- by Pete Snidal, (C)1998

Site hosted by Build your free website today!

This Page Best Viewed With ANY Browser - a proud member of the Campaign Against De-Standardization of the Web


If it is, there are a few things you should know about driving one of these babies in slippery conditions. You may have been driving it for years without any problem, not knowing that when and if you encounter a condition of front-end skid, or fwd understeer, you life may well depend on knowing what to do, and most importantly, that you don't want to do what was correct with Rear Wheel Drive.

Front Wheel Drive automobiles, although they have been in production in various parts of the world for most of this century, first came to America in any kind of quantity with the advent of the Austin/Morris Mini, first introduced here around 1959. Prior to this time, although there were the odd Tucker, Saab, or Citroen to be found here and there, Front Wheel Drive was a rarity. But what the Minis started caught on, becoming much more popular with the introduction of the Volkswagen Rabbit, and then springing up under the badge of just about every major manufacturer, from Audi to Oldsmobile.

This was a Good Thing for some reasons - the unitized drive line inherent in FWD made production cheaper and easier, for example. And, once you hit the "edge" of adhesion, such as in snow and ice, FWD makes for a much more controllable car - But You Have To Know How To Drive It!


This isn't absolutely true; when the traction is good, and/or when the vehicle is being driven slowly enough, there is virtually no apparent difference between controlling a front wheel drive vehicle and doing the same with its Rear Wheel Drive Counterpart. Consequently, there are people all over the planet who have been driving their FWD cars for years in a completely blissful state of pure ignorance that there are fundamental and important differences between FWD and RWD. But all this completely changes on that snowy day when you find yourself just a little fast in a corner that's just a little too slippery - when you get to "the edge."

Yet, for some reason, it doesn't yet seem to be popular knowledge that a front wheel drive vehicle is completely different creature to control once the limits of adhesion are reached. I have asked many drivers of FWD cars if they are aware of the different driving style required in event of a skid, and I don't remember finding a single one who knew what I was talking about. I have, however, encountered a few who won't drive their FWD in winter, saying it just acts "too squirrely" on ice and snow.

Rally drivers, for whom the Mini became the ne plus ultra within a year or two of its introduction, (there were other, less popular fwds, such as Saab and Citroen) found the differences very quickly. Sports car magazines of the time were full of praise for the way FWDs "pulled their way around corners," in slippery conditions, while the best one could do with the rear wheel drives was to "cross them up" and hope for the best - using power to the (rear) drive wheels to control how far outward the rear end slews, and correcting for the inevitable outward skid by steering the front end outward to compensate. A little too much power, of course, and the car would inevitably sail right off the outside of the corner - sideways - or come to a halt after spinning around for a while.


The FWD's, on the other hand, gave the driver considerably greater control of his or her automobile. Here's why:

  • Even once traction has been basically lost, the front wheels can be pointed in the direction you want the front end to go, and by varying the engine rpm to "find" the best traction, the front end will generally "claw" its way to where you want it - around the corner, in your lane.

  • Adhesion of the rear wheels can be modulated, at the same time, by APPLYING BRAKES in the corner! Thus the best cornering style, at speed, involved using right foot on the gas, and left foot on the brake, at the same time. More yaw at the rear is effected by more brake pedal pressure; more claw at the front by applying more throttle.

  • Bonus: You still have the steering wheel, and now it's not just something you have to use to correct rear-wheel oversteer. You can use it to adjust the position of the front end towards or away from the center of the corner, as you simultaneously adjust traction with the right foot, and keeping the rear end where you want it with the left foot.


You can imagine what would happen if you tried to drive a rear wheel drive car in this fashion. Brakes and Gas at the same time? As you power through a corner?

Conventional wisdom, and all the driving manuals we studied for our first driving licence, caution against using either brakes or power in a corner or curve. Yet, in the case of the FWD, both of these are used to advantage. Conclusion?:


And, here's another little thing to keep in mind:


Pretty strong language. But for good reason. Every winter, literally thousands of lives are made miserable, or ended, by a failure on the part of those in charge of training us to drive to publicize this difference. Drivers manuals still tell us to do such ridiculous things as "in the event of a skid, take your foot off the gas pedal, and turn the front wheels in the direction of a skid until you regain control," WITHOUT DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN FRONT AND REAR WHEEL DRIVE!

Right. Are these guys completely stupid, or what? Well, when the book was written, in the time when virtually all cars in North America were Rear Wheel Drive, this advice made sense. When the rear wheel drive car starts to skid, or as the accident reports all say, "fail to negotiate a curve," and the driver follows this advice, let's take a look at what happens:

Skids In Rear Wheel Drive

When the driver backs off on the throttle, engine braking takes effect. This braking on the rear wheels, providing the car is already beginning to turn, will have the effect of making the rear end slew outward. In less extreme cases, this alone will then get the car pointing in the appropriate direction, in which case the driver then applies a little throttle, and all goes as planned. In the more extreme cases, this rear-end slewing requires correction by steering the front wheels outward as well, and the car goes around the corner a bit sideways. In the completely extreme case, the driver applies power through the corner, modulating the rear end slew with gas pedal, correcting with steering outward, and either gets through the corner and continues on his way, or spins the car out to an embarassing, if not more costly, halt.

