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Around the Twist

Country road cornering. The regulators don't tell you how. We will.

John Cadogan, www.crashprevention.com.au

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Cornering is one of the most complex open-road driving activities. Australia’s rural road network is often second-rate in terms of both engineering and signposting. You need to compensate for any deficiencies and steer a steady, safe course, and get it right every time.

Amazingly there is no official roadcraft advice about cornering in any licensing process. But get it wrong just once and you risk running wide, possibly onto the wrong side of the road (which is how head-on crashes happen), or off to the left, where a 20-metre drop-off or 100-year-old gum tree awaits.

Read our 10-point plan and learn how to get cornering right.

Both hands on the wheel, at nine and three o’clock. You cannot steer a car one-handed, or with your hands in the wrong positions, it’s that simple. And there is very little, if any, need to reposition your hands during 99.9 per cent of open-road driving in a reasonably modern car.

Look as far around the bend as possible. Eyes are the main thing that steers a car, not hands. Look where you want to go – as far ahead as possible. You’ll get more time to react if there’s an obstacle ahead, and the process will be much smoother. Look through the side glass if necessary. Don’t stop at the border of the windscreen if the bend is tight. Try to see through gaps in vegetation, to see further around if possible.

Judgement. The open road is not Mount Panorama. There are real risks, such as oncoming traffic and roadside obstacles. Be conservative, and employ safety margins, no matter how good you think you are. Always go slower than you could, if it were a racetrack. Which it isn’t.

Speed matters. The right speed is very hard to judge in corners. Why? This is because cornering load (or force) depends on speed squared. That means doubling the speed generates four times the cornering force. Fifty per cent more speed in a corner generates well over double the cornering load. It’s easy to exceed the available grip under the tyres, because small changes in speed make relatively big changes to cornering load, and that makes the right speed hard to judge. (Unfortunately, advisory speed signs are notoriously inconsistent.)

Slow in. The most efficient, smoothest way around a bend is to enter it a little on the slow side. Too fast and loss of control is likely, and it’s also, ultimately, slower. Slower in means smoother on the way through, and faster out – a safer, more efficient way to travel.

Smooth is safe. Rough driving is the way to lose control. If you find yourself pushing the wheel aggressively, or mashing the throttle or brake on the way around a bend, you’re in dangerous territory. And you’re showing your passengers how little you really know about driving. Slow down a notch, drive smoothly. Be gentle on the controls – all three of them, wheel brakes and steering – and the process will reward you. Smooth is not only safer, it’s also faster. Ask any race driver.

Entry. Ease off the throttle as you turn in. This pushes a little weight/inertia forwards, adding weight to the front wheels and helping the steering grip the road. Don’t go over the centre line on right-handers. Keep out wide to maintain a safety margin against wayward oncoming drivers. Steering and throttle work together. Lifting off and turning in is a natural combination that helps the car do what you want.

Mid-corner. Add a little throttle, keep looking around the bend, and just keep the car balanced. If you start to run a little wide, ease off the throttle and add some steering. You shouldn’t have to move your hands very much in the middle phase of most corners.

Exit. Opposite strategy to entry. As you see the corner open up and a bit of a straight ahead, add some throttle (gently) and start unwinding the steering (ditto). The car should transition smoothly from cornering to straight ahead if you get it right. Remember, cornering is about subtle control inputs, not gross ones.

Planning. Most people get into trouble in corners because they get into them before they sort them out mentally. Then the cornering process drives them, not the other way around. So don’t get distracted. Keep ahead of the game mentally, and pay particular attention to balancing the car’s entry speed to the corner’s severity.

Getting this right can be quite challenging in the real world, which is why the best way to practise is not in the real world (or not on real roads, anyway). Get some professional post-license driver training to boost your cornering proficiency. A day at a controlled driver training facility can really sharpen your game in a very forgiving environment. And if you’ve ever heard ‘evidence’ that driver training actually increases crash risk, relax. It’s rubbish. Driver training works wonders.

When You’ve Lost It

Click for larger image

The front end of a car is generally designed to skid first, before the rear wheels lose grip (this is actually quite intelligent design as it stops the car sliding sideways and keeps the nose pointing basically forwards). Once the front end skids, it has exceeded the available grip between the tyres and the road, and the car starts running wide. This is not a pleasant experience. On a right-hand curve it means you will start to drift off the left edge of the road, onto the shoulder. On a left curve it means running right, potentially into oncoming traffic.

Realise that hauling harder on the steering wheel will not help, and is actually quite dangerous. It’s understandable to want to turn the wheel more, because you want the car to turn harder. It’s instinctive, even. However, wheels that have started to skid cannot help the car turn any harder. Winding on more steering means the wheels could be pointed at the wrong angle for the road once they get grip again (this often causes secondary skidding and loss of control).

After identifying the situation, keep looking down the road, where you want the car to go. Take your foot off the accelerator – this transfers some weight forwards, onto the front wheels, which gives them a little more capacity to grip. Keep looking down the road, exactly where you want the car to go (can’t stress this enough).

In most cases, this will be enough to get the car back on track. You might have to wait a few seconds, but it generally works. When the front end loses grip and starts to skid, the car actually starts to lose speed pretty quickly. When speed drops, grip is restored, and you can get on with your driving normally – provided the steering remains pointed in a sane direction. The important thing is not to panic, keep the steering pointed in the right direction, and get off the accelerator – as quickly as possible.

You’ll be helping yourself out tremendously if you also:

a) check your tyre pressures weekly, which helps stop the car becoming unstable

b) always drive two-handed, with your hands at nine and three o’clock on the wheel, which makes it dead easy to know where the wheel is actually pointed

c) have the seat properly adjusted, which makes it easy to reach the controls and operate them properly (no ‘boy racer’ laid back driving positions)

d) brace yourself with your left foot on the driver’s footrest. This helps you remain upright – if your head and body stay upright it makes the task of processing all that spatial information much easier.

The last salient point concerns the worrying phenomenon called ‘target fixation’. Say there’s a dirty big tree off to the side of the road, which you absolutely do not want to hit. Many people lock their eyes on it in this situation, and subsequently clean it up to their considerable detriment. At the risk of slipping into a football metaphor, look for the gap instead. Lock your eyes on where you want the car to go, not onto the thing you really want to avoid hitting. Most people steer instinctively at whatever they happen to be looking at.

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