Hydroplaning (or Aquaplaning) is perhaps the single, most terrifying incident a driver can ever encounter, a situation that I would rank above losing your brakes or having a tire blowout on the highway.
The increased speed of road travel brought about by our ever expanding network of fast expressways coupled with our intensifying rain showers and storms means that the chances will encounter the dangers brought about by hydroplaning more in the coming years.
Despite that, there are a lot of drivers out there who do not understand the phenomenon, nor do they recognize how dangerous it really is. Since road safety is a priority of ours here at AutoIndustriya.com, here is a guide on how to recognize when you're hydroplaning, how to recover from it using advanced driving techniques, and even discuss practical measures to prevent it from happening to you and potentially your family.
What is hydroplaning?
Hydroplaning is surprisingly simple to understand: because of water on the road, your tires are no longer touching surface whether its asphalt (or tarmac), concrete, and even dirt. Think of it like playing with a skim board on the water at the beach. Sounds like fun if you're on vacation, but cars aren't meant for that.
The chances of hydroplaning happening depends on three factors: water, speed, and the condition of your tires.
To operate safely at speed, vehicles (whether they have two wheels or more) depend on a certain level of friction between the tires and the road surface. Water, however, is nature's lubricant, meaning it can very easily defeat friction. And so the more the water from a heavy or even a moderate downpour, the greater the chances of hydroplaning.
The most obvious culprit is standing water (or puddles) on a road. Standing water is quite common on our national highways, especially given the rather inadequate standards to which our infrastructure is built. On paper it seems fine, but many of us recognize that the reality is quite different.
Our expressways are generally better, but there are spots where water can collect either through poor or insufficient drainage; one that comes to mind are portions of the Skyway system notorious for standing water. There are also instances where hydroplaning is likely even without standing water; sometimes even a thin film of water is enough.
Speed is also a very important factor, but the relationship is easy to understand: the higher the speed, the greater the risk of hydroplaning when you encounter water.
It's important to know that while normal road tires are made to disperse water, the higher rate of rotation by driving fast means that the tires have less time to perform that function. When the tires aren't able to effectively channel the water in its tread pattern because there's too much water or you're driving too fast, they will hydroplane.
How to recognize hydroplaning
I've personally experienced what it's like to hydroplane and, thankfully, that was on a racing circuit aboard a race car. It sounds dangerous but I'd rather encounter it on a track rather than a road because it's the safest place to learn about it; there is no oncoming traffic, there are no pedestrians, race cars are built with driver survivability in mind, and then there's the fact that race tracks are intentionally built to mitigate the dangers of high speed crashes.
Recognizing that your car is hydroplaning is easy as it usually comes with a big splash of some sort, meaning you drove over standing water with a good deal of speed. It is still possible to hydroplane without a big splash though; this usually happens during a mild rainshower on tarmac, as a moderate amount of water tends to bring out certain oils used in the construction of asphalt, increasing the lubricating effect of water.
But the most telltale signs are dependent on the driver; the first is the steering and the second is the sensation. While hydroplaning, there is little or no steering, but that's not to say that the wheels are not turning when in fact they are. The steering actually gets very, very light, almost as if the power steering (if your car is equipped with it) got a sudden sugar rush. The reason for that is because your front tires no longer have contact with the road, removing almost all resistance to your steering input.
I also mentioned that there's a sensation that the driver feels. For lack of a better description, it's like you have butterflies in your stomach, and they will tell you if your car is hydroplaning as the car will feel like it's gliding. In a sense the car really is, and in that time the driver will feel like he has little or no control of the car.
Because one or more of the tires are not touching the road, steering is rendered ineffective and brakes will not work. At least not in a way that gives the driver a measure of control. Depending on the vehicle, the car can slide or even skid sideways. And that's where the danger truly lies, as hydroplaning often results in uncontrolled high speed crashes.
There are more specific aspects of aquaplaning that are important to understand. If the wheels being driven are the ones that lose contact with the road, chances are the RPM will abruptly increase. For front-wheel drive sedans, that would mean the front wheels have lost contact. For rear-wheel drive vehicles that means the back wheels are not touching the road. For four wheel drive cars, that means all of them are aquaplaning.
The extent of the aquaplaning also determines the potential behavior of the car.
