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A meme from Facebook with 62,000+ shares:

Excellent Driving Tip:

A 36 year old female had an accident several weeks ago. It was raining, though not excessively when her car suddenly began to hydro-planeand literally flew through the air. She was not seriously injured but very stunned at the sudden occurrence!When she explained to the Police Officer what had happened, he told her something that every driver should know -

NEVER DRIVE IN THE RAIN WITH YOUR CRUISE CONTROL ON..

She thought she was being cautious by setting the cruise control and maintaining a safe consistent speed in the rain.... But the Police Officer told her that if the cruise control is on,your car will begin to hydro-plane when the tyres lose contact with the road, and your car will accelerate to a higher rate of speed making you take off like an aeroplane. She told the Officer that was exactly what had occurred. The Officer said this warning should be listed, on the driver's seat sun-visor -

NEVER USE THE CRUISE CONTROL WHEN THE ROAD IS WET OR ICY, Along with the airbag warning. We tell our teenagers to set the cruise control and drive a safe speed – but we don't tell them to use the cruise control only when the road is dry.

The only person the accident victim found who knew this, (besides the Officer), was a man who'd had a similar accident, totaled his car and sustained severe injuries..

NOTE: Some vehicles (like the Toyota Sienna Limited XLE) will not allow you to set the cruise control when the windshield wipers are on.

Even if you send this to 15 people and only one of them doesn't know about it, it's still worth it. You may have saved a life.

Is there evidence that cruise-control increases risk of dangerous accidents when the road is wet or icy?

I guess I will accept evidence of manufacturer's warnings, although I would rather actual studies that include all risks rather than the single risk of hydroplaning.

(I'm aware that car safety systems have improved, so I am open to answers that say 'It used to be true, but not any more.')

  • Without researching this, it wouldn't surprise me if it was true for the hydroplaning reading provided. Off the top of my head, most cruise control systems just throttle the engine based upon your speed and if you hit a water puddle and slow down it might try to speed up which could cause you to hydroplane. – rjzii Jun 28 '13 at 2:29
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    @rob: Wouldn't losing contact with the road, cause the wheels to spin, and the system to back off on the accelerator? Maybe it would be better not to speculate! (I don't trust the original description: "accelerate to a higher rate of speed" wasn't written by someone with a good grasp of basic physics, and if the wheels have lost grip, the car isn't going to go faster - an action that requires grip.) – Oddthinking Jun 28 '13 at 2:41
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    @Paul: We discourage speculation, because for every speculation, there is an equal and opposite one: If you are using cruise control, your foot can rest above the brake, allowing you to go from cruising speed to braking with a shorter reaction time. – Oddthinking Jun 28 '13 at 8:27
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    The manual for my car says cruise control is automatically deactivated when DSC (traction control) comes on, so if the tyres lose contact with the road it'll back off the accelerator completely. – Tom77 Jun 28 '13 at 9:05
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    I think the problem is really that many people (myself included) put their foot in a more comfortable position that is several inches out of position to brake quickly as compared when you are actively controlling the accelerator. I also tend to pay a little less attention when I can sit back and cruise. – Chad Jun 28 '13 at 14:52
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Alright, this is actually a tough one as it seems to be fairly universally agreed (e.g. insurance companies, safety commissions, state governments, etc.) that cruise control should not be used in the rain or in icy conditions. The ICBC summarizes what most of the arguments against using it are:

Turn off the cruise control: Wet roads can cause wheels to spin and lose control. The only way to stop wheels from spinning and maintain control is to immediately reduce power. An activated cruise control system applies continuous power, keeping the wheels spinning. By the time you disengage the cruise control it may be too late – you may have already lost control.

Interestingly enough though, the RAA acutely says this is a myth for effectively the same reasons:

RAA Technical Manager Mark Borlace, said the potential for this condition to exist in cruise control systems had been investigated, but the claims were unfounded.

