Watch Out for that Snowbank! How to Recover from 5 Types of Skids

by A Manly Guest Contributor on January 21, 2014 · 38 comments

in Cars, Manly Skills

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Wyatt Knox from Team O’Neil Rally School.

With winter comes a whole new range of driving hazards — darkness sets in much earlier, wind and snow reduce visibility, and ice makes roads slippery and treacherous. Annually, there are over 100,000 injuries that occur from car accidents on snowy or icy pavement. If you live in an area where snow is a winter reality (roughly 70% of the U.S. population lives in areas that average at least 5 inches of annual snow), then it’s vital to have the skills necessary for driving safely in inclement conditions. One of those skills is how to recover from a skid. The feeling of losing control of one’s vehicle can be quite scary, and it’s easy to panic and make the wrong moves if you don’t know what to do.

Below we outline the 5 most common types of skids on wintery pavement, and how to recover when they happen. In general, if you stay calm, restrain yourself from making drastic movements, and follow the tips below, you’ll be able to safely travel the nation’s highways and byways throughout the winter months.

1. Wheelspin

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Wheelspin occurs when you try to accelerate too abruptly or enthusiastically for the available traction. The tires will start to spin at a faster rate than the vehicle is actually traveling, which can lead to different outcomes depending on whether the vehicle is front, all, or rear-wheel drive. The cure for wheelspin is simple: just back off the throttle until the tires regain traction, and try ramping it up more slowly and cautiously next time. This makes wheelspin a very easy litmus test for how much grip you actually have. For example, intentionally hitting the gas while leaving your driveway on a snowy day to see how easily the tires spin is like dipping your toes into a pool to test the temperature.

Wheelspin is generally to be avoided in turns, but can often actually work to your advantage when moving in a straight line. On pavement or glare ice, there is no real benefit to spinning the tires, but we need to think of the road surface as three dimensional in many cases. Say you have a few inches of snow on top of a good paved or gravel surface; spinning the tires will chew through the fluff and catch good traction on the underlying surface, which can often make the difference between getting up a snowy hill or sliding back down. The same is true in mud or anywhere else there is a slippery material on top of a hard, grippy material.

Traction control in some vehicles will not allow your tires to spin in this fashion. It will either cut the throttle, apply brakes to the spinning wheels, or both. This might mean that your vehicle can’t make it up slippery hills or even get out of your parking space if there’s snow. Try the same thing with the traction control off and you might find that you have no problem at all.

2. Wheel Lockup

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Wheel lockup occurs when you try to brake too aggressively or suddenly for the surface you’re on. The tires will essentially stop turning while the vehicle is still moving. The solution is thankfully very simple: release the brakes until the tires start to turn again. You may need to release the brakes completely, and try braking again more softly and progressively.

You may find that you can actually brake fairly hard on a slippery road, as long as you do it smoothly. If you suddenly go from 0% to 50% brake on the snow, for example, the tires will probably lock up. If you build up the brake pressure slowly and progressively, however, you might be able to brake well beyond 50% on the same surface. Just like with wheelspin, wheel lockup can be a very handy gauge to have in changing conditions. Occasionally test the brakes in a straight line as you’re driving on a slippery road to feel for wheel lockup; this is a good indication of how much grip you’re working with.

Wheel lockup can also be an advantage in a straight line, in the same conditions that spinning the tires would have benefit. On a loose surface, locking the tires will scuff away the top surface, often digging in and plowing the soft stuff out of the way to find better grip. On snow, gravel, and especially sand, locking the tires up can stop the vehicle very quickly.

Anti-Lock Brake Systems (ABS) will not allow your wheels to lock up; they’ll pulsate brake pressure at all four wheels so that the tires keep turning.  This means that on a loose surface, your car may not decelerate very well, and you’ll need to leave extra braking and following distances to compensate.

3. Understeer

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An understeer skid occurs when the front tires lose grip, and the car is unable to turn around a corner. It’s often referred to as “plowing” or “pushing,” and it most often occurs when you enter a corner with too much speed for the conditions. If you’re doing 70 mph in a 30 mph corner, unfortunately it’s all over…look for something soft to hit and work on reading the road and the conditions better next time. If you’re only slightly too hot coming into a corner, the solution is to let off of the gas and apply the brakes gently, while looking where you want the car to go at all times.

