The Atlantic hurricane season is reaching its peak: More of the violent storms rock the region in September than in any other month. But whether tropical storm or no, record-breaking floods and intense weather have been striking both sides of the pond in recent months: 'Historic' rainfall caused devastating floods in the US states of Texas and Louisiana and recent downpours have drenched the UK. Such extreme conditions have pushed cars to the limit, even whisking them away in widespread flooding.
What should you do if you’re caught in a watery maelstrom on the road? We talked to weather experts and automotive professionals who broke down common mistakes, scary scenarios, and fool proof escape plans for stormy situations behind the wheel.
So, what's one of the best ways to drive through hurricane-like conditions?
Don't. The best advice, of course, is to stay inside and avoid driving at all. "Only travel where there is no other option," says Pete Williams, spokesperson for RAC, a UK-based motoring services organisation and partner of the Met Office, the UK's national weather service. "Be prepared to pull over if it gets too bad and, if it is safe and legal, phone a family member or friend and let them know that you have stopped for a while."
But if you're already out, and happen to get caught in the thick of it, the most important thing is to...
Go slow. During a storm, there’s a lot of standing water on the road. Conditions are ripe for aquaplaning (also called hydroplaning). That's when your car’s tyres "float" across standing water, causing a loss of traction — and control. Keeping speed in check will help keep tyres firmly planted.
“The scenario that most people run into is running down a highway and seeing a big puddle in their lane,” says Bob Burns, a driver-training expert at Land Rover North America. “At 60mph, that puddle may be less than in inch deep, but that’s enough to hydroplane. That same puddle at 20mph would just be a splash.”
Watch for winds. RAC's Williams says that speed is important when coping with strong winds, too. “High winds can get under a car and affect its handling and braking significantly." He also recommends holding the steering wheel firmly, as strong winds aren't constant and can catch you off guard.
Don’t oversteer. Whether it’s a cyclone or a snowstorm, trying to overcompensate by panicking and steering too much causes more problems than solutions. Essentially, you have to remember you’re on a slippery surface in either scenario. Slow down significantly and ride it out.
With aquaplaning, experts say most people usually aren’t even aware they’re doing so in the first place. And when they finally do, it's too late; panic leads to frantic oversteering, sliding, and skidding.
If you sense a loss of friction or feel no resistance to steering inputs, it likely means you’re aquaplaning. The more tuned in with your surroundings, the better off you’ll be. Whether or not you’ll aquaplane depends on several factors: water depth, tyre design, air pressure in the tyres, and the type of road. But no factor is greater than speed. The faster you go, the greater your risk.
Know your tyres. “Tyres are not just a ‘part’ on your car,” says Sarah Robinson, a test driver at Michelin's Laurens Proving Grounds in the US state of South Carolina. “They are the main source of safety and performance. If we never had rain, snow, mud, or gravel on roads, tyres would all look like racing slicks, to deliver the most efficient traction. But the sculpture is carefully developed to best displace water, pack the snow, or eject the mud.”
In addition to checking tread depth regularly — the more you drive, the more frequently you should replace your tyres — Robinson says that “about once a month, you spend about five minutes to get to know your tyres.” Try the coin test: Take a US penny or a 20p coin and stick it in the one of the grooves on your tyre that seems low. If any part of Abraham Lincoln's head is covered by the tread, you're safe; your tyres' treads are at the legal limit and your ability to drive in bad weather isn't reduced. Similarly, if the outer band of your 20p piece stays in the groove, your tyres' treads are okay.
Use the right lights. “Rule of thumb:” says William Van Tassel, manager of driver training programmes at the American Automobiles Association, a US-based federation of motor clubs. “Turn on your lights every time you drive. This way, you become twice as visible to other road users.” High beams, however, should be dimmed for approaching traffic and when following other vehicles, Van Tassel says, and low beams are for both fog and heavy rain. Why? Because the light from your high beams will reflect off the water droplets in the fog, decreasing your visibility.
Back off. RAC suggests increasing the distance between you and the car in front of you during inclement weather, including gusty winds and heavy rains: Increasing the two-second rule to four seconds, for example — that is, a four-second safety buffer between cars, which affords more time to avoid a collision. That’s the same for lorries, buses, and motorcycles. “They get blown easily by side winds,” Williams says. And don't try getting ahead of tall vehicles like lorries: "Driving past large vehicles can result in a sudden gust from the side as you clear."
Stay with your car. If worse comes to worst — and you’re caught in the level of flood seen in Houston and Baton Rouge, Louisiana this year — you might find your car floating away. Whether it’s a flood or a mudslide, stay with your car. “The rescue guys can’t see you in the water, but they’re going to check the car,” says Burns.
And while you’re in the car, keep the doors closed and windows up. And be sure to keep an emergency window breaker on hand.
Don’t overestimate conditions — or your abilities. Just because you look out the window and see only a few millimetres of standing water, don’t assume that’s not enough to make you aquaplane or spin out. Most cars can’t handle much water before they’re damaged.
Hail is another example. The American Automobile Association says that even hail less than one inch in diameter can be dangerous. “Most of the time, if hail does damage to a vehicle, it will dent the metal portions. This can often be repaired,” says Van Tassel. “But larger hail can actually smash a vehicle’s windshield and windows, suddenly affecting the driver’s vision. So it can be expensive, as well as dangerous.”
But what’s worse than understimating the power of the water and hail you see outside your window? Overestimating yourself... or your car.
“Today, cars are basically laptops on wheels,” says Land Rover’s Burns. “It doesn’t take much to hurt a car. People overestimate their driving skills, and their vehicles.” For all the bells and whistles that overcompensate for human faults, Burns says today's drivers are psychologically convinced that their cars will definitely keep them safe and get them from point A to point B. Not the case, obviously — which is why a little humility, realism and patience could be your most valuable assets when weather turns rough on the road.
“Slow down to match conditions,” says Michelin’s Sarah Robinson. “There is no prize for ‘winning’ the storm.”
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