For many drivers, the thought of their vehicle getting into a skid is truly frightening. They consider the inevitable outcome to be a crash.
But, while nobody but a rally driver is likely to relish a skid, neither is it a reason for panic. Most skids can be controlled if you catch them early enough and do the right things.
Different types of skid
There are several different types of skids, or slides, and they can be caused by different actions.
You may find your front-wheels sliding, rear-wheels sliding, all four-wheel sliding, or just one wheel sliding, especially on slippery winter roads.
When turning into a corner in slippery conditions, the front wheels may seem as if they want to 'plow' towards the outside of the corner (that's called understeer).
That tendency to go straight when you want to turn can result from excessive speed into the corner, turning the steering wheel too quickly, braking while turning, or accelerating when turning, particularly with a front-wheel-drive car.
When turning in slippery conditions, you may also encounter the rear wheels 'fish-tailing' towards the outside of a corner (that's called oversteer).
That tendency to skid, potentially culminating in a spin, can result from excessive speed into the corner, turning the steering wheel too quickly, braking while turning, or accelerating when turning, particularly with a rear-wheel-drive vehicle.
It can also result from lifting off the accelerator too quickly while turning.
If one or more brakes lock up while you're braking, that can also cause a skid – sometimes straight ahead, sometimes skewing either left or right, depending on road surface conditions and which brake(s) locked.
How to overcome a skid
Whatever the cause of the skid, you must remove or reduce the cause to correct it.
If you're braking, lift off the brake until the wheels begin to roll again.
If you're accelerating, or just going too fast, ease off the accelerator pedal and let the vehicle slow down.
In the front wheels are sliding, turn the steering wheel back towards straight ahead. That's right, you have to reduce the steering angle in order to make the turn. It's hard to convince yourself to do so, but it's the right thing to do.
When you can feel the wheels rolling and gripping again, turn smoothly back to the direction you want to go and, with your reduced speed and new-found traction, the vehicle should respond.
If the rear wheels are sliding out, forget what you may have heard about "into the skid", or "out of the skid". It's too complicated to remember which way is which in an emergency.
Just look where you want to go, and steer where you want to go. You tend to steer where you look so if you don't look in the right direction, you probably won't steer in the right direction.
The faster you respond with the steering wheel, the less you have to turn it. Be just a split-second too slow and even full-lock on the wheel may not save you.
Be prepared, too, for the vehicle to skid the other way once you have stopped the first one. The instant you feel the vehicle stop rotating, turn the wheel the other way.
Brake if a crash is imminent
If you can't correct the skid and a crash is imminent or if you can no longer see where you want to go through the windshield or side windows, brake as hard as you can to reduce the speed of any impact.
Practice if you can
Skid control is a learned skill that improves with practice. If you have the opportunity to practice in a safe place, such as a huge empty parking lot that with a slippery surface – or better yet, at an advanced driving school that teaches skid control – take it. You'll be glad you did when you encounter an unexpected skid.