With the recent tropical rains along the east coast we are reminded of how unsafe our cars become with water on the highways. One family was killed when their SUV hydroplaned and crashed.
What is hydroplaning? Hydroplaning is when your tires surf on the water. It is the very same principle as a surf board gliding along on the surface of a wave.
The first thing I want to impress on you is that water is incompressible. Your tires are not going to squeeze the water out from between your tire and the pavement. Any water on the highway is going to stay between your tires and the road; the tire will push a wave of water in front of it and ride up on that wave. It doesn’t matter how much your vehicle weighs; tractor trailer rigs are just as susceptible to hydroplaning as little bitty cars.
Tire manufacturers try to convince you that their tread design “carries” the water out from between the tire and the road. That’s not going to happen. Tread designs may channel some of the water off to the side, but, there’s still that itsy, bitsy film of water between your tire and the road. Is that itsy, bitsy film of water dangerous? It is as slick as oil. Not heeding water on the road is about the same as playing Russian roulette with a six shooter with five live cartridges in the cylinders. That itsy-bitsy film of water can lift your heavy old car off the road and turn it into an uncontrollable mass of destruction.
How do you deal with water on the highway? First and foremost is simply slow down. If there is water on the road, you are hydroplaning. But, if you are driving slowly enough, you can control it. The reason most of us don’t get killed when it’s raining is that we are forced to slow down because the windshield wipers can’t clear the windshield and most of us are smart enough to realize, that if we can’t see very far ahead, we probably need to slow down. But there are those among us who don’t think that way.
The second major thing we can do in rainy weather as well as winter weather is make sure your tires have enough tread depth. The absolute minimum safe tread depth is 1/16th of an inch. A lot of pundits like to use the ol’ penny trick. The distance from the top of Abe Lincoln’s head to the edge of the penny coin is about 1/16th of an inch. Stick the coin in and measure the depth of your tread that way.
I would never drive on tires with just 1/16th of an inch. I consider my life and my family more valuable than the four to six hundred bucks a set of new tires cost. The SUV that crashed back east during the tropical rain was running on tires that were bald, generally interpreted to mean they had tread depth of less than 1/16th inch.
And lastly, even if the rain has stopped, be careful not to drive into water standing in low spots of the roadway. You can either hydroplane out of control or be washed away if the water is moving. You’ve probably heard “turn around, don’t drown,” and that is absolutely great advice. It only takes twenty to twenty four inches of moving water to float a car and about eight inches to wash most of us off our feet. Since I’m six foot, about two-seventy, it might take a foot of water to wash me of my feet. The important point, however, is that very little water can do it to us all.
Roads are built with taper toward the edges and most water runs off. But the systems can get overwhelmed quite easily. You, the driver, are responsible for recognizing when the system is out of kilter. You’re going to be surfing every time you drive on roads wet from rain. So slow down, and keep good tires where the rubber meets the road.