Flooded roads are dangerous to drive on.
Photo: iStock

Drivers need to be extra careful during heavy rains and tropical storms, being wary of potential deep, standing water and other road hazards. 

More than half of flood-related drownings occur when someone drives into hazardous water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Weather Service. Flood-related deaths vary significantly from year to year, based on weather conditions. For the past decade, the average has been 100 deaths per year, based on NWS data.

Simply put, turn your car around if you encounter water on the road that looks to be 6 inches or deeper—or you can’t even tell how deep it is. Be especially cautious at night, when it is harder to recognize flood danger.  

Even water that’s 12 inches deep can move a small car, and 2 feet of raging water can dislodge and carry most vehicles, the NWS says.

“Deep water is also a threat to trucks and SUVs, even with their increased ground clearance,” says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic. “They have the same vulnerabilities as passenger cars.”

Driving into water on flooded roads can lead to trouble in several ways, says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.

“Some drivers can lose control after hitting a large water puddle and may hit a tree or become stuck, some may find their car swept away, and some get stuck when the car’s engine sucks in water and stalls,” Fisher says. “All of these situations can leave drivers—and possibly their families—at risk of drowning if the water continues to rise.”

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And getting stuck can put others in peril, especially emergency workers who may need to come to your aid. 

People drive into floodwater because they often think it’s shallow, says Stephen Hegarty, public information officer for the Tampa, Fla., police department, which has experienced many of these situations.

“People just think they’ll make it to the other side, and it’s a lot deeper than they think," Hegarty says. “They don’t know if the road has worn away and don’t know what’s under the water. You don’t know if there’s a wire down or debris in the road.”

Downed wires can lead to electrocution, Hegarty adds.

“When we have bad flooding, especially a storm with a name, we have to rescue people on a regular basis,” he says. “It’s a legitimate crisis.”

Even experienced drivers can be caught in flooding. Houston Police Sgt. Steve Perez, 60, drowned during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 when he inadvertently drove into floodwaters, city officials said. He had worked 34 years with the department. That was a particularly dangerous year, with NWS reporting 180 total flood-related deaths in 2017.

Beyond personal risk, driving into floodwater also can leave you with a car that’s totaled.

“Even if the water isn’t over the car’s bumper, it’s possible for water to be sucked into the engine’s intake and stall or even destroy the engine,” CR’s Fisher says.

AAA recommends that any vehicle that has been damaged by floods be inspected by a professional mechanic before driving. If there is significant damage, owners without a comprehensive auto insurance policy will end up having to pay for a replacement vehicle out of pocket. AAA recommends contacting the insurance company to determine the extent of coverage before seeking repairs. 

Plan ahead when storms approach. Get to your shelter-in-place location rather than risking driving on flooded roads. This helps keep everyone safe, and it reduces the burden on emergency crews. 

There is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread to people through water, including floodwater. Stay out of floodwater to avoid hazards and illnesses from contaminants that are not associated with COVID-19. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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