With January 2014 being declared the wettest since records began this year’s winter resembles, more than anything, a stuck record, flooding seems set to become part of the landscape for many of us. Most winters in the UK present a few challenges for us all and winter driving is one of the bigger ones. Most years, of course, this means dealing with slippery, frosty conditions and low temperatures. This year has set a whole new set of challenges for Britain’s drivers; the wet weather challenge. Driving in wet weather can be dangerous at any time; standing water on roads during heavy downpours can lead to aquaplaning and loss of control. This winter, with both flash and more prolonged floods, there are additional challenges. However, being prepared for whatever the weather throws at us can help to avoid disaster on the roads.
What’s the Worst that Could Happen?
Cars and water don’t really mix, which is why people generally use boats when it comes to large bodies of water. Unfortunately there are now large bodies of water where there were recently roads. In terms of damage to your car, driving through water can be fatal for an engine. Most cars have an air intake located at the front of the engine, and positioned low down. The AA advises that only an egg-cupful of water passing into the combustion chamber is enough to require the last rites for your car. The rule is simple here; if you encounter a flooded road drive carefully, slowly and quietly through the flooding. Avoid creating a wave at the front of the car or a wash behind and only drive through if you are sure that the water is not too deep.
Thinking and Driving
Even a good knowledge of the roads in your area may not be enough to be sure that a flooded road is safe; check to see how deep the water appears to be from features at the side of the road. Only two feet of water is enough to float most cars off their wheels and a foot of flowing water can move a car. Relatively low levels of water can be fast moving; if you stall and have to get out of the car this can pose a serious danger. Six inches of water is enough to pull you off your feet if it’s flowing quickly. Also be aware of ditches and other submerged features if you do need to abandon your car, a foot of water on the road may be two or three feet deep in ditches and drainage channels at the edges of the road. In most cases the safest course of action is to try to stay in the car and raise the alarm quickly.
Apart from large areas of new wetland that this winter has created there has also been a seemingly endless supply of rain, much of it heavy. Driving in poor, wet conditions creates a whole new set of challenges. Driving at high speeds on standing water (which can develop rapidly even on well drained roads during heavy downpours) can lead to aquaplaning. This is when the tyres lose grip on the road surface and you’ll notice a loss of steering control. Drop your speed gently by easing off the accelerator and don’t grip the steering wheel tightly; you’ll feel the steering return to normal and should then continue at a lower speed. In some areas roads pass through fords and during wet weather these can be dangerous; just because they’re there doesn’t mean they are safe. If it’s been raining stop and check the depth before crossing and considering taking an alternative route if you’re not 100% sure. If areas either side of a bridge are flooding the best advice is not to drive through; it’s likely that this water will be fast flowing and may well be beyond the capabilities of your car or yourself (two thirds of flood victims are known to be strong swimmers). Apart from potentially causing damage to your engine as described above, driving rapidly through standing water can soak pedestrians and cyclists (or may knock the latter off their bikes). It’s hardly considerate to do this, though some motorists don’t take that into account, but it’s also a driving offence (driving without reasonable consideration for other road users) and its worth up to nine points on your licence. Collecting points is good in so many areas of life, but not this one.
Waterproofing the Car
Many of us have the sense to have the car checked over (see Robins and Day) in preparation for winter and this is no bad idea in terms of preparing for driving in wet conditions. Particularly important are checking tyre pressures before long journeys and getting any faulty windscreen wipers replaced. A full winter service should always be a consideration and if you’ve not had your car “waterproofed” already this year, may now just be the time.
Tim Curry is a freelance writer and car enthusiast; in this post he looks at the new challenges this winter has posed for drivers.
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