What is aquaplaning and how to avoid it

What is aquaplaning and how to avoid it
With an average of 156.2 days of rainfall every year, according to the Met Office, aquaplaning is a common issue in the UK.

Where there is surface water there is always the risk of ‘aquaplaning’, which causes you to lose control of your vehicle and puts you in danger of being involved in a collision.

It’s important for any driver to take some time to consider what aquaplaning is, how to act if it were to occur when they are behind the wheel and what they can do to avoid it ever happening in the first place.

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What is aquaplaning?

Aquaplaning is an issue caused when a layer of water is allowed to build up between a vehicle’s tyres and the surface of the road beneath. 

At this point, the tyres cannot grip on the road and this causes a lack of traction which means the driver loses control and is unable to steer, brake or accelerate. 

It can be quite a frightening experience and can easily cause an accident.

Some people know this by the alternative name of hydroplaning – both words mean exactly the same thing.

What causes aquaplaning?

This can be caused by heavy rainfall building up on a road’s surface or by pools of water where there are holes or ruts in a road. The water needs to be at least 2.5mm (or 1/10 of an inch) deep.

On top of that, aquaplaning can be made worse by two other factors – the condition of a vehicle’s tyres and the speed that the vehicle is travelling. 

It’s said that good quality tyres can clear the equivalent of a bucket of water off a road every seven seconds – meaning that tyres in tip top condition can handle a fair amount of water when driving in wet conditions. 

Conversely, tyres with a low tread will struggle to clear as much water and could, in the wrong conditions, make the issue worse and allow the layer of water to build up beneath the tyres.

Here is a short video from Ford explaining the causes in more detail and showing why poor tyre condition can result in aquaplaning. 

How do you know if your car is aquaplaning?

When driving on a wet road you might:

  • Hear your engine suddenly become louder
  • Feel like you’ve dropped the clutch down the gears while driving at speed, causing the revs to increase
  • Feel the steering become ‘light’
  • Experience the back end of the car drifting from side to side – known as ‘fishtailing’

How to control an aquaplaning vehicle

If your car starts aquaplaning, don't panic - follow these tips to help control an aquaplaning vehicle:

  • Don't hit the brakes hard
  • Gently ease off the accelerator
  • Hold the steering wheel straight
  • Switch off cruise control mode if you have it on
  • When the car begins to gain control you can begin to brake to bring your speed down

Once you’ve realised that your car has started to aquaplane it’s important to keep your cool. If you try to do something drastic – hitting the brakes hard or twisting the wheel suddenly – you could cause your car to skid or slide into a collision.

Instead, it’s important to hold the steering wheel straight and gradually ease your foot off the accelerator. As you slow down you should be able to feel your wheels gaining traction and you’ll get back control. As this point it’s safe to make slow and steady movements of the steering wheel and gently use your brakes. 

If your car has a cruise control mode then it’s a good idea to switch this off when driving in wet conditions. If your car is aquaplaning and this is on then you should switch it off as soon as you notice the four issues outlined above (this should be done with the button and not the brakes to avoid issues).

Take care when driving in wet conditions

How to avoid aquaplaning

There are a number of things motorists can do to avoid aquaplaning - both in terms of driving technique and maintaining your vehicle, key points include:

  • Check the condition of tyres
  • Don't drive too fast
  • Avoid sudden actions
  • Be prepared

Five tips to help avoid aquaplaning

As well as remembering the above actions here are five helpful tips on what preparations you can undertake to ensure you avoid aquaplaning. 

1. Understand the conditions

Always check the weather conditions before you drive, paying particular attention to the conditions that you might encounter further along the way when undertaking a longer distance drive. 

You’ll also be able to see and feel when the driving conditions change – and things such as spilt oil or mud on the roads can all be exacerbated by rainfall. Make sure you react to the warning signs in front of you and alter your driving technique according to the weather and road conditions.

2. Watch your speed

Your tyres will have less chance of gripping to the road if you’re travelling at a higher speed. 

Don't drive too fast

There’s no specific ‘aquaplaning speed limit’ that you can stay below to avoid this but it’s thought that a vehicle moving at about 30mph in an inch or two of water will be able to keep enough traction to avoid aquaplaning, while one moving at 50mph in the same conditions is much less likely to stay in control. 

Remember, too, that stopping distances can double in wet conditions, so it’s important not to drive too fast and get too close to the vehicle in front.

3. Keep your tyres in good condition

As we’ve discussed above, tyres in a poor condition can contribute towards aquaplaning as they might struggle to clear enough water off the road. 

Keep tyres in good condition

As a result, it’s important to regularly check your tyres to make sure they are in good condition and are properly inflated. Your car manual will tell you what your vehicle’s tyre pressure should be – or you can type your registration into the Tyre Pressures website - and you can easily check this at most petrol stations. 

The legal tyre depth is 1.6mm but it’s not ideal to leave them until they reach this level, especially for wet conditions.

A car with a 1.6mm tread travelling at 50 mph in wet weather would come to a stop a full eight metres further along the road than a car with a tread of 3mm.

4. Follow the track

If you’re following a car in front then their tyres will probably make ‘tracks’ in the water.

This is where they will have already displaced some of the rainfall so, by following the tracks – at a safe distance - you can reduce your chances of aquaplaning.

5. Smooth driving

Driving a lower speed will help, but so too will driving smoothly. Sudden and drastic changes in direction are not a good idea at the best of times, but especially not on wet roads. 

You need to pay particular attention to bends in roads and be aware of the techniques mentioned above so that you know how to react should your vehicle begin to aquaplane. It’s also a good idea to avoid using cruise control when driving in wet conditions.

By understanding what aquaplaning is, how to avoid it and how to regain control if it were to occur you’ll be in a better position to drive safely in the wet conditions often experienced on the roads in the UK.

Read next: how to drive through puddles and standing water properly

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