Spinning the front tires can also cause massive understeer. In a front-wheel drive car, don’t spin the tires if you want to have any chance of turning. Locking the front tires in a corner will also cause horrible understeer; if you’re braking aggressively in any vehicle and trying to turn at the same time, you’ll need to release the brakes somewhat in order for the car to steer.

Understeer also happens because of weight transfer. If you’re accelerating, especially up a hill or in a vehicle with soft suspension, there won’t be much weight on the front end and you’ll have to lift off the gas or apply the brake a little to get the nose down. Weight on the front tires will push them down onto (or into) the surface, often giving you much better grip.

Resist the temptation to give the car more actual steering when you enter an understeer skid. It’s the natural thing to do — “The car won’t turn, so I’ll turn more!” — but the problem needs to be fixed with the pedals and not with your hands. You’re either accelerating or braking too much or not enough; adding more steering will only compound the problem and waste valuable time. You have the most grip with slight steering inputs — if your front tires are turned at high angles there’s very little chance they’ll do what you want.

4. Oversteer

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An oversteer skid occurs when the rear tires lose grip, and the rear of the vehicle starts to slide sideways. This most often occurs because of wheelspin in rear-wheel drive (and some all-wheel drive) vehicles, and the solution in that case is simply to back off the throttle, look where you want to go, and slightly steer in that direction.

Oversteer also occurs fairly often when you’re going too fast for the conditions, and apply brakes while turning a corner. This will shift much of the vehicle’s weight onto the front tires and off of the rear. The rear will start to come around simply because there is no weight on those tires, especially in pick-up trucks, front-wheel drive cars, or other vehicles that are naturally light in the back. This also happens going downhill around corners for the same reason. Again, the solution is to look down the road where you want to go, release the brakes, and even accelerate a little to put some weight back onto the rear tires to stop them from sliding.

5. Counterskid

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The counterskid occurs when you have met with oversteer and failed to correct appropriately. The rear end of the vehicle will skid back and forth, often building momentum with each swing. If you don’t fix the first or second skid, you’ll often generate enough energy to make the third skid very violent and difficult to recover from.

When you encounter oversteer, the key is to look down the road and only use enough corrective steering to point the front tires where you want to go. As the vehicle straightens out, straighten the wheel so that the tires are always pointed down the road. Counterskids most often happen when drivers correct late, overcorrect, and then repeat this mistake until they’re off the road. Known as “fishtailing” or “tankslapping,” counterskids can be difficult to recover from, but your vision is the key. Regain control of the steering, don’t let the car bounce back and forth, and you’ll be fine.

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Wyatt Knox is a former US Rally Champion in the Two Wheel Drive Class. He is also the Director of Special Projects at Team O’Neil Rally School, instructs at several performance driving schools in the US, and currently races in both North and South America. 

Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eli Silverman January 21, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Living in Canada, we practice these as teenagers. Some people call it “Doing doughnuts in a parking lot”, but I referred to it as “Emergency driving practice”.

2 Sam January 21, 2014 at 7:41 pm

A lot of this advice might be manly but it seems inappropriate for modern cars.

Any car built in the last decade has ABS. The computer can control the brakes on each individual wheel better than you can. Slam the brakes to the floor and hold them there, let ABS take care of stopping. In fact cars since 2009 have panic braking assist, they will hold the brakes for you.

Cars built since 2012 have stability control. Once again, tests show that stability control can point the car better than drivers especially since it can control each wheel individually. Apply brakes and point the car in the direction you want to go with the wheel. Let the computer steer for you.

3 Ben Satre January 21, 2014 at 8:06 pm

Just a note on ABS systems as an engineer. They actually help the car stop much faster than a lockup of wheels. This is due to the fact that rolling friction is higher than sliding friction. When driving is dangerous, never turn the ABS off.

4 Chris January 21, 2014 at 8:15 pm

A great read, especially for the driver that’s either new to winter conditions or new to driving altogether. I personally would recommend an empty parking lot to get used to different types of slides. However in most places that is not possible, so always check to make sure it’s okay.

5 John Beck January 21, 2014 at 9:41 pm

When fish tailing in is best to let go of the wheel rather then try and fight it, the car will self align then do corrections. E-break is great when under steering also.

6 Milo Morris January 21, 2014 at 10:52 pm

LOL!!

I went through at least 4 of these on my way home from work this afternoon.

