Driving Rain

Winter has blown itself out, spring has sprung, and summer is on its way. To you that might mean the worst of the year's weather is already behind us, but summer weather presents its own set of hazards as thousands of unlucky motorists learn each year. Summer is the peak driving season of the year, which mean more people are on the road, more miles are being driven and more accidents are taking place. Many of these accidents can be blamed on the weather. Approximately 5,000 deaths and 500,000 injuries in the United States resulted from automobile crashes attributed to inclement weather in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Many most of those accidents could have been avoided if drivers knew and followed some basic safe driving practices when the weather turned foul.

Foul weather doesn't need to be feared, but it must be respected. In fact, having a healthy respect for the power of wind, rain and other weapons wielded by Mother Nature is the first defense against a potentially serious weather-induced accident. Bad weather can descend upon you suddenly and seemingly without warning. You can find yourself in a deluge of rain, a thick fog, or a flash-flooded viaduct in a matter of seconds. But if you drive with that knowledge in the back of your mind and with the steps you should take when foul weather strikes, you will be much better prepared to survive the situation.

Remember, posted speed limits are for "ideal" weather and maximum visibility. Even moderate rain can seriously limit your ability to see potential traffic hazards, including not only other vehicles but also pedestrians and objects that may be washed by rain onto the pavement. In addition, wet pavement has a serious effect on typical vehicle braking distances. In fact, it can take twice the usual distance to stop your vehicle when the pavement is even slightly wet, so keeping a good interval between you and the vehicle in front of you is crucial in the rain.

Further, just because the rain might not be heavy doesn't mean that it won't affect your ability to stop quickly and safely. A light rain can actually make the pavement more slippery than a heavy rain, especially if it comes after a dry period in which oil and other automotive liquids have been deposited on the roadway. The resulting mixture of oil and water caused by a light rain can be extremely hazardous.

When driving in the rain, it is often safest to stay in the middle lanes of multi-lane roads and freeways. Water tends to pool in outside lanes, and pools of water can throw even the best vehicle's handling awry. Hitting a deep pool of water is not unlike hitting an object, so it can play havoc with your steering. If that situation is complicated by close proximity to a center divider or another car, a serious accident could result.

Each year a few unfortunate souls drown at the wheel of their cars under flooded bridges or viaducts. While this type of accident seems to defy logic, many motorists will attempt to enter flooded areas gingerly, just testing to see how deep the water really is, but then find themselves in much deeper than they envisioned. The simple solution when you come upon a flooded roadway: turn around and find another route. You have to ask yourself, is a few minutes of your time worth potential damage to your vehicle and injury or even death for yourself and your passengers? If the answer is yes, go right ahead. Otherwise, find an alternate route.

In addition to rain, summer fog presents another potential hazard to drivers. Even in otherwise clear weather, fog banks can occur in damp, low lying areas or in the mountains where summer weather can turn quickly to Arctic conditions. Reduced visibility is not the only effect of fog either. It can make roads slick, so when driving in fog, adjust your speed, avoid over steering and brake smoothly.

Fog also can produce panic, and panic can then induce erratic driving behavior. If you encounter a fog bank, don't jam on the brakes. Very often in a fog, your biggest hazard is not in front of you but, instead, behind you in the form of following traffic that could well rear-end your vehicle if you slow down too quickly. It is far better to reduce your speed gradually, while paying special attention to cars and trucks on all sides of your vehicle.

By behaving in that manner you show respect for the weather and respect for your fellow drivers. Not only is such respect worthwhile behavior, it can also save your life.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on auto safety related topics.