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What is hydroplaning?

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Updated 31 Oct 2019

Bruce McMahon

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Driving in torrential rain can be a little frightening - sometimes a little beyond frightening.

Windscreen wipers at full pelt, praying the vehicle ahead has working taillights, squinting through the gloom and gripping the steering wheel too tight.

The worst of wet weather driving is hydroplaning, when a road is awash and tyres cannot get rid of the water to find grip.

Contact between tyres and road decreases dramatically and control of the car can become tenuous.

It can all come out of the blue, especially after a long dry spell and when drivers forget that oil and water on the road don’t mix too well.

How does a car hydroplane?

Hydroplaning is when a car’s tyres skim on water, or skid and slide across a wet surface.

Leaving aside driver input, car control largely depends on the vehicle’s grip level, how it sticks to the road.

Interaction between the road surface and tyres is vital for optimum drive traction, steering and braking.

A wet, muddy or iced road can be slicker than a reality TV star and any slick surface means reduced opportunities for tyres to maintain contact with the road.

When grip level is lessened or lost because of water, or any ‘film’ between road and tyre, control of the car’s drive, steering and braking can be lost. All at once.

The car will slide, steering will become lighter and less direct while braking distances will increase.

What to do

As with all driving ‘incidents and accidents’ it’s best not to panic.

Easy to say but stay calm, don’t overreact and don’t make heavy-handed moves.

Slow the car by easing off the accelerator. Don’t brake hard or wrestle with the steering wheel.

It’d be a good idea to hit the hazard lights and alert the drivers around that there’s trouble and that you’re slowing.

As the car slows, steer in the direction you want to go and perhaps brake gently.

Breathe deeply.

How to avoid hydroplaning

Some of the drama with hydroplaning and slippery slides may be countered by all-wheel drive and electronic driver aids but the best advice is to back off a bit in wet weather, read the road ahead and keep the vehicle’s tyres in good condition.

There are some tyres which can work better at dispersing surface water yet all need safe tread depth - there’s good reason why V8 Supercar drivers head to the pits for treaded, rather than smooth and slick, rubber when wet weather hits a track.

Generally, passenger car tyres are best at coping with wet roads; aggressive and chunky off-road tyres not so good.

Check with your local AutoGuru tyre expert, or mechanic, on the state of your car’s rubber and the best tyres for your particular driving conditions.

Think about a driver’s course

And maybe think about a defensive driving course, one where you can experience hydroplaning and skids in safety.

That’ll steady you up and make for a better driver in rain or shine; there are good arguments as to why all Australians need better training before being given a licence.

Is your car in need of better tyres to deal with hydroplaning?

Get a quick quote from local tyre experts through AutoGuru.

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Written By

Bruce McMahon

Bruce McMahon is a Queensland-based journalist who’s spent a fair slice of his career dealing with automotive matters.

His first car was a 1949 Riley Roadster, followed by a mix of machinery from Porsches to Jeeps, Alfa Romeos and Range Rovers through to the current four-wheel drive Mazda ute.

He’s driven the Nurburgring and the Tanami Tracks.