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What To Do When Skidding or Hydroplaning

Loosing traction on the road can be dangerous. Here’s what to do when your car begins to skid or hydroplane.

Slip Slidin’ Away

Car driving through a puddle
Car driving through a puddle

Whether you live in sunny California or the icy reaches of the UP (shout out to all my Michiganders), if you’ve driven for any length of time you’ve run into dicey driving conditions that can cause a loss of traction. Water, ice, snow, and loose surfaces all reduce your vehicle’s contact with the road. This, in turn, can lead to a skid or, in the case of water on the road, hydroplaning. And while this can be a scary situation, staying calm and taking appropriate action can keep you from losing control.

Losing Traction

Snowy road conditions
Snowy road conditions

Hailing from South Dakota, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of bad road conditions. Gravel roads, icy roads, snowy roads, roads with snow packed down by traffic that then forms ice, summer storm deluges leaving puddles in the road so big you can fish in them. I’ve driven them all and my one and only accident came at the age of sixteen, understeering in deep wet snow right into a concrete piling, totaling my dad’s green Taurus SHO. I was, quite evidently, not worthy of the SHO. But what’s kept me safe on the road since then has been knowing what to do and what not to do when skidding.

What To Do When Skidding

Foot on gas pedal
Foot on gas pedal

The first thing to remember when you feel your vehicle beginning to skid is to not panic. This isn’t easy as our natural reaction is to act immediately, often slamming on the brakes and jerking the steering wheel. This is wrong. Doing either will invariably make a skid worse and cause a complete loss of control.

Instead, do the following:

Let Off Gas: Rather than hitting the brakes to slow down, let off the accelerator.

Driver turning steering wheel
Driver turning steering wheel

Steer into the Skid: Avoid jerking the wheel and instead steer into the skid. If your rear end is kicking out, this also means steering in the same direction as the rear end is going. Watch out for snap back, however. Especially on icy roads, a slight overcorrection can send the rear end of your car back in the opposite direction. Just as before, steer in the same direction as the back end is moving and be ready to correct again if need be. Yes, this will require poise in the moment, but you’ll be prepared since you’ve read this article.

Go Slow: Allow the vehicle to decelerate naturally and then straighten your wheels. Proceed with caution, and at a reduced speed.

What To Do When Hydroplaning

Car on wet road
Car on wet road

Hydroplaning is a specific kind of loss of traction that deserves special mention. Hydroplaning occurs when water on the roadway begins to build up in front of your tires. As the amount of water increases, your tires can actually lose contact with the road surface, gliding on the water instead. This effect is heightened at higher speeds. Without contact with the road, you’ll have lost steering, braking, and power at the same time. Not good.

Diesel vs. Gas: What’s the Difference?

Here’s What to Do:

Driver keeping a safe distance from other vehicles
Driver keeping a safe distance from other vehicles

Slow Down Carefully: As with skidding, first leave off the accelerator. In this case, you can gently apply your brakes as long as you have an ABS equipped vehicle (most cars built in this century do) and slow down.

Don’t Overcorrect: Steer gently in your desired direction and avoid jerking the wheel. As hydroplaning occurs almost exclusively at speed, you shouldn’t need to give much steering input anyway.

Get a Grip: Wait until you feel your tires gripping the road before proceeding. When you do, it should be at a reduced speed.

An Ounce of Prevention

New tires
New tires

The best advice on skidding and hydroplaning is to avoid finding your self in the situation in the first place. There are a number of steps you can take that can prevent a skid before it starts.

There are two items before you even get on the road. First, know your local road conditions. If you know you’ve got ice, snow, or water on the road, you also know to drive slowly and with added caution. Next is to check your tires. Make sure they are aired up to the manufacturer’s recommendation. Then check your tread. You can use a penny; if your tread doesn’t touch Lincoln’s head, your tires are too worn and need replacing. It’s important to emphasize, do not put off replacing your tires. Not only are you risking a flat, but you’re also risking a blowout or a loss of traction. Either of which are super bad news.

Careful drivers on a snowy road
Careful drivers on a snowy road

The next thing you can do to reduce the likelihood of skidding or hydroplaning is to drive more slowly and leave plenty of room to stop and between you and other vehicles. Even living in a snowy climate, the first dusting seems to take people by surprise here in South Dakota, with not a few drivers sliding their way through red lights or caroming off other vehicles at a four-way stop. And all because they forgot what last winter taught them: slow down on the snow and ice.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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