Why Flooded Roads Are More Dangerous Than They May Appear

Patrick Olsen

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

As the rain from Hurricane Dorian threatens to inundate cities along the coast in several Southeast states this week, drivers there need to be careful, especially when approaching water that's covering a roadway.

More than half of flood-related drownings occur when someone drives into hazardous water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Weather Service (NWS). Almost 100 people die each year in flooding-related incidents, the CDC says.

In fact, the NWS says, 57 people died in 2018 while driving in flood conditions in the U.S. So far in 2019, 53 already have died that same way, and there are roughly four months left in the year.

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," warns CR's Chief Mechanic John Ibbotson. "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 explains. “All of these situations can leave drivers—and possibly their families—at risk of drowning if the water continues to rise.”

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.  

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 advises to contact 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 risk driving on flooded roads. This helps keep everyone safe, and it reduces the burdens on emergency crews. 

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