7 Emmanuel M'M January 22, 2014 at 12:38 am

So for oversteer, I focus on pointing the car forward but what are my feet supposed to be doing? I do not think I read anything on whether to brake or let go of gas.

8 Jan January 22, 2014 at 3:35 am

Hey Ben!
You’re correct that under the right conditions (slippery road) rolling friction will quickly exceed sliding friction when braking (the whole idea behind ABS). The point Wyatt is trying to make is that on some surfaces (gravel, snow) a locked wheel pushes this material forward, creating its own wedge and essentially “digging” itself into the ground.
This is why ABS can, under some circumstances, actually increase braking distance (I think that more modern systems are better at this though). You should still never turn it off because it preserves your ability to steer.

9 Jason January 22, 2014 at 10:09 am

@Sam – while this advice might seem inappropriate for modern cars…there are still many of us that drive older vehicles making it very relevant.

10 Christian January 22, 2014 at 10:21 am

I’d thumbs up this post and add: Don’t trust ABS, it can and does fail. (Wrecked a car when I had to stop suddenly, ABS worked for first 10 feet then quit, wheels locked up and slid on asphalt like it was ice).

2nd on the Canadian’s comment. Find a nice slick parking lot after a good snow and go to town until you feel like you and your car understand one another. Currently driving an AWD 96 Legacy, and I learned not to put a ton of faith in it either. Good practice and driving skills are what save people during a slide, not a car’s systems (though they do help!!)

11 Josh C January 22, 2014 at 11:44 am

Good article! i learned to drive in Alaska while my father was stationed there.The only think I would add to this is that a manual transmission is to your advantage in these situations. If you have a manual you can try going to a higher gear for lower RPMS to avoid wheel spin. The transmission also comes in handy for slowing down without breaking which is what causes many skids.

12 Jack January 22, 2014 at 11:54 am

If you don’t know these already you shouldn’t be on the road. My two cents.

13 Bob January 22, 2014 at 2:03 pm

I absolutely disagree that this advice isn’t helpful in the age of ABS, and I have to wonder if the person who posted that even read the whole article. Very little of this article is about stopping quickly. ABS or not, if you’re going into a corner too fast and slam on the brakes, YOU WILL CRASH. ABS helps you STOP more quickly, it isn’t a fix-all for any situation. Knowing how to steer and transfer weight in your vehicle is invaluable information, and we’re quite a few years away from computers doing it for us.

14 Leonard January 22, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Excellent and well written article. These are actually very difficult concepts to articulate, and even more difficult to apply when the adrenal glands are pumping. Oh, and don’t tailgate to give your ABS fighting chance….

15 Dr. Ed January 22, 2014 at 2:44 pm

CAVEAT about Antilock Brakes — If you have them (and know — it’s an expensive option on most models) and if they are working (if the idiot light is lit, they aren’t), you *must* put the pedal to the floor and *must* hold it there.

DO NOT LET GO even if it feels like the whole end of the car is coming apart – there have been police officers *killed* because they didn’t do this — good officers who were well trained in “stab braking” and the rest and who mistook the ABS for a brake line snapping and proceeded to pump their brakes (get as much braking out of a leaking system as you can) and crashed.

These were “good” officers who didn’t drive recklessly and hence had never had the ABS engage before. It is so much of a problem that many departments are now having officers take a cruiser out on an empty road and stand on the brakes so that they can experience the pedal pulsing and hear the loud banging of it — and recognize that it is OK.

16 Dr. Ed January 22, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Far more than how to escape a skid is to be manly in the first place — don’t panic and prioritize.

What is the greatest threat and what is the best rational way to abate it?

This is what saved me the other night from a head-on collision with a police car — the officer was driving the wrong way on a divided highway, without any lights on and it was after dark. While both vehicles were damaged, it would have been a hell of a lot worse if I hadn’t realized that — as impossible as it appeared to be — I had to avoid something that wasn’t supposed to be there.

17 keeptrack January 22, 2014 at 3:25 pm

of note, please stop with the idea that ABS is meant to reduce braking distances. Incidentally, it can, but the whole point of ABS is to avoid lock up and thus maintain control of the car under heavy braking, allowing the driver to steer clear of a rapidly approaching obstacle (like two wrecked cars ahead).

18 PhillyWiz January 22, 2014 at 3:47 pm

First, thanks for using illustrations of a 57 Chevy. It was my first car and the illustrations brought back fond memories.

