Often all you need to do to stop a skid at modest speeds is to take away the cause. Reducing the power, coming off the brakes or backing off the steering may be all that is required to give the tires back their grip.
As speed increases, or the road conditions get worse, or you simply don’t react quickly enough, further remedial action may be required.
Just about everyone must know the old ‘steer into a skid’ saying. When it comes to the classic rear-wheel slide, oversteer, you won’t do anything else but the problem is that that may be all you do.
The psychology is simple: you are looking where you want to go, so when the back swings right you will steer right simply because it turns the car back in the direction you are looking. The trouble is that when the rear comes back into line, you are still looking where you want to go so have no incentive to turn the steering back. That is why cars often ‘fishtail’ after oversteering, as the driver repeatedly corrects it, or it leaves the road some way after the bend on the opposite side to where the skid first pointed it towards.
This type of skid is also made much worse by braking or suddenly lifting off all the power, because those actions further lighten the load on the rear wheels. Ease up on the power, but not completely because you still need some to drive it through what you will do next, then steer towards the direction the rear is going. But as the rear responds and turns back into line, you must return the steering back to the direction of travel, being careful not to turn it too far the other way.
In fact, it is possible to use this technique, called opposite lock, to balance the car in this tail out stance, which is what rally drivers often do to exit a bend quickly. But even they would not recommend it on the road.
When the front wheels lose grip first, the car understeers, drifting out on a corner. Quite often all that is needed to counter it is to ease off the throttle, but beware of suddenly lifting off because, as we said earlier, this suddenly transfers the weight forwards, improving the front wheels’ grip while lightening the load on the rear. Most modern front-wheel drive cars’ handling remains benign if you do this in most circumstances, but even then you must be prepared for a sudden change in the car’s stance, perhaps even snapping into oversteer. Racing drivers often deliberately tap the brakes when a car is understeering to put it into oversteer, but their skills and reactions are well above average and they have had the opportunity to practice where they know nobody is coming the other way.
If reducing power fails to do the trick, you again need to steer into the skid, though this is not as intuitive as with understeer. Most people’s reaction to understeer is ‘I don’t want to go that way’, so they turn the steering harder in the direction they do want to go which not only makes matters worse, but if the front wheels regain grip as speed is lost, they are now turned strongly towards the edge of the road. This is one reason why after, say, a tight left-hand bend you see the hole in the hedge on the left where you might have expected that cars failing to make the turn would have gone straight on to the right.
If the car is running out to the right with the wheels turned to the left it follows that the wheels’ rotational speed and direction doesn’t match that of the car. So, by turning the wheels to the right, even momentarily, you help match the two and should regain some control. But, as with oversteer, immediately you have regained control you must turn the wheels back the way you want to go. The technique is to turn the wheel right for a few seconds, and then back left in a quick but smooth movement. In a strong slide you may need to do this repeatedly to kill the sideways movement and you may need more road space than you’ve got.