What do you do if the rear of your car starts to slides around, trying to overtake the front? Here’s how to recover from an oversteer skid.

YOU’VE HEARD of old wives’ tales, that wisdom passed down through the ages from mother to daughter. These tales were perhaps once true, but no longer, or maybe they were always entirely fictional. The motoring world is the same, with many a car myth passed on but this time usually from bloke to bloke over a beer.  There’s so much ill-informed pub wisdom it’s hard to know where to begin, but skid recovery is a good a place as any.

There’s a question I like to ask students when teaching them dirt road driving or car control.  It’s simple – “what would you do if the back end of the car skids and starts to overtake the front?”, which is what we call an oversteer situation.
Now your old husband’s advice would be revert to what seems the bloke’s default reaction to any car control situation which is “power out”.
Dead wrong, perhaps literally.

Here’s the explanation:

A tyre has a certain amount of grip.  Let’s call that amount “X”.  You can use that grip entirely for stopping, or entirely for turning, or a combination.  When you make demands on the tyre to the extent the grip limit is exceeded then you are skidding.  
Back to our oversteering, skidding car.  The rear tyres have, by definition, exceeded their grip limit – let’s say they’re at 1.5 times X.  If you apply more power then you are moving that ask up to say 1.7 or 2.0 times X.  In other words, you’re making things worse and will just arrive at the scene of the accident even quicker.
Now various justifications will be advanced for “powering out”.  One will be the weight shift backwards which gives the rear more grip.  This is an excellent example of a myth because it’s just a tiny bit true, but the disadvantages vastly outweigh the benefit.  If you have a high-powered, instant-response race or sportscar with the right balance and are dancing on the limit of adhesion then yes, a little extra throttle can increase grip by rearweard weightshift.  But for my students it’s usually a heavy, diesel 4WD which is already well past the grip limit (hence the skid) and sorry, extra power just isn’t going to work.  And regardless of your car, the more power you apply, the more grip you need… simples.
The second justification is straightening the vehicle.  This will never work with a rear wheel drive vehicle because the centre of gravity is ahead of the driving wheels, so any increase in power just makes things worse.   It may work with all-wheel-drives, to some extent, but is definitely not the best way to recover.  It will work with front-drive vehicles, but only if other, better actions are taken at the same time.
But what about drifters and rally drivers, aren’t they powering out of oversteer situations?  No, they’re not skidding out of control, they’re maintaining a balanced slide and to do that, you need power.  Ask any of them what they’d do if the car starts to rotate to the point where it looks like they’ll lose it, and the answer will not be “power out of it”.

Here is how to recover from an oversteer skid:

1. Look well ahead;
2. Look where you want the car to go. This may not be where it is heading;
3. Turn the steering wheel so the wheels are pointing where you want to go.  Forget the “turn into the skid, out of the skid nonsense”. and;
4. Throttle and brakes.  Whatever you were doing with either one, do a bit less of it to return grip to the rear wheels.  Don’t snap off the pedal, just reduce.  This is otherwise known as “fix the feet”.  
Oh, and you do all of steps 1-4 at the same time, instantly.  If done correctly, you’ve now hopefully caught the slide so it’s not getting any worse.  Now you need to deal with the back end returning to centre, which it will do very quickly indeed.  Keep throttle and brakes as they are, and prepare for some very fast and very accurate steering wheel action.  How far to turn?  Simple, just keep those wheels pointing where you want to go.
And that’s it.  You’ve now recovered from an oversteer slide!
It’s important to understand that turning a steering wheel very quickly and accurately is a skill all by itself, and not one that can be picked up during a skid. Most people that try it end up with “spaghetti arms” and the wheel not turned where it should be.
Here’s what it looks like in practice.  All these video clips are unintentional skids and recoveries, as distinct from intentional skids.
This one is explained with cause and effect.
Notice how quick you have to be with the wheel, and the car barely has time to get out of line.  If you need to recover from a skid then you already need to be looking ahead with your hands in the right place on the wheel, not fondling the gearshift.  You do not recover a car from skidding by using gears, it’s steering wheel and pedals.  And the earlier you can detect a skid – by looking well ahead-  the easier it is to recover.
Here’s oversteer caused by excess power in second gear:
Perhaps the most famous example of all time is world rally champion Ari Vanaten and the ‘Dear God’ moment:
And the most famous recent example is British rally champ Mark Higgins.  Mark has to put on a complete lock of steering to recover from this skid, and usually if you need to do that the car is in the wall. 
But of course, skid recovery is a lot easier to read than to do.  The only way you’ll be able to pull this off when the need unexpectedly arises is if you practice, practice and practice to the point where it is as instinctive as your hand recoiling from a hot object.  You also need to nail your steering technique, which will be the subject of another post.
There’s a danger too, with any advanced driving technique, that drivers think they can merely car-control their way out of danger.  Not on public roads you can’t.  There simply isn’t the time or the space to recover from most skids.  Instead, the key to safe public road driving is being so good at observation you never get close to needing advanced car control skills.

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  1. All this is true for cars. What about early Porsche 911’s that became known as the widow maker that helped many unsuspecting to exit a road or track backwards with the slightest hint of liftoff.

    Among other things, A car with good front geometry, especially appropriate caster settings will help limit oversteer and telegraph an early warning. The return to centre feel will give you a good indication of the direction the car is going,

    Beware the pendulum effect in 4wds can flip them on their lid quick smart.

    1. Most of the above holds true even for cars prone to lift-off oversteer, which today is just about none of them to any significant degree.

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