Second, I’m glad that you covered the differences between front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. Many articles try to provide one solution that fits all, regardless of the type of car. Now, I believe that many drivers do not actually know what type of car they are driving; others may own cars of different types and may have trouble adapting their driving style to each car. In those situations, the “one size fits all” solution is the most practical, even if it’s not optimal for all situations.

Finally, the advice for the oversteer situation in the rear-wheel drive needs clarification. I believe the standard advice is to “steer into the skid,” which means that, if the rear of the car is skidding to the right, you should turn the steering wheel to the right. If you turn to the left, the car is likely to do a 180. If you don’t turn at all, the rear of the car is likely to continue skidding to the right. Now, this may be scary, since it may feel like you will get too close to the edge of the road. That’s why it’s necessary to practice this maneuver, so you can do it without panicking. It is one of those skills, like riding a bicycle, that you never lose.

If this sounds too much for you, make sure you always drive a front-wheel drive car – it’s much, much easier to control.

19 Libby January 22, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Excuse me for entering your manly world but I have a question. I have no problem dealing with a skid if I’m the only car on an open road. Turning into the skid or turning the wheels where I want them to go is natural. Unfortunately, what usually causes the skid in the first place is the need to avoid something in the path of the car — another car. How do I stay on the road AND avoid hitting the car in front of me or do I have to choose?

20 JB January 22, 2014 at 4:33 pm

I work oil and gas so I get to use most of this daily, one hing I can say is practice. I grew up in southern Ontario and practical skid recovery wasn’t really taught, first time I got into a skid without ABS was a shock. Nothing happened because the guy in front of me saw what was going on and moved. I also learned down shifting that day.

While ABS will help on wet road, on snow, gravel or dirt roads ABS will actually increase the stopping distance. Treat them like regular breaks.

21 M January 22, 2014 at 6:50 pm

Practice doing all of this in a safe enviorment, find an empty lot. This also answers the ABS debate, all cars are different, try what works the best for you.

22 Matt B. January 22, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Gosh I wish I would’ve seen this when I was still living in Illinois and was learning to drive. Nobody every gave me any coherent tips on what to do which led to a couple minor panic attacks (but no accidents or damage done).

23 Jeff James January 22, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Or do as I’ve done – get a Subaru!

24 Richard January 23, 2014 at 7:52 am

I should go without saying that under hazardous conditions – the kind that make skidding and slipping more likely – you should be driving at a much slower speed than you would normally.

You should also completely clean your windshield and headlights to give you a better chance at seeing any obstacles or icy spots ahead of you. You can’t prepare for what you can’t see…

25 Will Russell January 23, 2014 at 8:52 am

Basic rules of driving in the snow. You can do three things, accelerate, brake and turn. You can’t do either 2 at the same time. You can’t turn and brake or accelerate, else you will go flying. Maintain a low speed on icy roads. Remember, the worst thing you can do is panic and slam on the brakes. Just let off the gas and straighten the wheel if possible.

26 L. Garlinghouse January 23, 2014 at 10:57 am

RE: Safe cornering speed.

If conditions are dry and the road clean, one should be able to take any corner posted above 25mph at double the posted speed in a sound vehicle [car or motorcycle]. Not that you should try this out, but don’t panic if you find yourself exceeding the posted speed. You can assume you will complete the turn and be pleasantly surprised when you do.

27 John January 23, 2014 at 11:00 am

I learned all this and more by practicing on a frozen lake. Big, open space with little to hit until you go under a bridge. The only way to get from one side to the other is through learning how to drive on ice.

28 Mark January 23, 2014 at 11:15 am

maybe the need for these skills have been replaced by technology but I firmly believe it’s still crucial knowledge that all drivers should know and practice.
Never rely on your technology- i.e. if I can avoid engaging the ABS I choose to do so.
Only let the technology kick in when you’ve failed to do so yourself.
It would’ve been nice if the author mentioned how manual transmissions can help you in these situations too. i.e. starting in 2nd gear to avoid wheel spin.

29 Diana Boles January 23, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Excellent advice. I just shared this with my sons.

30 TW January 23, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Fishtailing doesn’t really occur in front wheel drive vehicles. Oversteering can occur but is corrected easily. The only one you really have to worry about in a front wheel drive car is understeering.

