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Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it

When I originally wrote this tip almost twenty years ago, my main worry was winter weather. But in the last few years, torrential rain and standing water on summer roads has become just as common and it can be a real hazard. I don't mean just ploughing into standing water and having the bike stop almost dead, or even finding that the puddle is actually a pothole, but the problem of aquaplaning. So this article explains "what is aquaplaning, how likely is it to happen, how do we recognise it's happening and what do we do about it?"

Let's start by explaining what aquaplaning is. I think the term has probably been borrowed from ship design. A ship has to push water aside in front of it, and when that vessel's speed is sufficiently high, the water cannot get out of the way fast enough. So the vessel tends to rises up and ulimately 'rides' on the wave it's created. That's the basic principle behind high speed ferries.

Tyres do pretty much the same. When water is sufficiently deep and speed sufficiently high, the tyre cannot displace the water to the side quickly enough. A wave builds up ahead of the tyre's contact patch and with just a bit more speed and the tyre rides up and 'floats' on its own bow wave. And that means it's lost contact with the road surface, and the tyre has no braking or steering grip!

Here's the good news. Whilst aquaplaning is quite common when driving a car - the barrel-shaped profile of a car tyre has a broad contact patch that pushes water ahead of it - a motorcycle tyre is U or V-shaped and the relatively long, thin contact patch cuts more effectively through standing water, much like a ship's bow.

In my experience, aquaplaning is pretty rare on two wheels compared with four. In fact, if we do much motorway driving in wet weather, aquaplaning is quite common. But I can count the times it's happened on a bike on one hand.

The danger seems to be a road surface just awash with standing water, where we we wouldn't normally think twice about riding through it at a modest speed. It happened once near Brands Hatch, where the road is wide and flat - it's an old concrete surface underneath the tarmac skim and so there's no camber to clear the water, so there was standing water over a considerable length of road. The speed limit is only 40, so it seems that it's the distance the standing water stretches that matters, rather than flat-out speed. I had a similar incident in the Ardennes in Belgium on a brand-new road that was 'super-elevated' - that is, cambered so that the entire road 'banks' for each corner. This seemed to trap the rain from a thunderstorm so that rather than flowing OFF the surface, it acted more like a channel of the water.

Hitting a short stretch of deep water doesn't seem to create the right circumstances for aquaplaning. I suspect this is because the resistance of the water creates a sudden deceleration so there's no chance for that wave to build. The impact will try to wrench the steering out of our grip, but it's not aquaplaning. And, let's face it, if we see a big puddle, it'd be a good idea to avoid it when possible, or slow down when we can't as we've no idea what's under it.

So watch out for shallow sheets of water, particularly after a thunderstorm or prolonged heavy rain. Look out for places where run-off from a field or an overflowing drain flows into the road. Motorways and dual carriageways are bad because two lane roads like A roads and country lanes normally have a crown that drains water to either side, but the carriageways on a dual carriageway are usually flat, Watch out too for standing water in truck wheel tracks. At speed, and with spray flying around, we may well not see the problem until the last second. So try to keep a good gap, and don't go excessively quickly.

In my experience, the warning sign that the bike is aquaplaning is that it keeps going in a straight line, but the bars go light and floaty-feeling. They may even move from side to side. It's a bit like riding on ice, but with one important difference - on ice, the first warning is often wheelspin but when aquaplaning, the rear wheel continues to drive the bike forward, presumably because the rear is often following in the trough cut by the front tyre. It's front tyre grip that's compromised.

If we suspect we might be aquaplaning, the best answer seems to be, as is often the case, to keep a relaxed grip on the bars - hanging on for dear life always makes things worse. Lock onto the tank with the knees to keep the weight off the bars and do nothing harsh or sudden. Once again, in my experience, if we simply roll off the throttle gently, the reduction in speed plus the extra loading at the front gets the front tyre to cut back down through the water to regain grip. But don't apply the front brake - if it's floating, it could lock. If it's necessary to brake, use the rear gently. Don't try to steer until there's feedback through the bars telling you that the front tyre is back in contact with the road surface.

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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