Whether it’s during a drizzle or a downpour, driving in the rain can be challenging and hazardous. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration reports that the vast majority of weather-related automobile crashes happen while it’s raining or on wet pavement.
Slick roads are a factor in close to 1.2 million vehicle accidents every year, according to the highway administration. Here’s how to stay in control of your car and keep yourself safe while driving this spring.
1. Get yourself and your vehicle ready for the road
Before venturing out in the rain, drivers should prepare themselves to drive safely, says William Van Tassel, who manages national driver training programs for the American Automobile Association and is based in Orlando, Florida.
“You need to be well rested and have a totally clear head; there’s no room for any sort of impairment when driving in tough conditions,” says Van Tassel.
Make sure your car can handle the rain. Your tires should be properly inflated — which allows them to have the most traction on the road — and have enough tread.
“The tread helps evacuate the water between the tire and the road, so the deeper the tread, the better the traction,” explains Van Tassel. “We tend to take tires for granted, but they’re the most important part on the vehicle. If someone’s tires are underinflated or close to balding, they’ll have less traction on the road exactly when they need more traction.”
If you put snow tires on your car during winter, swap them out once the snow has melted, because summer tires do a better job in rainy conditions, he adds.
2. Make sure you can see and be seen
It’s harder to drive safely in the rain because of limited visibility — especially at night — so test your windshield wipers. They should clean the glass in one swipe, with no streaks. If they’re not performing well, you may need to purchase and install new wiper blades. That’s an easy DIY project, though you can also have it done for you at your local gas station or auto parts store.
If you’re anticipating frequent, heavy downpours, consider applying water-repellent products to your windshield that help water bead and run off the glass more quickly.
Turn on your defroster to prevent fogged windows, and wipe any dirt from your headlights, brake lights, turn signals and taillights so other drivers can see you better, suggests Van Tassel.
Many cars have settings that automatically turn on the headlights when the skies dim or the wipers are on, but it’s still a good idea to double-check that they’ve been activated during a rainstorm.
You’re about twice as visible to other road users when your headlights are on, so anytime you drive — day or night, rain or shine — turn on the headlights, Van Tassel says.
3. Keep your distance
In bad weather, drivers should leave more room between themselves and the car in front of them.
“It’s really hard to hit something if you’ve got enough space around your vehicle, and drivers should increase their following distance to five or more seconds behind the vehicle ahead,” says Van Tassel.
If you’re on the highway or a road with several lanes, try to keep an open space on at least one side of your vehicle at all times. This way, if something happens in front of you and you don’t have enough time to brake, you can immediately move left or right, he says.
Pro tip: Because water tends to accumulate more in outside lanes, drive in the middle lane.
4. Avoid sudden movements
When accelerating, turning, braking or steering in the rain, drive smoothly to retain maximum control, suggests Van Tassel.
“We see drivers jerking the steering wheel, stomping the pedals or waiting too late to brake, and while you might be able to get away with that in dry conditions, when you start losing traction in the rain, you cause trouble for yourself if you’re really rough with the car,” he explains.
Make gradual speed or steering changes, and start slowing your vehicle by taking your foot off the gas earlier than you normally would before gently squeezing the brake pedal.
5. Don’t use cruise control
Normally in wet conditions, lifting your foot off the accelerator transfers weight to the front of the car and slows you down enough to allow your vehicle to regain traction. However, when cruise control is engaged, the car won’t respond until you press on the brake, says Van Tassel. Avoiding cruise control when driving in the rain leaves you with more options in a loss-of-traction situation.
“If you’re not using cruise control, you might be paying much more attention to driving, which is always a good thing in bad weather conditions,” he says.
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6. Slow down
Most people drive too fast on wet roads, says Van Tassel. Tires can lose contact with a wet road at just 35 miles an hour, making it more difficult to control the car. Reducing your speed maximizes safety.
“Your tires have far less traction on wet pavement than they do in dry conditions, so slow down before you get to a wet-looking spot and before you start to turn left or right,” he says.
7. Don’t panic
Hydroplaning — when your tires float on a layer of water instead of the rubber meeting the road — can be frightening.
“You can turn the steering wheel left or right, but the car’s not going to respond, so it’s a really dangerous situation to be in,” says Van Tassel. “The first rule of thumb is, don’t freak out.”
While most drivers instinctively jam on the brakes, that’s a bad idea.
“You want to gradually get traction back to those front tires, so lift your foot off the accelerator. That shifts more weight to the front end of the car and gets those tires back on the pavement,” he explains.
If that doesn’t work, gently apply the brakes. By keeping the heel of your foot on the floor and using the ball of your foot and toes to work the pedals, you’ll have more braking control. Press too hard and you’ll throw the car into a rear tire skid, he adds. To correct a skid, continue looking and steering in the direction you want the car to go.
“Keeping your eyes focused on the target — the road ahead — tells your brain to help your hands and feet do what they should do to maximize the chance you’ll end up right where you want to be,” he says.
Because your vehicle’s reaction time is much slower in slippery conditions, reducing your speed helps you avoid hydroplaning or skidding.
“A little preparation and thinking about how we’re driving can really make a big difference,” Van Tassel says.
Wendy Helfenbaum is a contributing writer who covers home improvement, gardening, automotive, real estate and travel. She’s written for outlets including Apartment Therapy, Houzz, BBC.com, WomansDay.com, and Costco Connection.