As someone who enjoys driving in almost any weather condition, I am always reminded during the first good storm of the year (sometimes in some scary ways) that not everyone shares that enjoyment. Poor visibility, poorly maintained vehicles, unexpected roadway obstructions and yes, stoopidity, all contribute to increased stress and aptitude for panic in bad weather. Following some basic rules can elevate your calm and make you, your loved ones and your fellow drivers much safer.
Before the Rain Starts
There are some basics we all should take care of before the first rain of the season hits (or before the next if you’ve already fallen behind). These are mostly common-sense things, but they are prerequisites to safely navigating bad weather. Forgetting or short-changing these basics is an invitation to badness.
- Check your tire tread – Tires connect you to the road and give you control over acceleration, braking and steering. When it’s raining, water gets between your tires and the road, preventing them from doing their job. The grooves in your tires channel water away as they roll, allowing for safe contact with the road to persist. If the grooves aren’t there anymore (or are too shallow to be useful), you will lack the ability to control your car in the wet. Your tires should have, at a minimum, 4/32″ of remaining tread depth in order to do their job. No tread depth gauge? No problem. Tire Rack has a cool tech page showing how you can use a coin to accurately measure your tread depth.
- Check your tire pressures – Your tires have the proper minimum cold (“cold” meaning before you’ve been driving for a while) pressure for optimum performance stamped on them. Similarly, most cars also have this information stamped somewhere on the driver’s door or in the User’s Manual. For cars with the same tire on all four corners, this pressure value will be the same for all…but note, some luxury and performance cars have different sized tires on the front and back, so it is well worth your time to check the values on each tire as you evaluate them. There are all sorts of claims out there stating under-inflating your tires for wet weather is better…and while this may be true in some racing applications, for normal everyday driving, the manufacturer’s recommendations are always best. Most gas stations have air stations, and some sort of a pressure gauge is built-in for measuring what you put into the tire. These aren’t horribly accurate, but they are often close enough to call it good. If lack of precision makes you itch, you can pick up an inexpensive (yet accurate) air pressure gauge at Tarmart, Walget, or just about any automotive retail store.
- Replace your windshield wiper blades – This is the one I almost always forget, and wind up muttering obscenities to myself as my vision gets cut by poorly performing wipers. Lack of visibility is responsible for most fender-benders in bad weather. After all, if you can’t see, it becomes easier to misjudge distances, or worse, overlook something important entirely. Wipers are inexpensive, and you can pick up a fresh set at most stores that carry automotive supplies.
- Resolve any other normal car maintenance tasks (brakes, windshield defroster, alternator/battery, etc.) – Summer seems to be the season of deferred car maintenance. When you’re busy enjoying the sun, family and friends, and time off, it’s easy to put-off things that aren’t causing real pain yet. Unfortunately, those deferments can become problematic when the weather turns. Making sure you have good working brakes is always important, but even more so when you may have to rely on them in panic-stop situations in bad weather. Similar to windshield wipers, making sure your defroster (and or A/C) works well is important for eliminating the condensation that can sometimes inhibit visibility in bad or cold weather. Other things, like following up on alternator/battery maintenance can save you from getting stranded under the worst possible conditions.
- Saftey-Up! – Make sure your road safety kit is in order. First-aid kit, road flares, spare tire and working jack, a window punch, a blanket and list of emergency numbers for road-side assistance are all things to consider checking or adding to your kit.
After the Rain Starts
Once it has started raining and you have carefully evaluated your need to brave the roads, there are some things you should keep in mind to maximize safety.
- Plan ahead – I used to have a personal training client that evangelized “The 7 Ps”: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. It applies in lots of situations, but not the least of which is preparing for an adventure through bad weather. Check for road advisories and closures along the route you normally travel. When possible, use routes you know well, but have a backup or two in-mind should you encounter unexpected obstacles or road closures along the way. Once you know your possible routes, calculate how long each might take. Find the longest route, add at least 25% more time, and plan on leaving early enough to accommodate the trip comfortably and still reach your destination on-time.
