Winter can be a difficult time to drive. Visibility is bad, windshields get frosty, and depending on where you live, roads become slick and icy. But even if you live in a land of perpetual sunshine, it’s important to know how to get control of your car when those tires start skidding.

Plus, you never know when you’ll end up behind the wheel in a New England blizzard, driving your girlfriend’s dad to the airport. (I don’t want to talk about it.)

The physics of fishtailing

As far as the technical stuff goes, loss of traction is actually the result of too much friction. Weird, right? Traction refers to the maximum amount of friction your tires can handle before sliding. If they’re subjected to high levels of frictional force — or if the surface they’re driving on has a lower threshold (like slick ice) — they’re more likely to lose traction.

Simply put, fishtailing happens when your car’s rear tires lose traction and spin freely. At that point, the tires can no longer control the angular momentum of your car, and the vehicle will continue to move in whatever direction that momentum takes it.

The best tires for traction control

If you’re not particularly interested in the scientific complexities of skidding, there’s an easy rating system to help you figure out which tire is the best for you and your driving conditions. Uniform Tire Quality Grading (UTQG) rates a tire’s “coefficient of friction” — the ratio of frictional force between the tire and ground, and the force pushing them together. Translation: UTQG measures a tire’s ability to maintain traction.

The best UTQG grade a tire can get is AA and the worst is C. If you want to find out what grade your tires are, just take a look. It will say something like “Traction AA” along the sidewall of the tire right under the tread.

What to do if your car starts skidding

When you’re losing control of your vehicle, the natural reaction is to steer in the opposite direction your vehicle’s headed. But it’s very easy to oversteer and end up spinning the other way. If you continue to oversteer, the car will whip back and forth (hence the term “fishtailing”) until it spins out.

Here’s what you can do to avoid fishtailing:

1. Stay calm
As with any emergency situation, remaining calm allows you to accurately process the situation and remember what to do. Losing control of your vehicle is not an everyday occurrence, so when it happens, there’s likely to be a moment of panic. Don’t let that moment last.

2. Ease off the gas
Without traction, hitting the brakes is fruitless. Instead, you want to let off the gas, which allows the spinning wheels to do their thing and regain traction on their own.

(Note: when the wheels regain their connection with the pavement, you can brake.)

3. Aim where you’re going
To avoid oversteering, try to aim your car in the direction it’s already going. Your tires have to regain traction, and the best way to do that is to embrace the existing inertia.

Remember, friction is your friend.

Related links

How to Drive in the Rain

Safe and smart | Car safety


about Anthony

Anthony Larsen has been copywriting since 2010 and blogging since the early Xanga days. He’s only been driving for 10 years, but as a Los Angeles native with a relentless commute, that’s enough for a lifetime.