Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wet Weather Driving

Given the current once-in-a-century floods occurring in the country where I work, I've done heaps of wet-weather driving this week.

Some of the driving behaviour I've observed makes me wonder about my fellow motorists' skill level and common sense.

On Tuesday I did a round trip of about 550km in conditions which could only be described as diabolical. The rain was torrential, and it simply didn't stop.

As a consequence, the surface water wasn't draining and there seemed always to be a centimetre or two on the road. If you look at the pic, you'll notice that the road surface has been damaged (principally by grain trucks) leaving depressions in the wheel tracks on both lanes where water pools.

The trick is to keep out of these depressions to avoid aquaplaning, which is easy when there's no other traffic, but is not always possible. It also helps to slow down (the road illustrated is 110km/hr limited) and to disengage the cruise control. Even taking these precautions, you could feel the grab at the wheel caused by the tyres shedding litres of water every second, and occasionally the unsettling twitch through the steering characteristic of aquaplaning.

Years ago, whilst driving in the rain near Emerald, I was overtaken by a couple of young blokes in a Falcon wagon, which aquaplaned and fishtailed as they were getting back on the correct side of the road. I had a grandstand view of the consequences, and they weren't pretty. The car left the road and flipped three times, shedding bits and pieces as it went. The battery flew out, and missed my car (a Renault R12) by centimetres and the wreck finished right way up fifty metres off the road.

I had to provide first aid, and flag down a car which was on the way to Emerald to alert the ambulance which arrived twenty minutes later. I had twenty minutes to consider the consequences of aquaplaning whilst looking after these two. Fortunately, they weren't badly hurt as their seat belts kept them in the car.

Maybe this experience effects how I drive in the rain these days.

On Tuesday's trip the car I was driving had power assisted rack and pinion steering, which is almost universal these days, and steering sensitivity is of high quality. Understanding how much grip is available is a no-brainer with this setup.

It also has a selectable four-wheel-drive transmission which helps, although engaging 4WD in these conditions seemed to have a marginal effect.

What horrified me was the number of drivers who were acting as if the sun was shining and the road was dry. By this I mean that they were travelling at high speed, and apparently paying no attention to the water on the road. They were also inclined to drive two metres from my rear bumper - not preparing to overtake - just sitting there for reasons beyond my understanding.

It's no wonder that the towies park their trucks at strategic locations on the highway at the first sign of rain.

Sometimes I wonder if the design of the modern car is part of the problem. Motorists are so insulated from the environment these days that they forget (or never learn if they're young drivers) that conditions are a factor. Many drive their cars as if they were involved in a simulation. Unfortunately, the consequences of a mistake or a bad decision in real life differ from what happens in a simulation.

That's one of the advantages of my MX5. Driving it brings you into immediate and total physical involvement with the environment.