Rules of the Road

The best way to recover your car from a skid? You’re not asking the right question

Do you know what to do if your car fishtails?

Trooper Travis Joyce of the Washington State Patrol shares tips on how to regain control of your vehicle if it loses traction on slick roadways.
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Trooper Travis Joyce of the Washington State Patrol shares tips on how to regain control of your vehicle if it loses traction on slick roadways.

Question: When your car starts to skid, do you turn in the direction of the back of the car while maintaining constant pressure on the accelerator? Or let off the accelerator?

Answer: Reading a column on how to get out of a skid is probably about as useful as watching a documentary on how to swim; after you watch it you might be able to articulate the mechanics, but if your boat starts to sink you’ll wish you spent some practice time in the pool.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t read about how to get out of a skid. It’s just that believing you know how because you can describe it is a lot different than having the muscle memory to execute it in an unexpected and high-stress situation.

This brings up the debate between what I’ll call hazard recovery and hazard avoidance. If you were to enroll in an advanced driving class, it’s likely that the course would include a segment on skid recovery, where the instructor repeatedly has you induce a skid and then perform the maneuvers to get yourself back out.

It seems like a fine idea, but here’s the problem: people who are over-confident in their recovery skills tend to drive more aggressively, increasing the likelihood that they’ll get into a hazardous situation that they’ll then have to get back out of.

The smarter approach is avoiding the hazard altogether. Skidding is an indicator that your driving has exceeded the limitations of the road conditions, so instead of practicing how to recover from a skid, we should practice how to drive within the limits of the road conditions and prevent the skid.

There are some practical aspects to this approach; the most obvious being the opportunities for practice. Unless you have access to the skid pad at a driving course, your skid recovery practice will be limited to days with the right weather (heavy rain, ice or snow), and unless you own your own parking lot, you’ll be practicing in a public space, which has its own risks.

Taking your newly licensed kid to a snow-covered empty parking lot is almost a rite of passage in some families, and I’m not suggesting it’s a bad idea to experience the feel of skidding out of control in a moderately safe environment. The bad idea is thinking that a few of those repetitions will adequately prepare you for the real thing.

In comparison, every time we drive we have opportunities to practice hazard avoidance.

Make these practices a part of every drive:

Scan the driving environment and identify potential hazards.

Measure your following distance to other cars and adjust it as road conditions change.

Consider how the weather will affect your commute and set your alarm a bit earlier to compensate.

Make sure your tires are in good condition.

Drive at a speed that is right for the road conditions (even if it’s slower than the speed limit).

Become a smoother driver.

As you’ve already noticed, these exercises won’t just help avoid a skid; they’re helpful for avoiding any hazard.

That last recommendation about becoming a smoother driver ties into what causes a skid in the first place. Your tires are the connection between your car and the road. On slick roads where driving at a steady speed in a straight line is already pushing the limits of your car’s traction, abrupt changes (fast acceleration, hard braking, abrupt steering) can exceed the grip of your tires, causing a skid.

If you practice smoother acceleration and braking, more fluid steering, and slowing to an appropriate speed when turning you’ll minimize the changes in the momentum of your car, helping your tires to grip the road.

As a side benefit, if you’re currently a rather abrupt driver and you make this change your passengers will be eternally grateful.

If you practice all your hazard avoidance techniques and you still somehow end up in a skid (it could happen), here are the basics of skid recovery: let off the throttle, steer in the direction you want to go and keep both hands on the wheel.

Sure, there are more details depending on if your car is front, rear, or all-wheel drive, as well as plenty of other nuances to hone in on, but without a ton of practice, you’re not going to remember the details in a crisis situation anyway.

The Placer County Sheriff's Office partners with CHP to provide deputies with yearly emergency vehicles operations training at CHP's facilities. The training simulates real-life obstacles, including sharp turns and skid puddles.

In the debate between hazard avoidance and hazard recovery, it’s not that one is good and one is bad. It’s more that hazard avoidance keeps us out of sticky (or in the case of a skid, not sticky enough) situations, and there are plenty of opportunities to get good at hazard avoidance.

Any athletic trainer will tell you that we perform the way we practice. If our opportunities for skid recovery practice are limited to a few donuts in a snowy parking lot once every few years, it makes a lot more sense to practice hazard avoidance every time we drive.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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