Riders on the storm: Tips for driving in thunderstorms

Tonight, much of the UK is set to be buffeted by the remnants of the tropical storm which battered much of Bermuda and neighbouring Caribbean islands, Hurricane Gonzalo.

Although by the time it lands Gonzalo will no longer technically be a hurricane, having lost much of its power while travelling across the Atlantic, the Met Office has issued a yellow warning for much of the country, saying that the incoming storm could still cause significant damage.

Reports state that although Gonzalo has reduced in power, it will still cause severe gales and torrential downpours through the UK, which could trigger floods, damage buildings and cause power cuts.

Worse still, several forecasters have noted that as the cyclone hurtles across the ocean on its collision course with the UK, there are signs that the former hurricane could be getting stronger.

A Met Office spokesperson said: “Some uncertainty remains in the track and intensity, but there remains the potential for localised disruption to travel, especially as the strongest winds will coincide with rush hour in places.”

Driving in the wet can be tricky enough. Driving in high winds can also prove to be problematic. However, when you’re dealing with the sort of high-intensity storm that Gonzalo is predicted to be, the risk to drivers increases exponentially.

Consequently, we’ve put together a few quick tips to help you prepare yourself for the bad weather:

Don’t drive unless absolutely necessary

We realise that for many, this isn’t really an option. Particularly as the worst of the weather is expected around rush hour tomorrow morning, many drivers could find themselves stuck in the thick of it on their way to work or during the school run.

However, if you can possibly avoid driving at all, it’s usually advisable to do so. Avoiding the bad weather also means avoiding all the complications that go with it, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Mind the rain

Torrential rain can pose a serious risk to drivers, not just due to the lack of visibility caused by falling rain, but also because of the standing water and potential flooding that it causes.

Turning on your headlights is essential during torrential rain, not only to improve your own visibility but your visibility to other drivers.

Like driving in fog, however, it’s inadvisable to turn on your full beam; the rain will simply reflect it back and create glare, which will lower your ability to see even further. Likewise, don’t use rear fog lights as these can mask your brake lights and dazzle drivers behind you.

It’s also useful to check the condition of your windscreen wipers. If the blades are old or damaged, they’ll be less efficient at swiping the water from your screen.

When driving in heavy rain, keep your speed to a minimum. In the rain, your car’s grip on the road is drastically lessened, meaning that if you corner too sharply or quickly in the wet, you risk coming off the road. At best, you’ll be faced with a hefty repair bill, and at worst you could seriously injure or kill yourself and passengers.

Standing water can be dangerous

On the same note, driving fast through standing water can lead to your tyres losing contact with the road altogether. Known as aquaplaning, this will cause you to lose all control over the car entirely.

Classic signs of aquaplaning include a sudden lightening of the steering. To regain your grip, immediately ease of the accelerator.

You should never brake while aquaplaning, as this will cause your car to go into a skid and further reduce your control. Instead, gradually step off the power until you feel the grip return.

Also be aware that driving too fast through puddles can cause serious damage to your engine if water is allowed to flood into it. Avoid driving through puddles and potholes as best you can, as they may be deceptively deep.

If you’re forced to go through deep water, take it slowly and carefully so as not to lose your grip on the road. If your engine floods and cuts out while driving through deep water, don’t attempt to restart it as damage may occur. Instead, you should call for assistance and have the vehicle professionally examined.

Finally, be aware of fast-moving water as a result of heavy rain and the effects that it can have. For example, did you know that six inches of fast flowing water is enough to knock you off your feet?

Similarly, only a foot of water is enough to move the average family car, while only an egg cup’s worth of water sucked into the engine is enough to wreck it.

High winds, high risk

One of the major risk factors associated with gales and storms is, naturally, the high winds. Those most at risk include motorcyclists and the drivers of lorries and vans, due to the unstable nature of a motorcycle and the extra wind resistance courtesy of the large size of a van.

However, regular motorists are still at risk. No doubt, drivers will have experienced the effects of wind while on the roads before, when a sudden gust will have started to pull your car in one direction or another.

It can be distressing during mild gusts, but strong gales can be even more dangerous and threaten lives. In order to maintain optimum stability, make sure that you have both hands on the wheel at all times.

Putting your hands in the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock position like a racing driver will give you the best amount of control and leverage over the car, which can be crucial in tough conditions.

The strongest gusts will come in exposed areas, like flat, open roads, high positions and bridges. Keep your speed down too, as lowering your speed will lower the distance you travel when buffeted around by the wind.

The difference between a few mph could be the difference between staying on the road and flying off it.

Also be aware that you’re not the only one on the road, and, as a result, other vehicles may be blown into your path, particularly high-sided vehicles and caravans. Keep your distance from all other vehicles on the road, and take particular care around cyclists and motorcyclists.

It’s also advisable to avoid overtaking completely while driving in high winds. Storms, which combine both high winds and torrential rain, will combine the unpredictability of wind with the loss of visibility and control associated with the rain.

Don’t be shocked by lightning

You’ve probably heard before that being in a car is one of the safest places you can be while stuck in a lightning storm. This is mostly true, but the widely-spread factoid that cars are protected from lightning by the rubber in the tyres is a myth.

The real reason is that the metal monocoque of the car acts as a conductive cage, which passes the lightning around the driver and to the ground due to its conductivity.

While this means that the vast majority of cars will be safe during lightning storms, it’s incredibly important to note that cars that lack metal roofs won’t have the protective qualities of an all-metal body.

Soft-top convertibles, with their fabric roofs, are the most at risk and will likely catch fire if struck by lightning.

Also be aware that current can travel through other parts of many modern cars, with their wide range of GPS and infotainment features.

Cars with metal interior handles, foot pedals and steering wheels can also carry current and there are reports of many cars damaged both internally and externally by lightning strikes.

If you find yourself caught out in thunder and lightning, don’t panic. It’s advisable to roll the windows up to seal yourself inside and let the car’s frame act as a protective shell, but luckily you won’t be in too much both provided that you’re driving a hard-top car.

It’s usually safe to continue driving if the lightning is far off, however if you find yourself caught in the midst of a nearby lightning storm, pull over wherever is convenient and safe and wait for it to pass. If you drive a car without a hard top, try and look for shelter beneath an overpass or similar structure.

Watch your surroundings

As well as the immediate problems caused by storms, which includes the rain, wind and lightning, other problems will also inevitably be caused. The wind will not only push your vehicle over, but will also blow debris across the road including branches, rubbish and even power lines.

As well as creating problems on the road, heavy rain can create flooding and even landslides in areas that are particularly hard hit, while lightning can cause trees to fall over or even set them alight in rare cases.

Due to this, it’s always advisable to stay vigilant while driving through nasty weather. Keep your lights on, your speed down and your eyes peeled at all times and remember, if things get too bad, you should always find somewhere that’s safe to park in and wait for the worst of it to pass by.