The 411 on Hydroplaning
Drivers know that hydroplaning in a vehicle can be dangerous, but what is hydroplaning, and how can you avoid it?
To provide sufficient traction, tires must maintain adequate contact with the road. When water is present on the road, the tread design of the tire will channel water away from the contact area to ensure continued traction. However, if enough water is present on the surface, or if tire conditions are less-than-ideal, the water won’t completely dissipate, and a wedge of water forms in front of the tire. If the vehicle is traveling fast enough, it will actually ride up onto this wedge and lose all contact with the road surface. When this occurs, the vehicle is hydroplaning.
Hydroplaning (also known as aquaplaning) is similar in effect to surfing or water skiing. Hydroplaning can occur when there is as little as a quarter inch of standing water on the road surface, and the vehicle speeds are as low as 35 miles per hour. It happens when the force applied by the water wedge in front of the tire becomes greater than the weight of the vehicle, and lifts it off the ground. As the vehicle continues forward, more water is pushed under the tire, sustaining the effect.
Many factors can influence hydroplaning. Wider tires are more likely to hydroplane than narrower tires at lower speeds. This also holds true for tires that are underinflated, as they create a wider contact patch on the road surface, and also tend to push the center of the tire upward, preventing it from moving water out of the way. Tread design and the amount of tread left on a tire determines how well the tire can displace standing water. Directional tires with their repeating “V” shape tread pattern offer the best hydroplaning resistance and are recommended for drivers residing in areas of heavy rainfall. The travel speed of the vehicle can also greatly affect its tendency to hydroplane, as can its weight.
Proper tire maintenance is essential to avoiding situations where your vehicle can hydroplane. Tires must remain properly inflated at all times and have sufficient tread depth and pattern to displace water. Avoid standing water, and steer clear of grooves in the road where water pools. Try and follow in the tracks left by the vehicle in front of you. Because proper reaction to hydroplaning requires a slow and steady transition off the throttle, you should never use cruise control on wet roads, and you should pay attention to early warning signs of hydroplaning, like subtle changes in steering or an engine that revs up because the drive tires have lost traction with the road.