Winter isn’t the only season that presents drivers with dangerous conditions. Driving in the rain is a potentially serious hazard every spring.
Of the roughly 5.74 million vehicle crashes every year, about 1.25 million (22 percent) occur in adverse weather conditions on slick pavement, according to the Federal Highway Administration. An average of 6,000 people are killed and 445,000 injured in weather-related crashes annually.
Nearly three-quarters of all weather-related crashes happen on wet pavement, and nearly half take place in the rain.
Here is a closer look at driving in the rain and other spring-related driving challenges, with tips from AAA traffic safety experts on how to stay safe.
Hydroplaning and potholes
Diminished visibility and a loss of traction can be serious problems when driving in the rain.
The harder it’s raining, the harder it is to see lane markings, signage and other vehicles. The situation can be even worse for drivers who neglect basic car care.
Hydroplaning is one of the most dangerous situations caused by driving in the rain. It occurs when a layer of water separates a vehicle’s tires from the ground. Worn tires on wet surfaces will elevate the risk for hydroplaning, though it can happen at low speeds on cars, trucks or vans with brand new tires. Tires have to displace a gallon of water per second to continue meeting the road when even just 1/12th of an inch of water is present.
“When hydroplaning, you are literally riding on top of water without any control of your vehicle,” said John Paul, senior traffic safety manager for AAA Northeast.
The first 10 minutes of a downpour present the highest risk for hydroplaning.
Potholes are another spring danger, the result of winter’s wrath on local roads. Striking potholes at even low speeds can be dangerous and expensive. What’s worse, heavy rain can sometimes fill them, hiding them from view.
“Snow, ice, sand and salt can leave roads in pretty bad shape, and the repeated freezing and thawing of moisture seeps through road surfaces and causes potholes,” said Barbara Ward, a traffic safety specialist with AAA Northeast. “Keep your eyes peeled for bad road conditions, but if you can’t avoid hitting a pothole, don’t brake during the pothole impact. Instead, apply the brakes just before hitting the pothole and release them just prior to impact. Less severe damage occurs when a tire is rolling than when it’s skidding over a hole during braking.”
AAA studies have found that potholes cost U.S. drivers about $3 billion in damages every year.
Stay in control
Keeping control of your vehicle while driving in the rain takes a similar approach to keeping control of your vehicle in a snowstorm. Here are some basics.
- Go slow. While hydroplaning can occur at low speeds, the risk of hydroplaning grows at higher speeds.
- Follow the leader. Hydroplaning occurs when tires can’t displace enough water from their treads. By operating behind another vehicle – at an extra safe distance, of course – you avoid water already displaced by the vehicle in front of it.
- Inflate your tires to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Underinflated tires don’t have the same capacity for displacing water as tires that are properly inflated, making driving in the rain potentially more dangerous.
- Check your tire treads. Tires with less than 4/32 inches of tread should be replaced. You can check by inserting a quarter into a tread with Washington’s head facing down. If you can’t see the top of his head, the tire has at least 4/32 inches of tread.
- Leave extra room. A loss of traction can make it tougher to stop quickly. If you typically leave three seconds of space between you and the vehicle in front of you, Paul recommends adding one second for rain and two seconds for rain and darkness.
- Stay in the middle. If you’re on the highway, try to stay in the center lane. Many roadways have a crown that sends water to the right and left lanes.
- Avoid cruise control. If you have to slow down in wet weather, you’ll do so by taking your foot off the accelerator. But if cruise control is engaged, your foot is already off the accelerator. You want as much control as possible when driving in wet weather. Don’t give any away to cruise control.
- Stay calm. Your first reaction to hydroplaning might be to brake, but don’t do it. It won’t stop you. Instead, ease off the accelerator to decrease speed. Once your vehicle regains traction, look and steer in the direction you want to go.
- Keep it clean. Maintaining visibility is an important part of safely driving in the rain, and it starts with keeping your windshield and windows clean. You’ll want to clean the insides of both once a week or, if you’re a smoker, multiple times a week, according to AAA’s “Get A Grip: A Guide to Wet-Weather Driving Techniques.”
- Check your blades. The average windshield wiper blade lasts about six months to a year. You can tell if a blade is starting to go if it leaves streaks behind.