But in all events, the advice to take your foot off the gas when encountering a skid, is the logical first reaction - in a Rear Wheel Drive Car. Now, let's look what happens when you do this in a FWD automobile:

Skids in Front Wheel Drive

People are being killed in FWD cars every day by following the conventional "wisdom." Let's take a look at why:

The car enters a corner or curve. The driver finds that it "fails to negotiate," meaning that it isn't turning the corner like it should - due to driving too fast for the existing road condition, of course. So at this point, which may easily be the first time for the hapless driver of the FWD who has suddenly found himself in over his head. So, he (or she) follows the natural reflex action, which is also the conventional "wisdom," and lets off completely on the gas pedal. Now, what happens?

This time, the rear end doesn't slew around, pointing the car into the curve. No, instead, engine braking having just been applied to the front, steering wheels, they lock up, and ALL STEERING HAS NOW DISAPPEARED. The car proceeds to go in a straight line, off the end of the corner, into whatever is on the outside. On a right hand curve, this will entail first crossing the oncoming lane or lanes, and then, if that has been done without encountering any logging trucks or other fast-moving (in the wrong direction!) obstacles, then there is often a tree, cliff, river bank, or rock face to complicate the experience. On a left hand curve, the car goes off the right hand side of the road, into the ditch, guardrail, snowbank (good), river (bad), or whatever it encounters before stopping. No fun!

Obviously, this was a bad choice. The natural First Reaction, letting off on the throttle, and thus braking the front wheels, and losing ALL of what insufficient traction there was,was the wrong thing to do. Yet, not everybody is a rally driver, and the full-on extreme cornering practice described above is not a skill at everyone's fingertips. So what should the "normal" driver of a FWD car do to prepare him/herself for the day when the car gets into that dreaded "failure to negotiate" mode?


Is obviously NOT to "let off completely on the gas pedal." No, in fact a good BASIC first reaction is to apply SOME gas pedal with the right foot, and at the same time, apply SOME brake with the left foot. The slight braking of the rear wheels will bring on some slewing around of the rear of the car, and the braking of the front wheels will be offset by the power applied to them at the same time. In other words, the effect will be about the same as if you'd let off on the throttle on a rear wheel drive car.


But you're in a better position, because you can also vary the power to the front wheels with the gas pedal, and "hunt" for a throttle opening that will give the best traction, as you steer INTO the curve. If you find the traction window, which you usually will, you will be able to make the front end "claw" its way arond the corner. So, once you learn to drive a FWD in snow, is it better? You Bet it is!


If you're still with me, and this makes sense to you, you're not yet out of the woods for your first encounter with "failure to negotiate." Although practice makes perfect, it is most cases not very practical for the average person to go out and practice being a rally driver to be ready for the time when you may need it. But you CAN do these:

  • Programme this First Reaction. A few times a day, while driving in slippery weather, ask yourself, "What would I do if this thing refused to go around the next corner?" Then, tell yourself, I would apply SOME throttle, at the same time as SOME brake, and STEER my way around the corner.

  • Practice doing it, with just LIGHT pressure on each, when it's safe to do so. (Check that mirror first!) Hopefully, you'll find, in the event that you run into trouble some bad day, that you've programmed yourself to take the right action, instead of the wrong one in the drivers manuals.

  • If you're lucky enough to have somewhere to try it out, such as an empty, snow-filled (or icy) parking lot, (WITHOUT HIDDEN CURBS!) you might want to give a few gentle turns a try with the both-feet method. Start slowly at first - it's a real drag to pile your car up while trying to learn how not to pile your car up!

"Point The Front Wheels Where You Want To Go, And Stuff It"

This was the popular adage for newly-converted Rallye Mini Drivers 'way back then. It was a little extreme - I'd personally not go so far as to recommend such a gung-ho attitude on the part of Joe Family, the first time he finds his mini van heading for the logging truck, but I Sure As Hell would NEVER recommend letting off on the throttle and expecting it to act like the old '69 Chevy.

No, the best First Action is somewhere in between - light brake and gas, and remember the drive wheels are trying to get enough traction to pull the front end to where they're pointed. But whatever you do, DON'T JUST LET OFF ON THE GAS AND PRAY. Because if you do, you're very likely to meet the gent to whom you're praying - sooner than you want.

I have sent mail on this subject to my Provincial Ministry of Highways, and to the Governent Car Insurance agency, with each change of government for the past two or three changes, now, and gotten nowhere. (Well, I just did with our latest one - the results aren't in yet on that one.)

So I hit on the idea of making this page available to the planet. If it saves just one life, it'll be better than nothing. But I wish someone would get to the various Highway Safety Councils, etc. all over the planet. Feel free to copy and distribute this information all you like. Tell everyone you know to check the website. It's a long url, but then, _everybody_ doesn't have a domain name, like ( Till ] then, I hope you never need to know this, but if you do, remember:



Disclaimer: All the above is my opinion only; if you decide to try this out for yourself, as I have many times, and things don't work out for you, well just remember there are many other factors in keeping your butt where it belongs when you hit slip city. Exercise caution and discretion in all matters.

Come to think on it, if you feel like suing somebody, how about the people who are still putting out manuals that tell you to take your foot off the gas in all cases, with all cars?

Besides, you don't want to sue me, anyway. I have no money, but I _do_ have a Pit Bull with AIDS, who, in the words of Mick Jagger, is "Dyne......... ta meetcha."

While you're here, why not take a look at another good idea for drivers? My Pro-Ma Performance Products Pages mail me here if you like