Many new or young drivers are terrified at the prospect of skidding. But while a skid can indeed be very dangerous, there’s a huge amount you can do to reduce the risks and regain control of your vehicle.
So let’s take a look at what exactly we mean by skidding, what the risk factors are, and what action you can take if your car starts to slide or spin.
And we’ll also explain why getting into good driving habits can reduce the likelihood of skidding, and potentially lower the cost of your first time driver insurance.
What is a skid?
A skid is when a vehicle’s wheels lose traction with the road surface, causing it to slide out of control. This loss of traction can apply to the front, rear or all four wheels.
Front-wheel skids, also known as under-steers, are more likely in front-wheel drive cars, while rear-wheel skids, known as over-steers, are more frequent in rear-wheel drive cars.
Both can develop into four-wheel skids – but the automated braking systems (ABS, see below) fitted in modern cars make this less likely.
Most skids are fairly minor, but they’re still scary and dangerous. So it’s vital that you understand how they happen, and what you can do about them.
The most common cause is failing to drive correctly for the road conditions. Let’s take a look at what that means, and some of the other contributory factors.
What driving behaviour can cause skidding?
Heavy braking is a key cause – in certain circumstances, it can cause brakes to lock. Taking sharp corners too fast, sudden lane changes, or sudden acceleration can also lead to you losing control and skidding.
And you’re more likely to make these sudden driving manoeuvres if you fail to pay attention to traffic and road conditions.
In your excitement at getting behind the wheel of your first motor, it’s common to make errors that could lead to skidding, such as taking corners too fast. Getting into sensible driving habits is vital to keep you and other road users safe. Young driver insurance based on telematics technology encourages safe driving behaviour, and can keep the costs of cover lower, too.
What road conditions can contribute to skidding?
Anything which reduces friction between your car’s tyres and the road surface is a risk factor.
Obviously, ice is slippery, making it hard for tyres to get a good grip. Black ice is the name given to a surface of clear ice on a black road – it’s particularly dangerous because you can’t see it. Remember that ice can linger in shady areas even after it’s melted from the rest of the road.
Snow is also a risk, especially as it might be hiding a layer of ice.
Rain or otherwise wet surfaces can also reduce traction and lead to skids. Standing water is a particular problem, as it can cause aquaplaning (also known as hydroplaning): this is where there’s a layer of water between your car’s tyres and the road surface.
And it’s not just the weather that presents a potential problem. Another risk factor is a gravelly, muddy, dusty or rough surface, such as you might find on country tracks, poorly maintained roads, or newly resurfaced roads. So the next time you see a sign warning of skid risks, pay attention to it!
Finally, driving at night or in poor visibility can also increase the risk of skidding, as it makes it harder to spot potential hazards such as ice or standing water.
What vehicle conditions contribute to skidding?
It’s essential that you get your vehicle regularly serviced and maintained so that any faults are spotted and repaired early.
Tyres are a key concern here. You need a good tread to keep your grip on the road surface, and tyres need to be at the correct pressure too. Plus, if your tyres are worn, they could blow out when you’re travelling fast, causing you to lose control of your vehicle.
Professional mechanics must also check that your brakes are aligned correctly, so they don’t pull to one side when you apply them. It’s also essential that your brakes aren’t in danger of jamming.
And of course, it’s important to check that your car’s steering mechanisms are in good working order. The easier your car is to control, the safer it is for you and other road users.
Avoiding a skid
Ideally you want to avoid skidding in the first place. While you can’t prevent hazardous road conditions, there’s a lot you can do to minimise the risks.
Experts advise following the three pillars of safer driving: observation, anticipation, and planning. That means looking ahead for potential hazards, such as corners or icy conditions, so that you have time to consider your course of action.
You should keep your speed down to make it easier to stay in control of your vehicle, give you more time to react, and reduce the risk of serious harm if you do skid.
Leave a safe stopping distance between you and the vehicle in front – and remember to increase the gap in poor driving conditions.
If you’re approaching a corner, slow down in advance – don’t wait till you’re in the corner before slamming on the brakes!
Above all, you should drive as smoothly as possible, as sudden braking, accelerating, swerving or changing gear can all cause skidding.
That’s why young driver insurance based on telematics technology measures how smoothly you drive, and awards you a higher driver score if you demonstrate that you’re taking a careful approach at all times.
Signs of a skid
One of the reasons why skids are so dangerous is that your normal driving reactions can actually make things worse. It’s essential that you recognise the signs that your car has lost traction, so you can take the right action fast.
