Handling a SkidDo NOT turn in the direction of the skid
"Turn in the direction of the skid," said your Driver's Ed teacher. It was bad advice. Unless, that is, he took you to a track or a snowy parking lot and allowed you to develop skill in catching a slide.
Most drivers will be better off if they do not "Turn in the direction of the skid." That's okay, almost nobody knows what "Turn in the direction of the skid" means. And if your rear tires lose traction, you have no time to decipher the complex, unspoken nuances associated with "Turn in the direction of the skid". Did your Driver's Ed teacher mention that at some point you must steer back the other way or you'll go flying off into the trees or opposing traffic? I didn't think so.
As a high-performance driving instructor, I've ridden with hundreds of drivers as they tried to catch a sliding car (and, on their first attempt, almost universally failed). I assert that it's a huge disservice to tell drivers to "Turn in the direction of the skid" and then not allow them the track time necessary to develop car control skills. At best it's a waste of words. At worst it can turn a bad situation into a tragedy.
The reason: No amount of verbiage can teach you how to catch a sliding car, any more than the same can teach you how to make a perfect 60-foot fly-fishing cast. For the latter, you must spend hours with flyrod in hand. For the former you must spend time sliding sideways. Practice is the only way you can learn either of these skills.
Drivers fall into two groups. The first group is those who can get enough practice to develop the ability to catch a sliding tail. The second group is those who can't get the necessary practice time. The second group includes virtually all Americans.
The most dangerous are those who incorrectly put themselves in the first group. These drivers often over-correct and then go sailing off perpendicular to the road. In some states, over-correcting is among the leading causes of fatal accidents. (Picture this: In a right-hand turn, the rear tires lose grip. The driver correctly turns the wheel left, but either turns too far or fails to turn back to the right when the rear tires begin to recover traction. Or both. When the tires regain grip the car shoots off into oncoming traffic with tragic results.)
For those who fall into the second group-those who can't develop car control skills-here's my advice. Don't worry about "Turning in the direction of the skid." Instead, the instant you realize the rear tires have totally lost grip, pound the brake pedal, hold it down, and say a prayer. It's good if you also crank in some counter-steering, but get the brakes on-hard-and hold them down until you come to a stop.
This is not the ideal reaction. However, it's far better than over-correcting and crashing into oncoming traffic. It's also far better than doing nothing, which is how most react. At the least you'll scrub off some speed before you hit something.
With the latest anti-lock braking systems, if the driver hits the brake pedal the instant the skid begins, the computer sometimes brings the car to a stop on the pavement, though perpendicular to traffic. It's not elegant, but at least it doesn't involve trees or opposing traffic.
Don't get me wrong. I would prefer that every driver learn how to confidently deal with a rear-tire skid. I also wish for peace in the Middle East, a World Series title for the Red Sox, the ability to make a perfect fly-fishing cast, and the correct Powerball numbers, not necessarily in that order.
Since you're most likely to face a rear-tire skid in the rain, here are some steps you can take to avoid this situation entirely. Make sure your rear tires have at least as much tread depth as your fronts: If you buy only two new tires, put them on the rear axle. Make sure your tire pressures are always at least what your vehicle manufacturer recommends: There's little penalty for being three pounds per square inch high.
Coping with a front-tire skid (which feels like the steering shaft has been severed) is a lot easier: Leave your hands where they are. Lift off the gas. Say "Oh, shoot." And hope that the traction returns before the trees get there. Turning the steering wheel more does nothing good and might do something very bad: If you have the wheels cranked over when grip returns, the car will fly off in the direction they're pointed.
You don't need to know this, but a rear-tire skid is called "oversteer" by engineers and "loose" by stock car drivers. A front-tire skid is called "understeer" and "push" by those groups, respectively. With oversteer/loose, you hit the tree with the back of the car. With understeer/push, you hit the tree with the front of the car.
Here's your homework: Tell your Driver's Ed. teacher to stick to coaching football and sign up for a high-performance driving school. Until then, don't think about turning in the direction of the skid.
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