Heavy rainfall can make driving more dangerous and surface water on the roads can cause your car to aquaplane, which may result in you losing control of your vehicle.
Unfortunately, in the UK, we’re used to wet weather – according to the Met Office, some of the wettest parts of the UK receive over 4 metres of rainfall in a year.
This means we'll likely have to drive in heavy rain at some point, so it's important to know about aquaplaning and how to avoid it.
We’ll tell you everything you need to know, including the causes of aquaplaning, how to react as a driver when aquaplaning, tips for motorcyclists and how to avoid aquaplaning in the first place.
In this article
What is aquaplaning?
Sometimes known as hydroplaning, aquaplaning is an issue caused when a layer of water builds up between a vehicle's tyres and the surface of the road, reducing grip.
With no traction between the tyres and the road, you could lose control of the car temporarily and be unable to steer, brake or accelerate.
Motorbikes are also vulnerable to aquaplaning – always allow greater distances between yourself and motorcyclists in heavy rain.
Learn more about driving in heavy rain and floods.
How do you know your car is aquaplaning?
Wondering how you can tell if your vehicle is aquaplaning? On wet roads, you might notice the following problems:
- The steering suddenly feels lighter, like you have less control.
- There’s a sudden increase in revs.
- The back of your vehicle starts drifting from side to side.
- Braking becomes more difficult.
What causes aquaplaning?
For aquaplaning to happen there needs to be standing water (e.g. puddles) on the roads. If it’s been raining for a few minutes, there's a chance of standing water and therefore a risk of aquaplaning.
Once there's standing water, the risk of aquaplaning is mostly affected by the following 4 factors:
The deeper the water is, the harder it’ll be for your tyres to keep a steady grip and avoid aquaplaning.
Standing water and puddles can often be deeper than you might think, so always drive with caution.
Aquaplaning is most likely to occur at higher speeds.
It's always important to lower your speed when it's raining heavily, especially if there’s enough rain to form puddles or standing water.
Worn tyres with low tread depth won't clear water from the road as effectively as newer tyres.
Any vehicle is capable of aquaplaning if the conditions dictate. It's more likely that vehicles with worn tyres will aquaplane.
It’s important to check your tyres regularly, to make sure they are fit for the roads.
Wide low profile tyres have an increased chance of aquaplaning.
While this isn’t something people can change, those who drive cars with wide tyres need to be especially conscious during wet weather. The pressure and condition of the tyres for these cars is even more important.
What to do if you aquaplane
If your vehicle starts aquaplaning, it’s important to keep a level head and do what you can to regain control. Follow our expert tips for controlling an aquaplaning vehicle:
- Avoid braking It might be your first instinct to stop the car, but you could end up causing your car to lose control and spin.
- Slowly and gently ease off the accelerator.
- If you have cruise control turned on, make sure to turn it off.
- Relax your grip on the steering wheel but maintain straight and steady control until the positive feeling of contact with the road surface returns.
When you feel yourself gaining more control of the car, decelerate to bring your speed down.
How should you react to aquaplaning?
If you notice your car start to aquaplane, the most important thing to remember is to try and stay calm.
While it can be difficult, try to avoid panicking and doing something severe – like slamming the brakes or swerving – as you may cause the vehicle to skid and possibly cause a collision.
Follow the advice above and you’ll increase your chances of gaining back control of the vehicle.
How to avoid aquaplaning
Aquaplaning can be a distressing experience so it’s best to do what you can to stop it from happening in the first place. In summary, our expert tips for avoiding aquaplaning include the following:
- Plan your journey ahead of time
- Drive smoothly and slowly
- Check your tyres regularly
- Avoid driving through puddles if possible
- Avoid driving in ruts
- Keep stopping distances in mind
- Turn off cruise control
Read on for more in-depth guidance on how to avoid aquaplaning.
1. Plan your journey ahead of time
Keep your eye on warnings for severe weather conditions. If heavy rain is forecast or you know certain roads have lots of standing water, you might want to consider rescheduling or delaying your journey if possible.
2. Drive smoothly
Try to avoid harsh braking and hard cornering as this can increase the risk of aquaplaning and losing control of the vehicle.
