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What is aquaplaning? How do I avoid it?

Aquaplaning can be extremely dangerous. It usually strikes when you're not expecting it and, if you don't know how you should react, it could easily lead to an accident.

We've put our heads together to bring you all the info you need to handle aquaplaning safely. So, whether you're new to the roads or a seasoned driver, this guide will talk you through what to do.

What is aquaplaning in a car?

Rain drops splattered on a windscreen obscure the view of the wet road ahead

Aquaplaning is when your car's tyres lose contact with the road surface and, instead, glide over a layer of water. This is most common on high-speed roads where puddles have formed either during or following a rain shower.

When your car aquaplanes, it loses grip with the road because your tyres aren't making contact with the ground. That means you can't steer, brake or accelerate, and your car's momentum is the only thing carrying you forward – whether you want it to or not.

What causes aquaplaning?

A car drives fast in the outside lane of the motorway overtaking two other cars in very wet conditions

Aquaplaning is caused by water on the road surface, either in puddles, thin layers of flowing water, or standing water from flooding. Aquaplaning happens when there is more water under a tyre than it can remove, causing it to lift up from the road surface and your car along with it. Tyre treads have deep grooves to channel water away from the surface of the tyre, allowing the tyre to grip the road – once there is more water than these grooves can cope with, you run the risk of aquaplaning.

From a driver's perspective, however, there are three main causes of aquaplaning:

  • Driving too fast
    • This is the most common cause of aquaplaning and the one that's easiest to avoid. Driving too fast, and not adjusting your speed to match the conditions around you, can cause aquaplaning either during or following a rain shower. Excess speed in wet conditions might mean asking your tyres to deal with water on the road surface faster than they're able to, leading to the car aquaplaning.
  • Not playing enough attention to conditions
    • It shouldn't be news to you that you need to take extra care in wet conditions, but being on the lookout for potential aquaplaning spots is an important extra step to remember. Puddles on the motorway are classic aquaplaning culprits and they can be hard to spot if the road surface already looks wet from rain. So make sure you keep an eye on the road surface ahead of you when the heavens open.
  • Poor maintenance
    • The grooves in your tyre tread are responsible for moving the water away from the tyre surface, but that tread wears away over time. That means the grooves get progressively smaller and can't handle as much water as a result, increasing the risk of aquaplaning. This is why you need to replace your tyres when there's little tread depth left, so you know your tyres will perform properly in the wet.

How can you tell if your car is aquaplaning?

Cars drive off into the distance on a wet road

Modern cars do an awful lot to insulate you from the sensation of driving down the road, which means it can actually be a little tricky to know when your car is aquaplaning. However, there are a few signs you can look out for:

  • Your steering wheel feels unusually light to turn
  • Your engine noise and revs increase as your driving wheels lose grip
  • You feel the car physically slow down as the drag from the water hits the tyres
  • You hear a wooshing sound from the tyres as you hit the water
  • You feel the front or rear of the car start to drift slightly

How to avoid aquaplaning

A wet country road

The single most important trick to avoiding aquaplaning is to slow down and match your speed to the conditions. This doesn't just mean rigidly following the speed limit, but actually being prepared to drive a lot slower than the posted limit if there's simply too much water on the road for your tyres to cope. Aquaplaning is especially likely on the motorway where traffic tends to move quite fast, so stay calm and don't feel rushed to match the speeds others are travelling at if you think it isn't safe.

You should also take extra care to watch the road ahead of you in wet conditions. Spotting a large puddle in advance gives you more time to react and to adjust your driving if needed. You should leave even more space between you and other motorists, too, to give you more room to avoid any dangers caused by aquaplaning.

For many safety reasons beyond just avoiding aquaplaning, you should keep on top of your vehicle's maintenance – servicing it in line with manufacturer intervals and making any running repairs needed to keep it working properly. That's especially true for tyres, which must have at least 1.6mm of tread depth across the middle three quarters of the tyres surface. If they don't, you run the risk of a fine, three penalty points or, in the worst case scenario, an accident.

What should I do if my car starts aquaplaning?

A straight wet road with a single car in the oncoming lane

If your car does end up aquaplaning, you'll want to stay calm and be very gentle with your steering wheel and pedals to bring it back under control. First, hold your wheel straight and gently take your foot off the accelerator – if you have the cruise control turned on, make sure you turn it off. Avoid braking while your car is actually aquaplaning, as this can lead to a skid as the wheels suddenly regain traction.

After easing off the accelerator, your car will slow to a point where the wheels grip the road again. When this happens, you can then gently begin easing onto the brake pedal to slow yourself to a safe speed. Again, be sure to avoid stamping on the pedal harshly as this will upset your car's balance and might lead to a loss of control.

More top tips to keep you safe on the road

We have a selection of guides to help you stay safe on the roads. Take a look at our explainer for how to drive in heavy rain or learn more about driving safely in the snow. If you're a motorway regular, you might want to check out our guide to driving in high winds.

Aquaplaning FAQs