With an El Niño weather pattern parked in the Pacific, winter driving challenges should be more wet than icy in the Northwest this year. Great news for First Snowflake Freakout Lady. But the truth is, rain-slick roads wreak plenty of traffic havoc, too, contributing to 1.2 million traffic crashes every year.
These 10 tips can help you get a grip whether you're caught in drizzle or a downpour:
- Back off on the gas. If you do one thing – and one thing only – to stay safe when driving in rain, do this: slow down. It reduces your risk of hydroplaning. According to AAA, conditions are the most dangerous during the first 10 minutes of a downpour when road oils loosen, lift, and coat the roadway.
- Increase following distance. It takes longer to slow down and stop on wet surfaces.
- Choose the right tire with the right inflation. When asphalt is covered in just one-twelfth of an inch of water, your tires have to displace one gallon of water per second to maintain contact with the road surface. Good tread allows water to escape from under the tires. Inflation counts, too. Under-inflation causes treads to squeeze together, narrowing their channels and reducing your tires' ability to shed water.
- Stick to the center lanes. Most roads are "crowned," meaning they're higher in the center than on the edges, causing rainwater to drain toward the inside and outside shoulders. Also, if possible, drive (at a safe following distance) in the tracks of the car in front of you. Its tires already have cleared some of the water from the roadway, improving your traction.
- Avoid driving in flooded lanes. Sure, it's tempting to keep going, but if you can't see the pavement under the water or it's rushing across the roadway, you could put yourself, your passengers, and your car in serious peril. Just six inches of moving water is enough to knock you off your feet, and 12 inches can float your car. And if you do decide it's safe to drive through shallow, standing water? Keep your speed slow and steady. A wave or splashed water can drown your engine.
- Turn off cruise control. There's some debate whether cruise control can actually cause loss of control on wet roadways, but at minimum, it slows your ability to recognize and respond to changes in road conditions. Using cruise control also means you can't subtly control speed by simply easing your foot off the accelerator.
- Change wiper blades once a year. Go much longer than that, and you'll likely end up with skips and streaks that obscure your view.
- Brake steadily. With antilock brakes, "plant and steer." Don't pump the pedal. Antilocks pulse automatically to maximize stopping power.
- Skip the aftermarket siping and choose factory-siped winter tires, instead. "Sipes" are small slits cut into the tire tread to improve traction. Some tire dealers offer (for a price) to sipe newly purchased tires, but overly aggressive siping can damage tires, shorten tire life, and may void your warranty with some manufacturers.
- Turn on your headlights and keep them clean. Headlights, of course, make it easier for other drivers to see you when visibility is poor, but dirt spatter kicked up from other cars can reduce your headlights' brightness by 90%. If you're on a long rainy drive, stop periodically to clean your headlights.