A former East-Coaster Shares Tips for Driving Safely in Bay Area Rains

Thomas Smith

Original photo by the author

Bay Area drivers’ fearfulness about driving in the rain is exceeded only by their incompetence. It feels like every time there’s even a tiny drizzle here in the Bay Area, drivers go skidding off the roads left and right, causing all manner of delays and putting themselves and others at risk.

I grew up on the East Coast, where rain was a fact of daily life, and having several feet of snow on the ground was common during the winter months. I learned to drive at 14 years old on the back roads of New Hampshire. In snowdrifts. Using a pickup truck that was almost as old as me at the time. With stick shift.

That means I’ve done quite a lot of foul-weather driving. (And my fair share of snowy parking lot donuts). Here are my tips for driving in the Bay Area’s rains.

Slow Way Down

Very often I’ll be driving through one of the Bay Area’s storms on the 680 or Highway 24, with pounding rain and terrible visibility. I’ll look over to my left, and I’ll see someone booking it at 85 miles per hour in the carpool lane as if it’s a perfectly clear day in the middle of August.

Here’s the simplest thing you can do to improve your safety when it’s raining, Bay Area drivers: slow way down.

According to AAA, 1.2 million people per year get into car accidents because of the rain. Excessive speed is a big factor; “With as little as 1/12 inch of water on the road”, AAA says, “tires have to displace a gallon of water per second to keep the rubber meeting the road.” That’s a lot of water to move. And if you speed up, the amount your tires need to displace increases.

From a young age, East Coasters are taught that when it’s raining, you should move to the right of the road and slow down. That way, if someone stops ahead of you, you hit a patch of water and start to hydroplane, or the visibility suddenly drops, you have plenty of time to react and stay safe. And if someone spins out ahead of you, you can deftly move into the shoulder to avoid ramming them.

When I say slow down, I mean way down. California recommends driving 5 to 10 miles per hour below the speed limit in wet conditions. That means driving 45 to 55 miles per hour on most Bay Area highways. That feels like a snail’s pace compared to normal driving speeds in the Bay. But driving that speed is a key way to keep yourself safe in the rain.

Turn Your Headlights On

Repeat this after me, people, and perhaps scrawl it across your dashboard in pen for extra safety: “Wipers on, Lights on.”

If you’re using your windshield wipers due to rain, snow, or any other kind of water landing on your car, you should also have your headlights on. You should do this every single time.

Why? Using your lights makes it easier to see in front of you when rain makes it dark and overcast. But turning on your headlights also means that your car will switch on its taillights, making it way easier for people behind you to see your car through the trail of water your tires are kicking up. Take a look at the photo at the top of this article, which was shot on a real Bay Area road. How many drivers have their tail lights illuminated, indicating that their headlights are on? None of them.

Turning your headlights on in the rain is good for other drivers, but it’s also good for you. Better visibility means people are less likely to follow right behind you, and you can hopefully avoid getting rear-ended if you need to stop suddenly.

Don’t Drive Through Standing Water

I was recently sitting in a Bay Area parking lot following last month’s gigantic storm, and a huge portion of the parking lot was flooded. A driver pulled into the lot and proceeded to drive straight through the flooded area. They could easily have gone around it, mind you, but that would have added an additional 30 seconds to their parking lot traversal time.

Instead, they plowed into it, only to realize partway through that the water was way deeper than they expected. Their car foundered but made it through. If the water had been a bit deeper or had been moving, they may not have been so lucky.

Bay Area drivers don’t seem to get that driving through any amount of standing water is incredibly dangerous. Maybe we see too many commercials in which rugged off-road vehicles with California wilderness-themed names confidently ford streams and plow through muddy fields. That works fine in a car commercial, but in real life, it’s a dumbass thing you should avoid at all costs.

According to the National Weather Service, six inches of water on the road will enter the engine compartment of most consumer vehicles, causing you to stall in the middle of the flooded roadway. One foot of water — a common amount during big Bay Area storms — is enough to float most vehicles away. Remember that your car is designed to float, and if you drive it into a mini roadway lake, it will happily do just that, leaving you stranded or worse, washed downriver.

If you encounter a flooded roadway, turn around and find another route.

One of the best things about California in general and the Bay Area, in particular, is our remarkable diversity of different climates and microclimates. That makes California life amazing, and something I wouldn’t trade for the world. But it also means that we Californians need to take special care to learn how to drive safely in a variety of different environments.

My tips are based on hard-won experience, but they’re just the beginning. If you want someone to drop a ton more bad-weather driving knowledge on you, check out California’s comprehensive guide to Speciality Driving Situations.

Be safe out there. Rain is good, and we need it. Be smart, and we can all go back to enjoying 75-degree weather early next year.

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Award-winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips: tom@gadoimages.com

Lafayette, CA

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