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How to handle flash flooding as a driver

High water warning sign in front of a flooded street
Heed all warning signs when flooding complicates travel.


When you think of a flood, the first thing that probably springs to mind is how it can impact your home. If a dam breaks or torrential downpours are unrelenting, it doesn’t take long before water works its way closer, breaching your property’s interior, drenching the basement or first floor. After an active hurricane season, thousands of people around the country experienced firsthand what it’s like to have your home rocked by this weather-related disaster.

But have you ever thought about flash floods and how they can affect your car?

“Flash floods develop suddenly, usually due to heavy rain.”

What is flash flooding?
To start, it helps to understand what a flash flood is. As its title implies, a flash flood is a pooling of water that occurs all at once rather than gradually, typically as a result of heavy rainfall. They can be notorious in the Northwest, as this part of the country is one of the wetter areas in America, receiving copious amounts of rain in the typical year. For example, Washington State receives more than 38 inches of precipitation annually, according to government data. That’s a stark difference compared to a state like Nevada, where rainfall averages around 9.5 inches per year.

Fortunately, rain events tend to be moderate for the most part, with precipitation coming down at a decent clip but not in sheets. When it does, however, it can make for dangerous traveling conditions, especially when you’re traveling in areas where pooling can develop, covering portions of the road so you can’t see the surface.

If you’re a veteran motorist, you’ve probably been in one of these situations: you need to get someplace but flooding is literally in the way. This predicament forces you to make a choice – trudge through the flood waters, or turn around.

Car swept up in a flood. It’s always best to err on the side of caution when roads are flooded.

You and your car can be swept away
All too often, motorists go with option No. 1, hoping against hope that they’ll make it through. But as misfortune would have it, vehicles frequently fall victim to Mother Nature’s wrath, literally lifting straight off the ground. Depending on the type of pooling that’s taking place – originating from a stream or something much larger, like a lake or river – motorists can be swept away. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, approximately half of all flood-related drowning deaths affect drivers or their passengers.

It’s the seriousness of this issue that led to the National Weather Service’s “Turn Around Don’t Drown” campaign. Cars these days can do a lot of impressive things, as they’re more resistant to accidents and include numerous safety features designed to protect the precious cargo that’s inside. But people often overestimate their vehicles’ capabilities, which lead to cars literally being carried away.

How do you know whether to press forward or take the long way around? Here are a few tips to keep in mind should you be faced with one of these situations:

  • If there are signs or barriers in place warning of the flooding, do as you’re instructed and seek a different route.
  • Be mindful of your vehicle’s size. If it’s small – like a compact or subcompact – it’s more likely to be affected by the flooded roadway than if it’s large, like a sports-utility vehicle.
  • Just six inches of water can lift a vehicle from the ground, and if the water is rushing, the car can be swept away by lesser amounts.
  • If possible, avoid driving altogether when flash flooding is in the forecast.
  • Water conducts electricity, so watch out for downed power lines.
  • Test your brakes after driving through water that is low enough for safe passage. Even though your car made it, your brakes may be impacted.
  • You can dry off damp brake pads by making dual use of your feet, gradually accelerating with your right while braking slightly with your right.

Scott Sherbourne, sales director of personal lines at PayneWest Insurance, says comprehensive auto insurance is your best bet for flood-related car damage. However, the type you get – actual cash value versus agreed upon value – may be dependent on the vehicle you’re insuring.

“If you have a classic car or a fully restored vehicle, you should consider agreed value so you obtain a check that’s in the right amount. Sherbourne noted most comprehensive auto insurance is based on actual cash value.

Spring season is flood season, and at PayneWest Insurance, our priority is our policyholders’ safety and protection. For more details on auto insurance and flood-related damage, talk to one of our coverage professionals.

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