It's the moment all drivers dread. The sound of raindrops on your windshield suddenly becomes a hard, chattering torrential downpour. You're suddenly surrounded by a sea of flashing brake and hazard lights as other drivers panic brake. Others continue on at full speed, blissfully unmindful of the danger.
But the danger is there. And what you do in the next few seconds or minutes can save your life. Read on to find out more about hydroplaning and how to both avoid and cope with it.
1) Make sure your car is fit to drive in the rain. We've written a few articles on this before. But in this case, the most important things to remember are ensuring your tires still have the proper amount of tread left to deal with standing water. Also make sure that they're inflated properly, all the better for slicing through puddles instead of sliding across them.
2) Assess the conditions. As the rain starts, grease, oil and even asphalt binder built up over the past weeks and months start rising to the road surface. Oil floats on water, creating a slippery film that coats the road long before any visible puddles form.
3) Don't panic. This film doesn't form instantly, however. Panic braking is counterproductive, and can have you being the lead car in a 20-vehicle pile-up. Instead, smoothly and gently slow down to a safer speed.
4) Don't use your hazard lights. We've said it before, we'll say it again. Don't distract other drivers who are trying to cope with difficult weather. If, and only if, you cannot continue down the road at a safe and reasonable speed (if visibility is such that you cannot see, or if the water is too deep), then turn on your hazards and pull over to the side of the road.
5) Be smooth, be gradual. Think about how you walk across a wet bathroom floor; every step is deliberate. You make no sudden movements that can upset your balance and start your feet sliding out from under you. This is how you should drive your car. Every turn of the steering, tap of the brake or prod of the accelerator pedal should be slow, smooth and gradual. This limits the risk of losing grip.
6) Don't panic 2.0. Sometimes, no matter how many precautions you take, hydroplaning is inevitable when you hit an invisible puddle on a dark road at night, or a sudden wet patch in a dip in the road. When this happens, you will feel the steering get lighter. There will be a vaguely disconnected feeling between what you're asking the car to do and what it actually does.
This loss of control only lasts a few seconds. Once the car loses speed, it will once again regain contact with the ground. Any sudden braking or swerving attempted while it is still sliding can pitch you out of control once this happens. Again, lift off the accelerator very gently, and try to keep the car going straight with minimal steering input. Do not slam on the brakes.
7) Steer into the slide to regain control. This sounds counter-intuitive, but this is the quickest way to gain back traction—or grip—over the front tires.
8) Do not overcompensate when countersteering. Once you have some traction, countersteer—or steer against the slide—but do not overdo it. Quick, panicked countersteering can start a fishtailing motion that can be difficult to bring back under control.
9) "If the car is in a spin, both feet in." This is an old racing school saying. If the car is facing sideways in a full, unrecoverable spin, attempting to correct it can have you suddenly flying off in a different direction if your car suddenly regains traction.
Steer into the slide, slam on both the brake and clutch pedals (hence "both feet") and try to bring the car to a stop.
"When in doubt both feet out" means that if you're not in a terminal spin yet and are only drifting slightly, avoid hitting the brakes or clutch, as this can upset the balance of the car and create the spin you are trying to avoid. Instead, try to steer out of it with gentle, smooth corrections.
10) Get off the road and calm down. After you've lost—and hopefully regained—control of your car in the wet, pull off the road to assess the condition of both the car and yourself. Give yourself a few minutes to calm down and collect your wits. If driving conditions are still terrible, park the car and sit it out.
Wherever you're going, it's more important to arrive alive than to arrive early. In this case, "better late than never" takes on a whole new meaning.