Keeping Control of Your Car

Losing control of your car is a scary experience. Hitting the brakes or turning the wheel and not having the car respond as it should can cause you to feel helpless. But, simply hoping that your car will never skid is not the answer to feeling more in control. Understanding what makes your car skid and learning how to prevent it are the first steps. You must also learn how to steer out of skid.

Step 1: Understanding the Skid
A skid occurs when either your front wheels or your rear wheels lose traction. Instead of gripping the road, your tires are sliding across the ground. Thus, applying the brakes or turning the wheel do not have the desired effect. Remember, if the tires can’t grip the ground, it’s like trying to drive on blocks of ice.

Front wheel traction loss
“Understeer” occurs when your front wheels lose traction while cornering. This means that your car travels a wider curve than your intended path of travel. Your car is sliding away from the center of the curve and possibly into oncoming traffic. This is usually the result of taking the turn too fast for the road conditions.
For example: As you make a fast right turn, the weight of the car shifts toward the left side of your front tires. If turning too fast, weight moves to the sidewalls of the tires. At this point, they no longer provide any gripping or turning force. Basically, the tires are turned to the right, but the force of your rear tires pushes your car in a straight line away from the curve of the turn.  The result may cause the rear of the car to spin around or if you have too much speed, the front of the vehicle will push forward causing the vehicle to still move in that straight line instead of turning in the direction you intended.

Rear wheel traction loss
“Oversteer” occurs when your rear wheels lose traction while cornering. Your front end will point either to the left or to the right of the intended path of travel despite your steering input. Oversteer is how a car “spins out”. Typically, this happens on slippery surfaces when driving too fast or braking or steering erratically.

Step 2: Learning what to do

Note: The process for recovering from a skid is the same whether you have a rear-wheel or front-wheel drive vehicle.

Take your feet off the pedals
The first thing to do whenever you feel your car beginning to lose traction is to get your foot off the accelerator. If your foot happens to be on the brake, get your foot off it, too! Your accelerator is probably what got you into this situation in the first place and your brakes are useless right now.
You want the car to slow down and recover some traction so that you can regain steering control. Applying the brakes to tires which are sliding across the road isn’t going to do anything. Unless your tires are gripping the road, your brakes are useless. Your skidding tires will slow your car down until your tires can regain some traction.

Gentle steering input
So, which direction should you turn the steering wheel? We’ve all heard the advice that you should “steer into” the skid. Forget that because it’s patently stupid advice. When you’re skidding, it’s silly to believe that you’re going to think to yourself, “OK, which way is the car skidding? It feels like I’m sliding to the left, but I’m sort of spinning to the right. So, am I skidding to the left or to the right?” Confusing, right?
Thankfully, the answer is simple. Always steer in the direction you want the car to go. When the car starts skidding, teach your teen to look directly at where they want to go. Do not look at what you want to avoid. Your hands will follow your eyes, so if you stare at the tree on the side of the road, that’s where you’re going to end up.

So, what is the “steer into the skid” advice based upon? Stupid driving instructors wanting to come up with a simple saying for a complex problem.  Whether your rear wheels or your front wheels are skidding, the correct direction to steer is inevitably in the opposite direction that your front end is headed. OK, now that you know which direction to steer, make sure that your steer gently! Most skids become worse when the driver severely over-corrects…or slams on the brakes…or does both wildly while screaming.

Slight re-distribution of vehicle weight

As you begin to regain traction and steering control, you may find it necessary to gently apply the brakes or the accelerator. This depends on if you’re experiencing rear-wheel traction loss or front wheel traction loss. The point of gently braking or accelerating is to redistribute some of the car’s weight to those wheels, which will help them gain even more traction. So, if your front wheels are skidding, you’ll want to brake gently. If your rear wheels are skidding, you’ll want to gently accelerate.

To summarize, when y our vehicle begins to skid:

  • Get your foot off the accelerator and the brake
  • Steer gently in the direction you want the car to go
  • As you begin to regain control of the car, gently apply the brakes (assuming you have anti-lock brakes) or the accelerator depending on the type of skid. This will help redistribute the weight of the car to the appropriate wheels, which will help regain some traction.
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