How to control a skid: expert advice for handling a sliding car on snow or ice and how to avoid skidding

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Driving expert offers tips on staying safe on slippery roads including what to do if you lose control of your car

Drivers around the UK have faced chaos on the roads after snow and ice created treacherous conditions.

Major routes have been closed due to the weather and in some places police have drivers urged to avoid all non-essential travel as freezing temperature make road condictions difficult. Social media has also been awash with footage of drivers losing control of their cars on snowy surfaces, sometimes with serious consequences.

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With yellow weather warnings still in place and drivers being told to expect difficult road conditions, it’s important to be prepared to deal with snow and ice, understand how they can affect the way your car handles and know what to do if your car starts to skid. So we’ve spoken to the experts at Knockhill Racing Circuit’s skid pan on how to handle and skid and, more importantly, avoid one happening in the first place.

Minimise the risk

Avoiding a skid in the first place is far better than having to get yourself out of one, so take simple steps to reduce your chance of being caught out. A good first step is to fit winter or all-season tyres. These tyres provide better grip than regular rubber in cold and wet weather thanks to more aggressive tread patterns and special compounds that work better in lower temperatures. They can cut braking distances substantially and help your car grip better in slippery conditions.

After that, how you drive will have a huge impact on how likely you are to lose control. One key factor is staying smooth. Sudden inputs such as acceleration, steering or braking are all more likely to cause a loss of control, so keep things smooth and gentle when driving on snow, ice or through water. And keep your speed down. Braking distances can increase 10 fold in icy conditions so slower is safer.

Knockhill’s skid pan instructor Bill Wardlaw, explains that observation and anticipation are also vital when then weather is bad. He says: “By properly concentrating drivers can reduce the chance of getting into difficulty in the first place. Wheel grip changes every few metres, every corner can be different, especially at this time of year. So it’s important that you’re always alert to the road conditions.

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By observing at the road ahead and looking for signs of changing surfaces you can hopefully spot and avoid potential hazards such as puddles, ice patches or snow drifts, as well as things like corners and junctions that will require you to slow down or stop. Even if you can’t avoid them, spotting them earlier will give you more time to react and mean your braking and steering can be smoother and more gradual. The same goes for watching what other drivers are doing. By anticipating their actions you can minimise how much you need to change your speed or direction, which lessens the chance of losing control.

Leave a larger gap to other vehicles and slow down in snow and iceLeave a larger gap to other vehicles and slow down in snow and ice
Leave a larger gap to other vehicles and slow down in snow and ice | Shutterstock

Understand your car

Modern cars have a wealth of technology designed to help prevent a loss of control, ranging from anti-lock braking (ABS) to traction control (TCS) and electronic stability control (ESC) systems. In many instances these systems are able to alter the car’s braking or power to avoid a skid or slide or bring a car back under control. However, the systems vary between cars and what systems your car is fitted with can affect how your car behaves and how you need to respond to a skid. Some manufacturers also use trademarked names to describe such systems so familiarise yourself with which ones are fitted to your car and how they are represented on the dashboard.

Stay calm but react quickly

Sometimes, despite all a driver’s best efforts and the work of the onboard computers, a car will still go into a skid, so it’s important to know how to respond. Bill’s first advice is not to panic. It’s easier said than done but, even in such a situation, it’s important to keep your inputs smooth and controlled. Jerky or sudden inputs could make the slide worse.

However, it is vital to react quickly and decisively. Bill says: “First thing to do is press the clutch – it cuts the power instantly – and come off the accelerator.” What you mustn’t do is stamp on the brake. In most circumstances this will simply make the situation worse. Bill explains: “For some people that’s the hardest thing in the world. You want to be stopping but all you’re doing is sliding more and unbalancing the car.”

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You need to react smoothly but quickly if your car starts to slideYou need to react smoothly but quickly if your car starts to slide
You need to react smoothly but quickly if your car starts to slide | Shutterstock

What you do next depends on what driver aids your car has and which wheels are skidding. In a front-wheel skid, where your car’s nose is sliding wide, the advice used to be to steer into the skid. However, with modern ESC systems it is recommended that you hold your steering position in the direction of travel and allow the system to manage the braking to bring the car’s nose back in line. Bill explains: “With ESC, if it senses the front wheel skidding it will instantly brake the inside rear tyre, which will pull the nose of the car back round in the right direction. So in a car with ESC keep steering normally.”

In older cars without stability control, a fraction of steering in the opposite direction before returning the steering to the direction you want to be heading can sometimes help the tyres find some grip.

A skid where the rear wheels have lost grip is harder to put right and reacting quickly is vital. If you have ESC keep steering in the direction you want to travel. If, however, your car doesn’t have ESC you need to start steering smoothly into the skid, turning your front wheels to counteract the rear’s efforts to swing around. This should hopefully help straighten the car out and avoid any expensive collisions with street furniture or other vje

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