3. Check your tyres regularly
Make sure your tyres are inflated properly. You should also consider changing tyres before they reach the legal minimum tyre tread of 1.6mm, especially if you’re driving in winter when roads are more likely to be wet.
While the legal limit is 1.6mm, any tyre with much less than 3mm of tread results in a considerably higher chance of aquaplaning.
4. Be aware of where to drive on the road
Puddles tend to form at the side of the road, along the pavement. If it’s been raining or there’s standing water across the road then it’ll often be shallower towards the centre-line.
5. Avoid driving in any ruts in the road
Ruts are often caused by heavy goods vehicles and can be full of water even if the rain has stopped. Keep an eye out for these and try to avoid driving through them.
6. Remember your stopping distances
It’s always important to leave enough distance between you and the vehicle in front, but this is particularly crucial during wet weather. Being forced to brake suddenly or swerve due to the car in front slowing or stopping could result in your vehicle aquaplaning.
Even without standing water and no risk of aquaplaning, stopping distances in wet weather will always be much longer, simply because your tyres have less grip. Keep at least twice the stopping distance you would in dry conditions.
7. Don’t use cruise control
While cruise control can be useful at times, you shouldn’t use it when the weather is bad. This is because it might cause you to get too close to other vehicles and increase the chance of collisions.
Cruise control can also cause uncontrolled wheelspin in an aquaplaning situation, making it especially dangerous. It should be switched off if there’s any likelihood of standing water on the roads.
Aquaplaning vs hydroplaning
In driving terms, there are no differences between aquaplaning and hydroplaning. Though you may see hydroplaning used more when it comes to aviation-related content. At the end of the day, any vehicle that uses tyres in contact with the ground can suffer from the effects of aquaplaning.
Motorway aquaplane advice
High-speed aquaplaning can be a terrifying experience – but the same advice applies no matter which road you’re driving on. Make sure to match your driving to the conditions around you. If it’s especially rainy and wet, ensure you:
- Drive slower than you usually would
- Double the distance between your vehicle and the one in front of you
- Keep stopping distances in mind at all times
- Avoid sudden acceleration or braking if possible
Motorcycles can aquaplane just like any other road-based vehicle – though it can be a lot more dangerous if the rider fails to regain control. This is because motorcyclists are much more vulnerable when their tyres lose contact with the road surface.
Advice for avoiding aquaplaning on a motorcycle is largely similar to cars and other vehicles. You should make sure to:
- Drive slowly
- Check your tyre condition
- Avoid sudden acceleration and braking if possible
- Avoid bodies of water on the road if possible and safe to do so
At what speed do you aquaplane?
There’s no cut and dry speed at which you’ll definitely start aquaplaning, but even just a couple of inches of water could cause you to aquaplane at around 50mph. To keep control in this situation, you could reduce your speed to around 30mph. Reducing your speed in wet conditions is the absolute best way to maintain control of your vehicle.
Aquaplane car accident
Driving in wet weather conditions can lead to aquaplaning car accidents. Unfortunately, aquaplaning often occurs suddenly, giving drivers little time to prepare for the effects of the tyres losing traction with the road.
It’s easier said than done to stay calm when you feel your vehicle veering to one side or a sudden loss of control in steering. Whatever happens, we’re here to help with breakdown cover. If you’re not a member, you can still call us out on 03330 046 046.
Driving in wet weather safety tips
We’ve got all the tips you’ll need for driving through floodwater and heavy rain, but as a quick reminder, you should always make sure to:
- Keep your speed down
- Double the stopping distance between yourself and the vehicle in front
- Use dipped headlights
- Prevent condensation by using air conditioning (to maintain clear vision)
- Test your brakes after driving through water
Improved vehicle technology and aquaplaning
Vehicle and tyre technology is always developing and improving, meaning modern vehicles are generally better equipped to tackle wet conditions.
The rise in all-wheel drive systems mean several modern cars have better grip on the roads in icy or slippery conditions.
As vehicle and tyre technology continues to improve, hopefully in the future it will be much easier to avoid and manage aquaplaning.
At present, though, aquaplaning remains a risk during heavy bouts of rain, so make sure to follow the advice above in order to drive safely.
Published: 4 June 2019 | Updated: 01 November 2023 | Author: The AA