California Association for Safety Education

Should You Shift to Neutral for Skid Correction?

Professor Frederik R. Mottola

Published in the September 2007 CASE Newsletter

     There is an application when you may want to shift into neutral to disconnect power from your drive wheels. However, there is a greater chance for misuse, costing valuable control time in critical situations. With a limited opportunity to teach car control skills I would not teach shifting into neutral as a skid control technique. It can be taught as a method to eliminate a skid problem once the car is in control. If a driver learns how to effectively use the “Open Palm” method of shifting, whereby a quick slap of the shifter sends it into neutral without any hesitation or need for the driver to look at the indicator, then it can be used in some situations.

     One situation where it can be of value to shift into neutral is when the acceleration power going to the drive wheels while coming to a stop is counteracting the braking force— resulting in an oversteer condition for rear-wheel drive vehicles or an understeer for front-wheel drive vehicles. Shifting into neutral will eliminate the cause of the problem.

     It is not beneficial to teach shifting into neutral as a primary method for controlling a skid. The first thing that a driver needs to learn is how to detect the initial loss of traction that is changing the balance of the vehicle and having an effect upon directional control. The initial detection of a skid requires effective use of vision to recognize that the vehicle is in an off-target condition. The off-target condition requires an immediate steering action as a corrective response. Power to the rear wheels can either help or worsen the situation. All is dependent upon how excessive the speed is in relation to the amount of traction available. When traction is being lost to the rear tires by only a few miles per hour of excessive speed, applying some power to the rear wheels could help to straighten the car. However, with excessive speed of 10 or more miles per hour and an accelerating yaw angle, applying power will increase the loss of control, making the situation worse. In the first situation, with slightly excessive speed, shifting into neutral could take away from the opportunity to regain control. In the second situation, shifting into neutral could take away from the opportunity the driver has to keep focused on the target area for a corrective steering and counter steering action. There is more to lose by teaching shifting into neutral than there is to gain.

     When teaching in the Skid Monster we are able to recreate these situations and show the effects of several of the variables that could exist in a skid situation. One thing that is consistent about controlling skids is the use of targeting to focus where you want the car to go; and, if in doubt keep the pedals out, no gas, no brake until the car is back on target.

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