If you’re in a front-wheel skid, the steering wheel will feel light and unresponsive. The car will continue travelling in the same direction regardless of which way you’re steering. So if you’re trying to take a corner, you’ll instead find your car drifting into the middle of the road – and oncoming traffic.
In a rear-wheel skid, you’ll see the back of your car start to swing out, so the car starts to go full circle.
You might also notice that if you press the accelerator pedal, the car won’t move forward or go any faster. And if you brake, the vehicle won’t slow down.
All these signs spell trouble – and you need to react fast.
How to control a skid
If the worst happens and you find yourself skidding, what can you do? Your first instinct might be to brake hard, but that can make matters worse.
First of all, stay calm. It’s pretty scary to find your car not responding to your controls, but remember that there is action you can take.
You need to respond quickly, but gently. If you’re in a front-wheel skid, don’t try to accelerate or brake. Continue to steer in the direction you want to take.
Hopefully, you should feel the car regain traction as your speed slows. If not, reduce the steering, and give the brakes a brief jab.
In a rear-wheel spin, it’s common to try to overcompensate by trying to oversteer, but this risks worsening the problem or causing the car to spin in the opposite direction.
Instead, you need to steer into the skid: in other words, if the rear of your car is skidding to the right, steer in that direction. This should happen naturally if you keep your eyes in the direction you want to travel.
As we said above, four-wheel skidding is rare now thanks to ABS. If it does happen and your ABS jams, you need to pump the brake rhythmically to stop the car.
In any case, be ready to regain control of your car once you’re out of the skid, and get it back on the correct course.
After your brush with danger, you might find your heart racing or your hands sweating. Pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so, and take a breather until you feel calmer.
While it’s no substitute for careful driving, modern technology has some answers, too. Many vehicles these days are fitted with devices to reduce the chance of skidding, and help you regain control.
So get out your car handbook and check if your model is kitted out with the following to help you steer, brake and accelerate on hazardous road surfaces.
An anti-lock braking system (ABS) is fitted as standard to new vehicles today. If you apply the brakes but start to skid, the ABS sensors detect this and automatically start pumping the brakes hundreds of times a second. This reduces the likelihood of the wheels locking, and helps you keep control of your vehicle while bringing it to a smoother stop.
A traction control system (TCS), also known as ASR, is designed to stop the car skidding or spinning as it starts up or accelerates. It uses the sensors of the ABS to detect a discrepancy between the speed of the vehicle, and the speed at which its wheels are rotating. It can then apply the ABS, reduce the engine power, or limit the fuel supply to the engine until the car regains traction.
Since 2014, all new vehicles in the EU have been fitted with electronic stability control (ESC). This integrates ABS and TCS; detects if the vehicle is not travelling in the direction in which the driver is steering; and measures centrifugal force, for example, when cornering. If it detects a problem that indicates the car is out of control, it will automatically intervene, by applying the ABS or reducing the engine power.
But as most skidding is caused by poor driving, perhaps the very best technology of all is that which encourages motorists to take more care. With telematics insurance from Smartdriverclub, you’ll get a telematics device to fit in your vehicle to monitor your driving, looking at aspects such as cornering, braking and accelerating. If you get a high score, you’ll get a discount when you come to renew after a year.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of winter driving, or you’d just like to hone your skills, then you can take extra training on a skid pan.
This is a large, flat concrete surface covered in a layer of water to make it slippery. You’ll drive onto it in a car with specially slick tyres to further reduce the friction between your vehicle and the surface. Under the guidance of an instructor, you’ll then feel what it’s like to skid in a controlled environment.
By taking a skid-pan training course, you’ll learn what a car’s controls feel like when it’s lost traction, so you can recognise the signs if this happens in real-world conditions. You’ll also learn techniques for handling a skid and regaining control of your vehicle.
Skid-pan courses usually take a few hours and cost around £100-£150, but give you skills that last your entire driving career. They’re a great way for new drivers to supplement the basics you learned to pass your test, and boost your confidence for winter driving.
With Smartdriverclub, you get a Smartplug to install in your car that uses telematics technology to monitor how you’re driving. It measures aspects such as accelerating, cornering and braking, as well as how much you drive after dark.
On the accompanying smartphone app, you can see your performance in each area, and learn what action you should take to improve. You’ll also see your overall driver score: if this is high, you could get a discount when you come to renew your policy after a year.
Telematics insurance is a great way to learn safe driving techniques and keep the price of motoring low.