If the front tires have lost contact, the car has a tendency to understeer, meaning you can't turn effectively.
If the rear tires have gone, the car has a tendency to oversteer; the rear tires (especially on a typical front-wheel drive sedan) give the car its stability.
If all four have gone, then it becomes really risky, as you're basically just sliding along.
Recognizing which is which will be important.
How to reduce the risk of hydroplaning
There are three major ways to reduce the risk of aquaplaning on a public road.
The first, of course, is reducing speed. Aquaplaning generally happens at around 60 km/h, so any speed just below is generally safe. That's the reason why we need to reduce our speed whenever the rain starts coming down enough to necessitate the use of wipers. Also, it goes without saying: in a downpour on the highway, increase your gap to the vehicle in front of you. Normally it's three car lengths, but in the rain with limited visibility and a potential for aquaplaning, it's best to keep it at six or more.
The next is the condition of our tires. Simply put: worn tires have less tread depth than new ones.
New tires typically have about 8mm-deep grooves in them. These grooves generally feed into each other and are designed to act as channels to scatter water. The older a tire gets, the shallower the grooves become. If the tread depth drops to about 2mm, it's time to replace the set, as the tires won't be as effective in dispersing water on the road.
Sure, not all tires are created equal as some have better water dispersal qualities than others, but generally — unless you're rolling on high-performance summer tires — they all scatter water on the road rather well.
The last but equally vital way to prevent aquaplaning is driver alertness. A driver who is focused and always scanning the road ahead can identify puddles from a fair distance and take action to avoid them. And please, put down your phone while you're behind the wheel.
Before going out for a long drive -especially at times when heavy downpours are expected- do remember to have your tire pressures checked at the nearest qualified tire specialist or service station.
How to recover from hydroplaning
What makes aquaplaning truly terrifying is that it can happen in an instant. It can occur despite taking every step to prevent or avoid it; all that's needed are a series of unfortunate events.
Even though you're faced with the loss of contact between the tires and the road, there are things you can do to safely recover from a hydroplane, but all this has to happen in a matter of seconds. Milliseconds, even.
The first and most important thing to do is to not panic when you do hydroplane. The sensation of hydroplaning is unsettling to say the least, but as drivers in control of a vehicle, we must stay in control of ourselves to be safe on the road. Concentration is key, and panic seeks to break that.
Another one is to not send any erratic or exaggerated inputs to the tires through the steering wheel, the accelerator, or even the brakes. Every input has to be measured and applied gradually so as not to unsettle the car even further. Simply put: don't slam on the brakes, don't make any sudden turns, and don't stomp on the throttle pedal.
These two aspects will be the foundations of recovering from an aquaplane. Then, and only then, can you can begin to apply the right driving techniques to get through it.
If you're lucky, you'll aquaplane in a straight line with no vehicles in your way. In that situation, you just keep the car stable with minimal steering input and minimal pressure on either the brakes or the throttle. Once your tires regain contact (which hopefully they will) you can go on your merry way.
If you're unlucky, the car could start to drift or slide sideways, and that involves a more challenging recovery. Here, it's important to not make any sudden moves that could suddenly shift the weight of the car from front to back (excessive braking or throttle) or side to side (excessive steering).
You want to keep the car in a balanced state, and perhaps feed in a little steering to correct the skid. If the back of the car is sliding right, you'll need to steer a little bit to the right as well to correct it. If the back is going left, steer left. How much steering you will need will depend on how much angle the car is sliding.
Also keep in mind that any heavy braking must be done when the car has regained contact with the road and is traveling in a straight line. It is possible, however, to encounter a skid so severe that there's nothing left to do but brake and hope you come to a stop. There are still techniques to recover but they're quite advanced and require a fair degree of instruction from specialized professional driving schools and a lot of practice on a wet skid pad. And no, these schools aren't the kind you sign up with at a nearby mall.
Remember that the goal is for the tires to get past the hydroplane and regain contact with the road, so it's vital to keep the vehicle straight and balanced through measured and gradual driver inputs.
When you do safely get past an aquaplane, find a safe place to pull over (no, not the road shoulder) and and take a breather to relax, calm down, and take stock that you've just won a battle against a very dangerous adversary.
Ironically, it's a good time to pull out a bottle of water and have a sip.