Safe Driving in Southern California Rain

February 21, 2018

When it Rains it Pours

Singer/songwriter Albert Hammond was deceived back in 1972. He told us "Seems it never rains in Southern California". But if you know your 70s pop music, you'll know the song goes on to admit that he discovered that when it does rain, "It pours, man, it pours".

And don’t we know it. The worst of it is that although we have a general idea when it's going to happen, the exact timing can catch us out -- sometimes when we're behind the wheel.

And when that happens, downpours can be so severe that our windshield wipers can't even clear enough to give us reasonable visibility.

If you've never driven during a SoCal torrent, then the first time it hits you can be terrifying. And even if you've seen it all before, you're still at huge risk of either being involved in an accident or suffering flood damage to your car.

And because of our extended periods of dryness, even moderate rainfall can catch drivers out because it runs off, causing flooding, rather than soaking into the ground.

Expert Advice

Want to be a safer rain-driver in LA? Here's what the experts say you should do:

  • Prepare -- regularly check your windshield wipers and tire pressures. Use a damp cloth along the edge of your wiper blades, then wet your windshield to test them. Don't assume they're okay just because you've barely used them. Heat can cause them to perish, cutting their useful life expectancy down to under a year. If they don’t do a good job, replace them.
  • If it's raining heavily or a downpour is imminent, don’t drive unless you have to, especially at night when visibility is reduced. If you have to drive, allow extra time for your journey. Check weather and traffic reports before leaving and adjust your route in advance to avoid floods and blockages. Note that the first 10 minutes after a downpour starts are considered to be the most risky as water combines with surface oils.
  • Stow an emergency kit in your car. This should include a phone, a flashlight and rainwear, as well as first-aid supplies.
  • If you're hit with a sudden, torrential downpour and have the opportunity to safely exit and park for a while, do so.
  • Don't tailgate. Allow at least twice the normal distance between vehicles. The recommended distance for safe driving in dry weather is governed by the three-second rule. That's how long it should take you to reach the point that the car in front of you just passed. Make that five or six seconds in rain. It may seem like a long time but it won't add much to your journey time.
  • Drivers wonder about what lights to use in the rain. Drive with your headlights on so you can see ahead and others can see you. Don’t drive beyond the limits of your visibility. In California, the law requires that if your windshield wipers are on, so should your lights be. Not driving beyond your visibility means that you shouldn’t overtake trucks that are churning up so much surface spray that you simply can't see what's ahead.
  • On freeways and other multi-lane highways, stick to the middle lanes if you can. Many road surfaces are slightly curved, which means water drains away from the center towards the side lanes.
  • What speed should you drive in the rain? Forget about posted limits. They're set for our normal weather conditions in LA. In rain, you should be driving well below those numbers. Visibility will be low, even with your headlights on, and you may suddenly encounter stopped vehicles or closed lanes. Driving slowly may significantly extend your journey time but that's better than shortening your life expectancy!
  • How can you avoid hydroplaning? Avoid standing water if you can. Even in shallow water, hydroplaning, in which a car skims through the water and fails to grip the road surface, is a sure route to disaster. Wondering what to do when your car is hydroplaning? Take your foot off the gas and attempt to steer straight.
  • Brake and turn slowly. Pump your breaks gently. If you slam them on, you could skid and lose control of your vehicle. Don’t use cruise control either; it can also lead to skids. If you do skid, turn your wheel in the direction in which you're moving. Trying to steer away will intensify the skid.
  • Definitely don’t attempt to drive through water in which you can’t see the road surface or you can’t estimate the depth. Even in a fairly shallow flood, moving water can easily sweep cars away. Deep water will also likely damage your car's electrical system. And be especially wary if you have to drive through dips, such as under a road or rail bridge.
  • Concentrate! It sounds obvious and easy but there are all too many distractions both inside and outside the car. If you have passengers, ask them to be quiet. Turn off the radio. If you use a GPS or smart phone to help reroute you, set it up before you start out. Or, if you're already driving when the rain starts, pull over and set it up while you're stationary.

There Are Crazy Drivers Out There

Whenever it rains in Southern California, the number of auto accidents soars like a rocket.

Please also be sure that your vehicle is properly insured, not just against accidents where the blame is pinned on you but also for the risk that an at-fault driver who hits you may turn out to have insufficient insurance -- or none at all. Check your auto insurance coverage with Aldrich Taylor Insurance or your agent.

Even if you're the safest driver and follow all the rules, you have to remember that there are some crazy drivers out there.

Be prepared to encounter them by adding an extra degree of caution and alertness into your driving. Rain may be rare in LA, but crashes and pile-ups are not.