- Slow down! – I enjoy a “spirited drive” as much as the next gear head, but bad weather is not the time to flex your sporty muscle. While you may be an excellent driver, others around you may be struggling…which can produce unexpected actions that can catch you out no matter how skilled you are. I personally know drivers that can reach panic levels in a parking lot, so imagine the amount of panic poor visibility, hydroplaning and general misery in the weather can produce. Slowing down not only reduces you potential to hydroplane in standing water, it gives you more time to see things happening over which you have no control and minimizes the danger should the very worst happen. Slow down!
- Don’t tailgate! – Along the same lines as slowing down, don’t tailgate. The distance required to stop your car in the rain increases from that on normal, dry roads, and coupling that with having to respond to unexpected hazards due to the weather require prudence when following other cars. Avoiding tailgating gives you plenty of room to respond when poor visibility (we’ll attribute it to that) has someone unexpectedly merge into your lane. Plenty of room equals additional safety. Create it…for yourself and others.
- Use good judgement – This applies to slowing down and not tailgating, but goes further. If traffic begins to stop ahead of you, don’t assume those behind you have processed this…turn your hazard lights on to give an indication of dramatic changes ahead so that others behind you can prepare properly as well. When making lane changes, double-check your blind-spots. Under normal road conditions, people will very often respond to let you in, but in bad weather, they may not be able to see you…plan ahead for your lane changes, and find a window large enough in the traffic lane into which you want to merge to do so safely without causing anyone else to have to react. On the other side of that process, if you see someone wanting to get into your lane, increase your karma points, and just let them in. It is safer for everyone.
- Don’t try to cross roadways that are covered by water of unknown depth – It is better to turn around and re-route than to become a statistic among those that drown every year trapped in their cars. Regardless of depth and ability to pass water covering a roadway, slow down and “walk” your way through it to avoid loss of traction or damage to your vehicle. Water will usually cover roads at their lowest sides, under overpasses, and on low-lying rural roads. Road advisories can be useful if you plan ahead or can listen to radio weather reports during your trip. Ultimately, it is up to you to be traveling slowly enough to be able to spot and safely navigate standing water (and debris that gets washed on to the road as a result of moving water).
- If you hydroplane… – Hydroplaning can happen at speeds above 35 mph. Keeping your tires inflated properly to prescribed pressures, not using your cruise control, and avoiding puddles and standing water minimize the risk, but you can hydroplane suddenly and without warning at any moment in the rain. To recover, immediately take your foot off of the accelerator, but DO NOT hit your brakes. Sudden braking can cause you to begin to skid out of control, while decelerating allows your car to slow down enough to regain grip. If you find yourself turning sideways as you hydroplane, gently turn your steering wheel in the direction your car is hydroplaning (while this feels counter-intuitive, this will help your tires realign with the direction your vehicle is travelling and assist you in regaining steering control). You will feel your tires “reconnect” with the road when you come out of a hydroplane. Drive on…or, depending on the severity of the event, pull-over safely, stop and change your shorts.
- If you get stuck… – If you encounter debris that damages a tire, stall or otherwise encounter trouble in your travels, do your best to pull over to safe spot (away from standing water, but completely off the road and out of traffic) before calling for help or attempting repair on your own. If you are stuck in the traffic lane, DO NOT exit your car unless doing so would put your life at greater risk than potentially being hit by oncoming traffic. Remember, in bad weather you will not be seen as easily by other drivers. Turn on your hazard lights. Leave your lights on. And if you are getting out to change a tire (safely at the side of the road), be sure to use road flares to mark your car for other drivers so that they can avoid you (a hundred steps behind or “upstream” of your vehicle is a good distance for the first one). If you’ve gotten trapped in standing (or moving) water that demands you exit the vehicle, first job is to remain calm. Calm opens up options. If the water is up over your doors, opening them may not be possible, and you will need to escape via a window. If you cannot roll down a window, you may need to break it. A window punch is optimal, but a club, tools or an anti-theft device, even a woman’s high heel, can serve as something heavy to hit the middle of the window to break it. Once out, move to a position of safety out of the water and traffic as quickly as possible, always facing oncoming traffic so as to be given the best chance at avoiding anything that may be intent on causing you harm.
Be smart. Be kind. Stay safe. The life you ultimately save could be your own…or mine.