“Cruise control is a device used to keep the speed of the vehicle constant, by measuring the speed of the wheels and feeding this information into the cruise control system that regulates the engine’s output,” Mr Borlace said.

“Should the car’s tyres break traction with the road, such as in an aquaplane situation, the increase in wheel speed would be sensed and the cruise control system would then reduce the amount of throttle and maintain the set speed.”

CarPoint.com.au has an extremely good write up on this issue and directly contradicts one of the key-points in the email,

This is the key that makes a nonsense of the email. Modern cars take their speedo reading from the driveshaft or transmission. This means the cruise control bases its responses on the speed of the driven wheels, not the car itself. This is an important distinction and fail safe position.

If the driven wheels skid because they lose grip, the spinning wheels will cause the speedo to show a higher reading which will force the cruise control to release the throttle faster than most drivers. Regardless of whether the car itself slows down or speeds up, the cruise control will always reduce the throttle no matter what until the driven wheels slow down back to the pre-set speed.

If the wheels continue to slip under this scenario, this will always leave the car travelling more slowly relative to the road, not faster as described in the email.

Most of the internet hoax repositories include this story (Hoax Slayer, Snopes, Truth or Fiction) and have some additional sources that are much harder to verify but they also don't say much beyond what the quoted material does.

Thus, it seems though that while the email is correct in that the universal advice is to not use cruise control in wet or icy conditions, but the cruise control itself will not cause the car to speed up as claimed in the email. However, cruise control may cause the driver to practice unsafe habits and since the cruise control cannot register the loss of traction on the road, if you lose control of your steering it may cause you to accelerate in an undesirable direction once you gain traction again. As noted by the CarPoint.com.au article,

What has cruise control got to do with aquaplaning?
Not much, but it’s how most drivers react while the cruise control is on that will almost certainly decide whether a nasty aquaplaning situation turns into anything more than a scare.

Here are some examples you should consider...

  • After drivers engage the cruise control and no longer have contact with the accelerator pedal, they can no longer feel if the wheels are losing traction until it is too late.

  • When something does go wrong while the cruise control is engaged, most drivers stab the brake pedal to disengage the cruise control. If the car is starting to aquaplane, hitting the brakes could be enough to lock up the wheels completely. Even with the wheels locked-up under brakes and the cruise control disengaged, the car would continue on at speed. ABS-equipped cars could save most drivers in this situation.

  • As some drivers move their feet well away from the accelerator pedal when the cruise control is engaged, experts suggest that the above scenario is just as likely to be caused by the driver stabbing the accelerator instead of the brake as they tried to disengage the cruise control.

  • A car with cruise control engaged does not know to slow down before a corner nor does it know when to reapply the power as you leave the corner. A cruise control forces the car to rely totally on its front wheels to steer through a corner when good drivers would normally use a strategic sequence of brakes, accelerator and steering. If the front wheels start aquaplaning in the middle of a corner, the cruise control cannot register the loss of grip unless the car is front-drive. The cruise control would then keep pushing the car straight ahead off the road or across oncoming traffic. Applying the brakes to stop this could make an already dangerous situation worse.

  • Cruise control can make you inattentive. By the time you wake up to a problem situation and work out what to do, it can be too late.

So to summarize, the email is correct in that using cruise control in wet or icy conditions is not recommended; however, it will not cause to you speed up as described in the email.

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    Any indication that any ot this would also apply to modern cars equipped with ESP? – vartec Jun 28 '13 at 11:06
  • @vartec I didn't see any mention of it anywhere. – rjzii Jun 28 '13 at 13:23
  • One of your quotes says "If the driven wheels skid because they lose grip". I would have thought the wheels would spin rather than skid. – Henry Mar 4 '14 at 22:47
  • I will say that whether or not it is true, the police believe it to be the case. They will find you at fault if you hydroplane off the road, but it is generally reduced from reckless driving to a moving violation (IANAL, citation needed on the last part) – kleineg Sep 25 '17 at 21:02

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