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Hydroplaning

Hydroplaning: What It is, How to Avoid It, and What to Do if You Can’t

What is the difference between a motor vehicle safely taking you to your destination and a battering ram with you inside of it?

Traction.

If you live in Georgia, you may have first-hand experience of what it can feel like when you vehicle begins to slide on snow or ice. Even if you don’t, there is a good chance that you have at least seen video footage of others in that situation, and felt glad that it wasn’t you. There are few things more terrifying behind the wheel than the realization that the car is out of control.

The good news is, there are some things you can do to reduce your risks when driving on rain, snow and ice. You can use tires specially designed for winter driving conditions, or in some cases you can even put chains or other traction devices on your tires. You can count on your county or state highway department to have crews out plowing, or spreading sand, salt or de-icing chemicals on the road to help you.

But there is another way that you can find yourself feeling helpless as your car or truck begins to swerve, fishtail, spin, or otherwise lose traction, and it is possibly even more dangerous because it comes from a source seemingly more innocent than a patch of black ice or compacted snow: water, which can lead to the sickening sensation we call hydroplaning.

What is Hydroplaning?

Hydroplaning (or “aquaplaning,” is it is sometimes called) is what happens when you are driving on pavement where water has begun to pool. Ordinarily, when you drive through shallow standing water, by design your tires will displace the water by either pushing it to the sides or channeling it through your treads. But if the water is deep enough, and your speed is great enough, this displacement and channeling effect weakens until, in the worst case, you find yourself riding on a thin cushion of water between your tires and the pavement. Which means that for a moment you have no grip on the road.

Hydroplaning happens more often than you might think. One insurer identifies hydroplaning as one of the five most common causes of vehicular accidents.

How Can You Avoid Hydroplaning?

The best way to not hydroplane is to slow down when you are driving in rainy weather, or in other situations where water is pooling on the road. If your speed is 35 MPH or faster, your chance of losing traction to hydroplaning increases substantially. The risk is also greater during the first 10 minutes of rainfall, when the water lifts settled oil residue onto the road surface.

Driving too fast for the weather, lighting and road conditions doesn’t just increase your risk of getting into a traffic accident. If a court or arbitrator finds that you were traveling at excessive speed, your possible liability for negligence magnifies. Negligence consists of breaching a duty of reasonable care you owe someone else to avoid harm, and driving too fast in wet conditions is at least arguably unreasonable.

Aside from not driving too fast, you can do other things to minimize the chance of hydroplaning, such as:

  • Maintaining and when necessary replacing your tires. Your tires are your point of contact with the road, making them your potential weakest link when it comes to hydroplaning. Tires inflated to proper pressure and that have sufficient tread depth are much better at punching through pooled water than balding and poorly-maintained tires. Tire rotation increases tread life, and should be part of your routine vehicle maintenance along with oil and filter changes. If you get into an accident, having records showing that you were regularly having your tires checked and rotated, and that they were not worn out, helps to make your behavior look reasonable.
  • Drive defensively. About 40% of vehicle accidents involve some kind of driver distraction or inattention, and inclement weather driving demands your undivided focus. A typical characteristic of hydroplaning is how suddenly it can happen; if you are concentrating on what you are doing behind the wheel, that can make all the difference when it comes to reacting properly in a timely way.
    • Talking or texting on the phone can be highly distracting.
    • Focusing on your car’s sound system or GPS screen takes your eyes off the road.
    • Using your car’s cruise control not only lessens your direct control over your speed, it can contribute to hydroplaning: when you hit a puddle, it can lead to a brief speed reduction that can “trick” your cruise control into applying more power at the wrong time.
    • Give yourself extra space between you and the car ahead of you. The common “two second rule” when it comes to this interval is good for normal weather and road conditions, you should increase it in bad conditions. One of the worst things you can do if your car hydroplanes is to slam on the brakes. Also, if the car ahead of you loses traction on wet pavement, giving yourself more maneuvering room means you have more time to slow down in a controlled way. Remember, if you rear end another car, it will almost certainly be seen as being your fault even if the car in front is out of control.
    • Don’t drink and drive. This is sound advice at any time, but becomes even more important when hydroplaning conditions exist. Alcohol corrodes good judgment and slows reaction time, both of which heighten the risk of losing control in a skid. Being under the influence in an accident can get you into trouble not only in a negligence lawsuit but also with the criminal justice system.

What Should You Do if Your Car Hydroplanes?

The first and most important thing you must do if your car begins to hydroplane is to keep your wits about you. You need to take immediate and deliberate action to correct the situation. Hydroplaning incidents often only last a few seconds, but you must be in control of yourself to regain control of your vehicle. Here are a couple of things to do:

  • Decelerate gently. Ease up on the gas to slow down; if you were already braking when the skid began, lessen your pressure on the brake pedal. This is the most important step you can take to regain traction.
  • Use the steering wheel gently. You will likely need to counter-steer one or more times to regain directional control (most people will do this instinctively, similar to if you slide on ice), but you must not oversteer.

What Happens if You Get into an Accident that Involves Hydroplaning?

Your legal concerns and options in a hydroplaning accident will depend on a number of situations, including:

  • Who hit who, or what? Single car accidents can trigger legal claims from those whose property might have been damaged by the vehicle, but in the case of two or more vehicles being involved then the behavior of all the drivers needs examination. Multi-car accidents do not often lend themselves to legal claims from a “faultless plaintiff”; often everyone has some share of fault. Thorough factual investigation needs to be done to identify any cause of action you may have, and to develop defenses you have if someone accuses you of negligence. This is why the hydroplaning avoidance steps above are so important: the more you appear during settlement negotiations or in dispute resolution to have been the “reasonable person,” the stronger your legal position will be.
  • Was anyone other than the drivers at fault? Sometimes the condition of the vehicles involved in the accident or of the road itself can contribute to a collision. For example, what happens if you have brake repairs performed on your vehicle, but the mechanic performed the repairs improperly, causing your brakes to “stick” when you applied them in a hydroplaning situation? What happens if you are driving a company-owned vehicle that had bad tires? What if the road was badly maintained, and that was a factor in causing the accident? These circumstances can lead to what the law calls third party liability that can draw additional plaintiffs or defendants into any legal dispute.
  • Are there any additional legal claims to be made? Sometimes one kind of legal claim can lead to another. If someone in the accident dies, then an action for wrongful death or a survival action becomes possible. If one of the drivers is a teenager driving the family car, the possibility of a claim for negligent entrustment exists. If a defective product was part of the accident cause, such as defective tires, then a third party product liability action is something to consider.
  • What kinds of losses are being claimed? Victims of vehicle and personal injury accidents can seek money damages for physical injuries, property damage, lost wages or other income, medical costs (both present and future), indirect damages (such as loss of companionship or pain and suffering), and in some cases even punitive damages. If you have been the victim of an accident, knowing all of the relief claims you can make a claim for will be a key part of preparing your insurance or legal claim.

Contact an Experienced Atlanta Accident Attorney

If you have been involved in a hydroplaning accident, your claims and defenses to claims against you will need to be investigated and analyzed in detail. Facts will need to be verified; witnesses need to be identified, and their observations taken into account; the possible need for expert witnesses or accident reconstruction specialists must be considered; possible third party liability claims must be assessed, and every avenue of legal claims both in your favor and against you need to be prepared for.

A law firm with attorneys experienced in negotiating or otherwise resolving traffic accident cases can help you to understand what your potential legal claims, defenses, or both.  Finding a firm with this experience should be an important factor in your choice of an attorney to represent your interests.