What is aquaplaning – and how to avoid it

Red car in puddle on wet road

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Driving conditions in winter can be treacherous, and even if you know how to cope with driving through wind and rain, there’s the added danger of driving through standing water. That can lead to the dreaded ‘aquaplaning’, which can cause a sudden loss of control and a nasty  crash. You can minimise the risk of an aquaplaning accident by carrying out a few simple checks each month and making sure you know what to do if you suddenly lose control.

What is aquaplaning?

When driving, aquaplaning occurs when a layer of water builds up between tyres and the road surface. This leads to a loss of traction that prevents the vehicle from responding properly to the driver's controls.

 

The build-up of water that leads to a risk of aquaplaning is usually caused by increased rainfall and flooding, but can also be caused by water gathering in ruts in the road caused by heavy vehicles. And the problem can be made worse if your tyre tread isn’t deep enough as water doesn’t flow away from the tyres quickly enough. The legal UK minimum tyre tread depth is 1.6mm, but if your tyres are anywhere near this level you should get them changed. To put some perspective on the difference tread depth can make, consider that a car with a 1.6 mm tread travelling at 50 mph in wet weather will stop eight metres after a car with a tread of 3mm. You’ll also need to make sure your tyres are pumped up to the right level as underinflated tyres can raise the centre section of the tyre’s width and prevent the tread from pushing water clear, and this can also affect grip. Whatever the reason, once a layer of water causes the tyres to lose contact with the road surface, the wheels can slip, making the vehicle unresponsive to steering, braking or acceleration. It's basically like driving on ice, and the vehicle can skid or spin in just the same way.

How to cut the risk of aquaplaning

Making sure your tyres are properly inflated and have adequate tread depth is one way to reduce the risk of standing water sending your car into a spin. The correct tyres pressures for your car will be in your owner's manual or on a plate inside one of the door frames or under the bonnet. If you still can’t find it try typing your registration number into http://www.tyre-pressures.com/. Once you’ve got the number, get them pumped to the right pressure. Carry out this check at least once a month, and while you’re there check the tread depth and overall tyre condition, keeping a look out for cuts, lumps or bulges and any damage to wheel rims, especially if you’ve recently hit a pothole. And if your car has suffered significant damage from hitting a pothole, you could make claim against the local authority.

What to do if your car is aquaplaning

If you’re on a wet road when the steering suddenly feels light and the engine revs increase, there’s a good chance you’re aquaplaning. This feeling that you’ve lost traction might also cause the back end of the car to fishtail – basically, drift sideways, back and forth. If this happens, resist the urge to slam on the brakes and turn the wheel – this can throw the car into a violent skid. Instead, keep the wheel straight and slowly ease your foot off the accelerator until you can feel traction returning to your wheels. Once you feel traction coming back, you can gently nudge the steering wheel in the direction you need to go, and if you do need to slow down, gently pump the brake and use the gears if you can. If you’re driving in the wet, you should turn off cruise-control, but if you find yourself aquaplaning with it on, disengage it using the switch and not the brake pedal, then follow the steps above. For more tips on driving in adverse weather conditions, check out How to drive in rain and on wet roads.

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