- Use the defroster. Moisture inside a vehicle can create a fog on the windows. Paul recommends using defrosters with the air conditioning on and the vents open for fresh air. “Air conditioning, by design, dries the air,” he said.
- Turn on your lights. Your headlights are valuable equipment for battling low visibility when driving in the rain. You’ll want to turn them on even if you’re just passing through a light sun shower. It will help you see better, and a lot of states require drivers to turn on their headlights when using windshield wipers. If your vehicle has daytime running lights, don’t forget to manually turn on your headlights. This will activate your vehicle’s taillights as well, helping other vehicles to see you. Don’t forget to periodically clean your headlights, either. Mud and dirt can cloud lenses, reducing illumination by up to 90 percent. Stop periodically – if you can do so safely – to clean your headlights. And, while you may be tempted to go with the high beams, low beams are more effective during rain and fog.
- Stop and wait. If it’s raining so hard that none of these steps alleviate visibility issues, it’s wise to find a safe place to pull over and wait until the weather lets up. Rest areas or protected areas off the highway are your best bets. If you must stop on the roadside, pull off the road as far as possible and turn your emergency flashers on to help other drivers see you.
A storm that brings a half-inch or so of rain is one thing. A storm that brings several inches of rain is another.
If you’re facing the latter, it’s best to stay put, and not just for your personal safety.
Vehicles traveling through water deep enough to be pulled into the engine can suffer from hydrostatic lockup. In layman’s terms, that means the end of your engine, and even the most novice mechanic knows getting a new engine isn’t cheap.
If you have to traverse a deep puddle, Paul said, do it as slowly as possible.
Whether or not you agree with daylight saving time, it affects most people nationwide twice a year. The change can impact your sleep patterns and potentially make you drowsy behind the wheel.
Symptoms of sleepiness include having trouble keeping your eyes open or focused, having trouble keeping your head up, daydreaming, having wandering thoughts, drifting among lanes or tailgating, yawning frequently, rubbing your eyes repeatedly, missing street signs or exits and feeling irritable or restless.
If you feel drowsy, find a safe place to park and take a break or a power nap. A quick bit of exercise and some caffeine can be helpful as well, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Longer days mean more sun, and greater chances of driving toward blinding light. Always slow down and use caution when dealing with strong sunlight.
Here are some other tips for dealing with the sun.
- Polarized sunglasses help reduce glare.
- Use your vehicle’s sun visors.
- Leave more room between your vehicle and the one in front of it. Sun can make it harder to see what the vehicle in front of you is doing.
- Keep your windshield clean. Streaks are especially pronounced under strong sunlight.
- Use lane markings to guide you if you can’t look straight ahead for a moment.
Spring can be a tough time for people affected by seasonal allergies. If you turn to over-the-counter allergy meds, Ward advises folks considering potential side effects. Your pharmacist should be able to help, though you can also visit AAA.com/RoadwiseRx. Just enter your medication for a list of side effects.
Out and about
Warm weather means more pedestrians and cyclists. As you would any time of year, always share the road.
Winter can be tough on vehicles. The first nice day of spring is a good chance to inspect your vehicle to see how it fared and get it ready for driving in the rain.
A recent AAA survey found that chemicals used to de-ice roadways cost U.S. drivers about $14.5 billion in rust-related repairs over the last five years.
“While the application of de-icing salts and solutions is critical to keeping our nation’s roadways safe every winter, it’s important that drivers pay attention to warning signs that their vehicle may be suffering from rust-related damage,” Paul said. “This can be much more than a cosmetic issue; it can also create serious safety issues for drivers by impacting brake lines, exhaust systems, fuel tanks and electrical connections, as well as the structural integrity of some of these older vehicles on the road.”
You can limit damage by washing your vehicle by hand, especially the undercarriage, to remove rust, said Robert Sinclair, media relations manager for AAA Northeast.
Washing by hand will also help you identify any spots that need touch-up work, Paul said. And don’t forget to add a good coat of wax.
If you have winter tires, replace them with all-season tires. Inspect the winter tires for any damage you’ll want to have repaired before next year.
Did we miss any tips for driving in the rain? Let us know in the comments.