car was positioned appropriately, with the wheels spinning in the right direction, so that when they regained their traction…your car would continue on-course.  Hydroplaning is not a drawn-out process, so you will not have to wait long…but if you do, just remember to stay calm, and maintain your car’s positioning.

These types of situations can have quite an effect on you, emotionally and mentally.  Spikes of adrenaline, panic, fear…these are all perfectly natural bodily responses. Once the dust settles, and you’re out of the skid, it may be a good idea to find a spot to pull over and allow yourself a moment to calm down, recollect, and let your mind get back to normal functioning before continuing on. This might not be true for everyone, as we all have different responses to these kinds of situations, but if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed afterwards, just remember that nothing is so important you can’t take a few minutes to settle your nerves before venturing back out into the rain and puddles.

If the tread on your European car’s tires has worn enough to make driving in the wet more precarious than usual, Autoscope European Car Repair is here to help as a Top Rated authorized Tire Rack Independent Recommended Installer. Don’t hesitate to give us a call for any tire-related advice and recommendations for your European car, or set up an appointment online today! For more about tires as they relate to driving safely in wet conditions, watch Autoscope Plano General Manager Chris Williams in the Autoscope Minute video below.

Video – Autoscope Minute: Hydroplaning

Trending Videos

Why Katie Loves Autoscope

Our New Plano Showroom

Wet Dallas Roads