Why Did I Crash?

by Rob Schermerhorn on August 4, 2011

It’s the Second Skid that Gets You

There’s a common phenomenon going on in the world of performance driving and motorsport: the competent, experienced driver who has a big crash; friends shaking their heads in disbelief: “Bob had so many years of experience…” is what they say that day.

Fact of the matter is “Bob” is indeed vastly experienced at his craft on the big tracks; what’s lacking is pure car-control skill, the ability to take skidding tires—already beyond maximum grip—and safely return them to a more tepid operating condition.

There’s the similar phenomenon going on out on public roads: losing control of your car, but the driver had years of experience.

Losing control is likely the scariest thought you could have when driving—though you take comfort that you’ve participated in (pick one) a defensive driving/ autocross/ performance driving school, with this car-control knowledge you power through the mental strain of heavy rain and poor visibility to finally make it home… But do you have the skill to drive out of a skid? But it’s not the fist skid that gets you.

You lose control of your car during the second skid.

What’s the “Second Skid?”

Brake lights suddenly appear where you don’t expect them as the tail of the car in front of you kicks skyward; you swerve into the open lane, avoiding the rear-ender… but holy-+@^& the back of your car slides out! Facing traffic after a quick 180 you’re confused as to what happened but relieved you didn’t hit anything: you’re a victim of the “second skid”.

Nearly every driver is capable of successfully executing the first move: “swerve left!” Fact is it’s just not that simple to move the wheel one time and survive, the momentum of the vehicle requires a second input:

  1. Swerve to avoid obstacle
  2. Steer back—beyond straight ahead—the other direction

It’s this second steering maneuver that get’s the driver who’s never in their life practiced what a professional would call a “lane toss”. A lane toss not only requires the initiation of steering but also a large recovery steering movement to “catch” all the momentum that the mass of the vehicle has built up in one direction.

The “second skid” is where YOU LOSE CONTROL AND CRASH.

Without advanced driver training, specifically car control training (sliding around wet and dry skid pads, hour  glass shapes, figure eights) the average driver has little chance to actively drive their way out of a skid. Our teenaged neighbor told me she was taught to “go with the car” in a skid, meaning “give up and let Isaac Newton take over (or Jesus if you’re a Carrie Underwood fan).

Stability Control

Little story: back in 2004 Chrysler launched their LX platform—300/ Magnum/ followed by Charger—to acclaim by pundit and public alike. I was contracted as part of a vast traveling training team of pro-drivers and facilitators for sales staff, management and local media to learn what was so cool and unique about the cars so they could in-turn share this information with the public as knowledgeable experts. The LX platform was the first experience for most event staff (and all sales-staff participants) with a vehicle designed with stability control (aka: ESP, ESC, DTC, VDC, Stabilitrac, etc depending on manufacturer). The car is awesome and I recommend you test drive one if you’ve never experienced a modern rear wheel drive vehicle (should be awesome as it’s based on Mercedes E-class technology).

We designed a drive course at each parking-lot venue to show off the LX’s fantastic dynamic abilities; one component was a skid pad of about sixty to ninety feet in diameter. Our fleet of Hemi-powered cars was wired to easily defeat the ESP system so we could dynamically show stability control in action while we (pro-drivers) drove participants. The system is impressive (another article in itself) though ESP is certainly not the key to the LX’s athleticism, ESP does improve safety (and the Feds mandated it for the 2012 model year). On the skid pad one could drive full-throttle (or nearly so) without sliding for the bleachers in left field.

Amongst ourselves, not for public consumption, we labeled the skid pad the “circle of confidence” in that without advanced car control knowledge and training your “average” driver will think he’s impervious to error behind the wheel (ignorance = bliss?)

It’s so easy to see how stability control makes you feel like a hero behind the wheel as it succeeds in most instances at its intended goal: catch and correct skids, especially the “second skid”.

Stability control has sensors (steering wheel position is compared to wheel speed, lateral acceleration and yaw rate) and actuators (throttle position, individual brake actuation and possibly transmission control) to “catch” skids, literally countering skids by intelligently actuating individual brakes (inside rear brake counters understeer, outside front brake counters oversteer).

Stability control is so good at what it does (though doesn’t change the laws of physics, that’s the dashboard button I’m waiting for…) that the NHTSA gathered the data then drafted rules to require the technology by September, 2011.

But stability control does not take the place of SKILL behind the wheel of a car; this fact is lost amongst our legislators, auto industry members, journalists and the public at large!

Bottom Line

The fact of the matter is pure skid control takes practice to learn, only with practice will this skill become permanent, increasing your chances for survival of an emergency on the public roads or driving out of a “big moment” on the race track without crashing.

Pro-racer Toby Grahovec

Car Control anyone?

With a high performance drivers school you do practice skid control on the track, but it’s just part of the curriculum and if the weather is perfectly dry you may not approach the precipice of a skid. Only with pure car-control exercises performed on a wet and then a dry skid pad will you, the driver, begin to truly understand and then become skilled with skid control talents.

Producing a car control clinic vs. producing a racing school or high performance driver education event costs about the same; the driving public must understand the benefits—safety skills improvement—and realize that investing the time and money for this intense experience is worth it.

So what do you think? Interested in sliding around on a bid wet skid pad?

You’ll have the time of your life and learn skills that can vastly improve your chances for survival on the road; and if you’re a racer, reduce your operating budget by no longer crashing every event.


Matt waters August 9, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Sounds like a great learning experience. Would the format allow for both public road and track drivers?

Rob Schermerhorn August 10, 2011 at 9:33 am

Yes, the format will allow for any type of car/ driver to participate; thanks for your comment!

Andy August 13, 2011 at 11:56 am

If this is just gonna be another one of those…

Extremely well organized, competently managed, high value, safe, and enjoyable
Great Lakes region HOD events…

Count me in!

Bob Green September 9, 2014 at 11:30 am

Car crashes are the leading cause of violence injury and fatality on the planet and the only skill for which advanced training is considered by many to make drivers worse! And there are only three ways to crash, although the time, location and circumstances seem unique. Drivers are considered error-prone and that regulation and enforcement are the best way to push folks into cras reducing behavior.

We wouldn’t train our surgeons, airline pilots or concert musicians with as little concern as we give to our most vulnerable drivers . . . our young adult kids.

Skid and emergency procedures training, coupled with evidence-based, science and behavioral, strategies and technical information, education and training are our best tactic for improvement. Programs in Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and others have significantly reduced the crash rates there. The U.S. seems to think that some technology will be developed to save us from our mistakes. The iceberg didn’t hit the Titanic.

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