How to Steer Out of a Skid

Doing Doughnuts with the LAPD

Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars
Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If you've ever -- or never -- been to southern California, you've still seen a police chase. The Los Angeles Police Department is notorious for following criminals at speed, with a helicopter (or twelve) to help track the perps down. Not to mention the news helicopters hovering above while the stuff goes down on the ground.

The LAPD doesn't just throw its officers into squad cars and send them out to drive like Hollywood stunt men. According to Officer Douglas Barnhart, the department's driving instructor, officers devote three hours of training to skid control only. Three hours of doing doughnuts. I'll leave space here for you to insert your own jokes.

Got that out of your system? Okay. The key to steering out of a skid, according to Officer Barnhart, is recognizing that you're in one. People are generally pretty bad at this, but modern traction control systems make up for our ignorance. These systems, which are found on most vehicles these days, intervene earlier than the average driver when the car starts to skid.

But Barnhart says we're not complete idiots behind the wheel, and our natural reactions are usually the correct ones. When you get into a skid, you're already looking where you want to go most of the time, so keep your eyes pointed in that direction. Wherever your eyes are looking, your hands are likely to follow. "Don't look where you don't want to go," Barnhart cautions, "like a tree or a pole."

There's another kind of skid that the LAPD trains for: the understeer skid.This usually happens when there's too much speed coming into a turn, like a cop in hot pursuit trying to run a yellow light. The car turns less than the driver intended, and the front wheels lose traction.

The challenge here, Barnhart says, is that in order to get that traction back, you have to straighten the wheels. That's right -- even though the car is pointed at a building or a light pole, you've got to steer toward it to get the tires to grip the pavement and start rolling again. Only when the tires are rolling, rather than sliding sideways across the surface of the street, can the car be steered again.