31 Fred January 24, 2014 at 10:38 am

I can’t recommend enough finding a snow covered parking lot to play in. You need to train yourself in what a slide feels like and how to handle it. Most people flake and just stomp on the brakes. This is almost always the wrong thing to do. The brake pedal isn’t the Magic Make It All Better button.

Oversteer/understeer correction is different depending on whether your car is front wheel drive or rear wheel drive.

RWD -
Oversteer: ease off the accelerator
Understeer: stomp on the accelerator, ease off once the rear rotates far enough (* Traction control will interfere. Play in a parking lot before you get into trouble to know if yours helps or hurts. Turn it off in the snow if you find it only makes things worse.)

FWD – You entered the curve too fast and don’t have enough traction left to fix the mess. Start praying.

Also, having a standard transmission allows you to drag (or not) the drive wheels. This can help a lot during a fishtail as it will tend to pull the car back into line.

32 SlyderSnyder January 24, 2014 at 11:15 am

Great to see some driving advice on AOM!
The article was great, sadly tho, too many people on the road, are lost flocks of sheep!

I think what we need is a whole series on driving safety and etiquette! And just as most of us men don’t ask for directions, We all feel we’ve driving gods!

I know for most, driving in adverse conditions is an unfamiliar and terrifying event! My advice to you, go out and put yourself in those adverse conditions as often as you can! I would go as far as to say buy a fourwheeler, put on some “worn” tires, and go have fun slidding around!

Living in Norther New Hampshire, our drivers ed instructor, let us tear loose in an open parking lot. If your out there and you have an open road, stay within your limits, but throw the back-end around a little. Learn how to handle that deadly machine your driving yourself around in everyday!

Do you know the 2-4-8-16 rule? If you drive by this code all the time, every day, in all road conditions, you’ll be one of the few safe people out there!

2-never focus on anything longer than two seconds

4-Allow four seconds between you and the car in front of you! (I bet you don’t follow this one!)

8-check your mirrors every eight seconds – know your surroundings

16-Look down the road sixteen seconds ahead of you! You’ll be able to read the road better, and avoid hazards sooner!

And in the winter just remember the words of Doc Hudson “This ain’t asphalt, son. This is dirt (works for snow too). You don’t have three-wheel brakes, so you got to pitch it hard, break it loose and then just drive it with the throttle. Give it too much, you’ll be outta the dirt and into the tulips. I’ll put it simple. If you’re goin’ hard enough left, you’ll find yourself turnin’ right.”

P.S. ABS works, just not in snow and ice! that’s why WRC drivers don’t use it!

33 Keegan January 24, 2014 at 12:11 pm

When I’m driving in the city, I turn traction control off. There is nothing more dangerous than a car assuming that you don’t know how to drive and doing procedures for you, when you do know and are attempting the proper way to deal with them. After numerous close calls this winter with my new car, I have made it a step in starting the car. Start car, seat belt, heated seats, traction control off, into gear, go! I do appreciate the ABS at slower speeds though but definitely not on the highway.

34 Keegan January 24, 2014 at 12:15 pm

And don’t hit the brakes at highway speeds just because you notice yourself on ice!!! Foot off gas, knuckles tight and just go with it. Whenever you see cars in the ditch when it’s icy, that was the driver hitting the brakes to attempt to slow down on ice. This happens daily where I live. (Saskatchewan)

35 Salman January 25, 2014 at 2:51 am

A nice share … I usually experience wheel spin quite often than other types of skids.

36 Tomsense76 January 25, 2014 at 8:00 pm

- You CAN fishtail in a FWD car.
- In a manual transmission with ABS don’t keep your foot on the clutch. Pop it into neutral instead.

37 Jonathan February 5, 2014 at 9:04 pm

When I was 18 I was in an under-steer situation in a 1971 Pontiac Lemans making a 90 degree turn, When I turned the wheel and the car was not responsive, my 1st instinct was to slam on the brakes, which caused my car to swing around, when I saw that I was facing the direction I wanted to go i punched the gas and avoided hitting the guardrail. It pretty amazing.

38 Sean March 30, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Living in cleveland all of my life we have had some crazy snow storms. Driving back from Warren Ohio from a job the snow was nasty on the roads i ended up fishtailing and reading this article before hand a few days earlier i was able to survive it and not cause damage to my car or any others :)

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