Here we go again

In this article Mark revisits the basics of dealing with an aspect of winter driving we all fear - skidding.

I make no apology at all for resubmitting this article in part. I've just happened to watch on TV a programme about an Air France flight that chucked itself quite without real cause into the Atlantic. The closing lines of the show were from a venerable air accident investigator. His point was really rather straightforward but no less pressing for that: If the training had been better, the pilots (for there were three of them) would not have messed up the way they did.

They'd lost completely the idea of 'flying by the seat of your pants' because they'd only really learnt to fly aircraft that effectively fly themselves. Except when they don't; so they couldn't feel that the aircraft was (initially) climbing too far (because the speed sensors and related bits had frozen) nor then that the aircraft was stalling. Had they simply put the plane into a descent, they would have regained lift, speed and their instruments would have come back on line...

Drivers are exactly the same in as much as when a combination of circumstances combine to take 'control' away from them, they almost always do the wrong things.

And, as again we head towards the colder months, the more likely we are to encounter road and weather conditions with which we are unfamiliar.

It's this that probably accounts for the year-on-year increase in demand we see for winter driving workshops and skid training courses.

We've now had three pretty awful, 'unusual' winters in a row and it's likely to be less than a coincidence that many of our clients are adopting a more proactive approach to training. It's also no secret that companies that stand to profit from winter weather (I'm thinking of private gritting contactors and the like) have been doing really rather well in the recent past and base their forward business plans on us enduring longer, colder winters.

There are many things that can be 'taught' about driving through the written word but there are some very obvious elements of driving that need hands-on practice and experience in order to perfect them. One of these is skid training; so while we'll try to cover off some basics here, we'd strongly advise any reader who is concerned about skidding to take proper, professional training.

In broad terms, there are three main elements to dealing with a skid:

  • Understanding what causes a skid
  • Identifying the nature of a skid
  • Terminating or recovering from a skid

Understanding what causes a skid

At the risk of sounding a bit too technical, a skid basically occurs when a wheel or wheels of a vehicle are travelling at a different speed to the speed of the vehicle itself. In other words, a driver has control of their vehicle (control ultimately being an ability to stop or steer or both) when the wheels of the vehicle have what's sometimes known as 'static contact' with the road surface. When the static contact becomes a dynamic or sliding contact, then there are the early stages of what might develop into a skid. So, in most cases, skids are 'caused' by driver inputs which overcome the available levels of grip between the wheels and the road surface - sometimes thought of as 'traction'.

Thus, pretty much all skids are attributable to one or a combination of:

  • A. Acceleration
  • B. Braking
  • C. Cornering (or steering)
  • D. Daft speed! (for the amount of available grip - which may of course be very low)

Identifying the nature of a skid

There are basically only three types of skid:

  • Front wheel (including aquaplaning)
  • Rear wheel
  • Four wheel

In a front wheel skid (probably the most common and also one of the most difficult to identify early) the front wheels of the vehicle develop a sliding contact with the road surface which is likely to result in either reduced steering ability or reduced braking efficiency - and probably both!

If left uncorrected, a front wheel skid will be likely to develop into 'understeer', making it unlikely that the vehicle will follow the path chosen for it by the driver and will 'run wide' through a corner, for example.

In a rear wheel skid (sometimes known as 'oversteer') the vehicle will attempt to follow a tighter line through a corner than the driver intended and, if left uncorrected, will result in a spin.

In some circumstances there can be a very rapid transition from understeer to oversteer.

A four wheel skid is much as it sounds and might, for example, be occasioned on a very slippery surface that is subject to a camber: going back to a previous point, rubber and ice don't mix and faced with a situation such as this, there may be very little a driver can do!

Wits tend to define skids thus: understeer, you'll have your accident going forwards; oversteer, you'll have it going backwards and, in a four wheel skid, it'll be sideways!

Terminating or recovering from a skid

The idea of 'controlling' a skid is anathema - particularly on public roads. For the vast majority of skid 'victims', the whole thing comes as a nasty surprise and is likely to happen very, very shortly before they have an accident. However, there are some key points that you might read here which, if you do manage to apply them, may reduce the potential severity of that accident.

  1. Identify the cause of the skid (A,B,C,D) and remove it - so if it's a braking induced skid, take your foot off the brake pedal (very counter-intuitive!) until you feel you've regained some level of grip (remember grip is needed to give you the opportunity to stop or steer). Likewise, if acceleration (or speed) is the cause, ease off the power until grip is regained
  2. Declutch - this permits the wheels to rotate independently of each other and removes any engine braking effect. It also prevents the engine from stalling and thereby losing your assisted steering and brakes and may allow you to move off again quickly if needed
  3. Finally, LOOK towards where you want your vehicle to go (NOT where you think it will end up!). Your hands on the wheel will instinctively follow where your eyes are looking, so look for space and don't start gazing at the nearest immovable object

As we've already said, we hope you've found this of interest but we'd also strongly suggest that every driver should not only take professional skid training but that they should also think in terms of doing regular 'refreshers'. The unfortunate truth is that most of us will behave instinctively when we are caught unawares by a skid and, regrettably, most instinctive behaviour in these circumstances is wrong.

For more details on winter driving courses, workshops and skid training, visit www.nfegroup.co.uk

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