It's still winter in much of the country, but outside of the frostbitten north, that translates to a lot of rain, rather than snow—and that rain will continue in most parts of the country through spring, at least. While it's great for our city water supplies, crops, and trees, it's not so great for driving, making streets slick and decreasing visibility, especially at night.
Follow our tips for most effective things you can do to improve your driving safety (and comfort) in the rain.
One of the most important thing to rainy day driving safety is a good set of tires with sufficient tread depth. During the colder rainy months, this means a set of all-season tires, as the water on the road and cool or cold ambient temperatures will keep summer-rated tires from warming up sufficiently to provide the proper level of grip. As the weather warms up going into spring, summer-rated performance tires can actually add another level of grip, thanks to sticker rubber compounds.
But whichever type of tire you have on your car, you'll need adequate tread depth to clear the water out of the way of the contact patch. Too little tread depth means the tire tread can't pump the water out from under it, leading to hydroplaning. As the tire's tread depth decreases, the speed at which hydroplaning occurs decreases, too. With very low tread depth, hydroplaning can occur at as little as 30 or 40 mph, or even slower.
A classic way to gauge tread depth is with a standard-issue penny: insert the penny into a gap in the tire's tread, with Lincoln's head pointed toward the tire; if you can see all of Lincoln's head, your tires have 2/32" of tread or less, and it's definitely time for new tires. But for rainy driving, even 2/32" is not enough tread depth to avoid hydroplaning. For optimal grip in the wet, you'll want to replace the penny with a quarter, ensuring the tread comes up higher than the top of Washington's head, which equates to at least 4/32" of tread depth. If your tires are below 4/32", you'll want to replace them with a new set of tires for optimal wet-weather driving.
Even with the deepest tread depth and best possible compound for your tires, however, it's possible to drive too fast for the conditions when it's raining. At high speeds, even brand-new, full-depth tires won't be able to pump the water out of the way quickly enough, and you'll hydroplane, losing all control of the car. So keep your speeds below those you'd drive the same stretch of road in the dry, reducing speed further as the strength of the rain ratchets up. You should also increase your following distance to the car in front of you in the wet, as no car will stop as quickly when the road is slickened by the rain. Lowering your speed will not only help keep your tires gripping the road surface, but will also reduce visibility issues.
Visibility is the next key to rain driving. Make sure your windshield is free of cracks and surface distortions that will only make it harder to see when wet, and fit new windshield wipers every year (or every six months or less in areas with extreme heat or cold) to ensure proper function. If your windshield has issues a good cleaning won't fix, you'll need to replace it. Fortunately, there are a number of windshield replacement services that will come to your house and have you all fixed up in a matter of hours, for just a few hundred dollars—and for many, it will even be covered by insurance. Windshield wipers are inexpensive and easy to install, so any driver should be able to keep this aspect of rainy driving safety in tip-top condition. The improvement to visibility with new wipers is well worth the $20-40 and 15 minutes you'll spend replacing them. After all, you can't avoid obstacles you can't see.
Once you have grip and outward visibility sorted, you'll want to ensure your headlights are up to snuff, too. Turn on your headlights on the road, and if necessary, use fog lights until your visibility improves.
In older cars, especially, the headlights can turn yellow and grow opaque as the sun's ultraviolet rays damage the plastic lens cover. This reduces light output, and diffracts the light, reducing its focus. This makes it harder to see things in front of you, and makes it harder for other vehicles to see you, too, whether driving at night or in broad daylight.
Avoid using cruise control whenever possible. Why? Because in wet weather, water can build up in subtle dips in the road, corners can become blind due to low visibility created by the water and mist in the air, and even in straight, level driving, parts of the road can vary in grip. With cruise control on, the car is going to try to maintain speed no matter what--and that can make it difficult or impossible to control the car should you encounter an area with less grip. If you're actively controlling the throttle, you'll be able to respond more quickly and retain better control of your vehicle.
Even when your car is fully prepared for wet weather driving, and you're following good driving habits like reducing speed and increasing following distances, it's still possible to encounter unpredictable conditions that cause your car to skid. So it's very good to know how to respond when it happens.
When your car starts to skid, avoid slamming on the brakes or making other sudden inputs to the steering or throttle, and steer into the direction of the skid. Don't focus on obstacles or barriers that you don't want to hit—your hands, and therefore your car, will follow your eyes, guiding you right into the obstacle. This may seem counter-intuitive, and it's not the easiest skill to perform when under duress, so it's worth looking for driver safety courses in your area where they offer training on a wet skidpad. The safe environment and immediate feedback of an instructor can have you handling a skidding car like a pro in no time—and those same skills will transfer to dry weather driving, too.
While each of these steps will help make you and your car safer in wet weather driving, it's the combination of all of them which produce the best result. So make sure your car is ready for the rain, take your time and drive cautiously, and, for the greatest safety, enhance your skills as a driver with a training course.
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