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Get to grips with skid control and not in a spin

PUBLISHED: 16:45 26 January 2018

Carol Black controls a skid as she takes a corner. Picture: Julian Claxton Photographer

Carol Black controls a skid as she takes a corner. Picture: Julian Claxton Photographer

Copyright (c) Julian Claxton Photography 2017.

Sophie Stainthorpe gets in a spin and, more importantly, learns how to avoid it in the first place, when she takes part in Norfolk County Council’s Skid Avoidance Training.

Sophie Stainthorpe, Oliver Dowdell and Carol Black are shown different tyre conditions. Picture: Julian Claxton PhotographerSophie Stainthorpe, Oliver Dowdell and Carol Black are shown different tyre conditions. Picture: Julian Claxton Photographer

I’m the first to admit that I’m not a very confident driver. I didn’t learn until I was 27 (I’m 36 now) and I didn’t drive much for the first few years, simply because we only had one car between me and my husband.

After having a child, we decided that it was time to become a two-car family. Certainly confidence comes with experience, but the added pressure of a very precious passenger means that I still get nervous sometimes, especially if the weather isn’t great. So when the opportunity came up to complete Norfolk County Council’s Skid Avoidance Training, I was keen to take part.

Turning up at Scottow Enterprise Park, on the former RAF Coltishall site, I was greeted by trainers Lance Fisher and Kevin O’Brien. The format of the training sees Lance taking the classroom-based theory side, while Kevin gets you out in the training car to put the theory into practice.

I was also joined by fellow participants Ollie Dowdell, 18, and Carol Black, 63.

Skid avoidance instructor Lance Fisher explains the theory of skidding, and how to avoid it. Picture: Julian Claxton PhotographerSkid avoidance instructor Lance Fisher explains the theory of skidding, and how to avoid it. Picture: Julian Claxton Photographer

Interestingly, we all had different reasons for completing the training.

While I was looking to increase my confidence, for Carol it was a continuation of her goal to simply become a better driver. Having already completed an advanced driving course, she had heard about the specific skid avoidance training and asked her daughter to book her on as a Christmas present.

Ollie, meanwhile, was booked on to the training by his dad. He’s been driving for nearly a year but has already had a crash and taken a speed awareness course. While not ideal, both experiences have given him a new perspective on driving, and he was happy to gain the extra knowledge and experience that the training offered.

The three-and-a-quarter-hour session is split into four blocks – theory, practical, theory, practical – so you’re not bombarded with information.

Sophie Stainthorpe with skid avoidance instructor Kevin O'Brien. Picture: Julian Claxton PhotographerSophie Stainthorpe with skid avoidance instructor Kevin O'Brien. Picture: Julian Claxton Photographer

The first element of theory took us through the causes of skidding, braking distances, how ABS works, the importance of tyre tread depth and pressure, and why aquaplaning occurs.

The key is in the name: skid AVOIDANCE, and the fact that getting into a skid is almost always down to driver input is reinforced throughout the training. However, there was also some very useful information about tyres and why it’s important to keep them in good order.

Question: what is the tread on tyres for? If you answered ‘grip’ then you fell into the same trap as me and my fellow trainees – and by Lance’s lack of surprise, I would hazard a guess that it’s not uncommon. The tread’s job is actually to siphon water away from the tyre when the road is wet.

We got hands-on with some tyre samples in different conditions, from examples of minimum tread depths (1.6mm in case you were wondering), to the resulting wear pattern on tyres due to low and high tyre pressure, and damage from clipping a kerb or pothole. All of the above will affect the tyre’s ability to grip the road.

Instructor Kevin O'Brien advises Sophie Stainthorpe on controlling skids.Instructor Kevin O'Brien advises Sophie Stainthorpe on controlling skids.

Time to head out on the track to put a bit of what we’d learned into practice.

The training car is a very ordinary looking Citroen C4, but when Kevin opened the boot it revealed a clever bit of kit which enabled him to simulate different road conditions and situations.

The first practical element involved us placing cones at different distances from a braking line to demonstrate how far we thought the car would go before it stopped in various weather conditions. We then took it in turns to put them to the test, with Kevin adjusting the car settings accordingly. Our estimations were way under, showing how important it is to keep your distance from the driver in front, especially in bad weather.

Back to the classroom to find out what understeer and oversteer are all about. Both terms describe how a car handles when you push it beyond the limit of tyre grip.

Understeer is basically a front wheel skid, causing the car to turn less sharply than you intend.

Oversteer is the opposite: a rear wheel skid which causes the car to turn more sharply than intended.

Again the emphasis was on the factors that contribute to a skid, such as excess speed and harsh acceleration, braking or steering on a bend, all of them down to the driver.

It’s not the intention of this course to be fun, but I have to say that the final practical element was certainly enjoyable. Again, we took turns to drive the car round a course while Kevin adjusted the car to simulate oversteer and understeer.

It took a while to get the hang of the correct way to regain control. My instinct was to apply the brakes but, in both instances, you simply take your foot completely off the accelerator and apply the clutch, while continuing to look and steer the car in the direction you want to go. In an automatic car you would just take your foot off the accelerator.

The main aim of this, however, goes back to the avoidance element of the course. There are warning signs which could enable you to stop the skid before it happens – in understeer it’s a sudden lightening of the handling of the car, and with oversteer it’s a “wobbly bottom”, as Kevin put it.

There really is no better way to be prepared for a skid than to experience it in the controlled conditions that the skid avoidance training provides – knowing what it feels like has to give you a better chance of handling it in the correct way.

A word of warning, however, if you get car sick then it’s not a course for you. You spend a fair amount of time in the back of the car while other participants have their turn, so it’s not exactly a pleasant drive in the countryside!

The course costs £80, and I’d say it’s money well spent.

For more information or to book yourself on to the course and other driver training call 0344 800 8020, email roadsafety@norfolk.gov.uk or visit www.norfolk.gov.uk/roads-and-transport/roads/road-safety/road-education-and-training/driver-and-rider-training

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