We may not live in the Waterworld formerly known as Virginia, but we know what it's like to be stuck in a downpour with no end in sight. Here's five tips to get you and your car home safely.
Driving in the rain is like jaywalking — it's not the safest thing in the world, but millions of people do it without incident, and most folks don't give it too much thought. Live where it rains a lot? Planning on driving somewhere other than a sun-baked desert? It never hurts to remember the basics.
Take care of your car and its tires. Every vehicle talks to the road through four small patches of rubber. It doesn't matter if you're driving a Ferrari, an all-wheel-drive Audi, or an asthmatic garbage truck — if the tires aren't happy, the car isn't happy. Handling, braking, and acceleration are all directly tied to how well your rubber grips the road. On top of that, what seems like a minor irritation (a bit of squealing, a slight wandering at speed) on dry pavement can often be downright homicidal in the wet. Neglect your tires, and you neglect the one part of your car most responsible for your safety.
Thankfully, keeping track of this stuff is limited to two simple tasks: checking your tire pressure and checking the depth of your tires' tread. If you understand how to use a ruler and can afford a two-dollar tire-pressure gauge (try almost any gas station), then you can do either yourself. (If not, don't worry; any mechanic can help.) The recommended tire pressures (yes, pressures — front and rear are usually different) for your vehicle can be found inside your owner's manual; tread depth can be checked by measuring from the bottom of the tire's tread to the top of its shortest tread block.
While you're at it, make sure your windshield wipers are still soft and pliable (squeegees don't work if they can't follow the contours of the glass) and check to that your defroster is still working. When it comes to your comfort level in inclement weather, proper visibility makes all the difference.
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Slow down. Speed is a wonderful thing, and in most cases, we're all for it. But when you're in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the beltway and can't see more than a few cars in front of you, you need all the reaction time you can get. It may sound obvious, but the slower you go, the easier it is to stop or swerve in order to avoid an accident.
Because wet pavement is slicker than dry pavement, cars lose grip whenever it rains. Reduced grip means increased acceleration and braking distances, not to mention slower cornering speeds. Every mile per hour that you chop off — and every foot of following distance that you add — gives you one more moment of reaction time should the unexpected occur. And in bad weather, you should always be looking for the unexpected.
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If you lose control, don't do anything sudden. When your car begins to slide, it's best to remember one thing: It will eventually stop. (If you're lucky, that moment will come before you end up in a tree.) In the interim, you need to do everything you can to preserve your tires' hold on the pavement. Gently ease off the accelerator and refrain from slamming on the brakes. If the car is sliding in a corner, steer into the slide and keep your eyes pointed where you want to go. If you're hydroplaning, resist the urge to yank on the wheel or throw the car into another lane. Above all, remember this: When your tires are struggling to hold onto the road, the slightest provocation can upset them. Keep them happy. No surprises.
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If you can avoid it, never drive into a flooded area. This may sound obvious, but a surprising number of people lose their cars — and often their lives — every year by driving into or across waterlogged pavement. Currents can run remarkably strong on a flooded road, and what looks like a foot-deep stream can often suck you and your car off to a watery grave. Think of it like an ocean's rip tide — you wouldn't drive your Civic into Waimea Bay, would you?
That said, it's occasionally unavoidable. If it's a matter of life or death and you absolutely have to get across, there are a few steps you can take to better your odds. First, go as slow as you possibly can without dawdling; higher speeds increase the chances that your tires will lift off the pavement, that the car will float instead of roll, and that you'll lose the ability to steer. (If you look out the door and notice that your wheels are producing waves—i.e., a wake—then you're probably going too fast.) Second, if possible, cross the water's flow at an angle in order to narrow your profile. And finally, remember this: If it looks a little too deep, then it's probably a lot too deep.
If you should happen to get stuck or be swept away, don't leave your vehicle. If the water is strong enough to levitate two tons of steel off the road, it's definitely strong enough to swallow you whole. Roll the windows up, get out the cell phone, and pray that the car comes to a stop.
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Calm down. This piece of advice might not apply to everyone, but it's still worth keeping in mind. The human body's fight-or-flight process is pretty remarkable, but when you're busy behind the wheel, the last thing you need is an elevated heart rate and twitchy reactions. Breathe deep. Look as far ahead as possible. Try not to get excited or nervous. The more control you have over your body, the more control you have over your car.
Bonus Tip: If you can, stay at home. It may sound impractical, but it's often the best way to avoid trouble. If flood warnings are issued and you can't see the end of your street, then let discretion be the better part of not getting helicoptered off the roof of your sunken Datsun. You may know what you're doing — and chances are, if you're reading this site, you do — but that doesn't mean everyone else does. And while it's true that the majority of accidents are avoidable, there's no sense in unnecessarily putting yourself in harm's way.