Snow, ice and even standing water can seriously affect how a car starts, stops and steers and, in some circumstances, lead to a loss of control as vehicles skid off their intended path.
No-one sets out to be caught in a skid or slide but it can still happen, so here is what to do to minimise the risk and how to react should the worst happen.
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.
Fitting winter tyres is a useful first step. 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.
Be 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.
Observe and anticipate. 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.
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 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.
The first thing is not to panic. 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.
The first thing you should do is come off the throttle and depress the clutch to cut power to the wheels.
Don’t press the brake. In most circumstances this will simply lock up the wheels, unbalance the car and make the situation worse.
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.
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.