This came up because suzannemoses and I were driving on highway 101 recently, and it was quite wet from the rain, and I saw (and Suzanne heard) a car three lanes over spin into the sound-block wall at the side of the road. We were in the far left lane, and the relevant vehicle was in the exit lane on the far right, just slightly ahead of us. I presume I glanced over because they started spinning; by the time I had actually glanced over, they were somewhere between sideways and backwards, and obviously doing a reasonably-lazy slide into the wall -- the sort where there was an audible crunch as the front bumper hit the wall and had its cover pulled off, and probably the side of the car would be banged up, but probably slow enough not to cause injury.
Anyway, in the "What was that?" conversation immediately thereafter, I mentally looked back at the split-second image I had of them sliding, and realized that the front wheels were turned in a direction that would make the skid worse rather than better.
Using the common phrase that people use for this, I said that they were "steering away from the skid, rather than into it."
Suzanne was quite familiar with the phrase, having grown up in snow country and thus having had it firmly drilled into her head that it was what one did in case of a skid on an icy road, and asked the confirming question of, "So they were turning like this (with gesture), not like that (opposite gesture)?"
At which point she pointed out that approximately nobody actually explains what "steer into the skid" actually means, and that is a real problem because it is ambiguous!
And so it seems useful to actually explain....
The underlying idea of the advice is that you only have control of a car if it is going forward and the front wheels are rolling. If the wheels are sliding, the car is just going to slide and you have no input on where. Thus, if you are driving a car and it is starting to spin and skid off the road, the right thing to do is accept that the car is going the direction it is going (at least for the moment) and turn the steering wheel so as to get the car to point so that that direction is "forward" -- ideally before the car is completely sideways. And then, once the car gets back to being under control, you can deal with controlling it to not go off the road.
This is sort of counter-intuitive if one's sliding sideways off a snowy road -- you want to get back to the middle of the road, so if the car is sliding to the right, a person might instinctively turn the wheel to the left to get back onto the road. And so then the car slides sideways off the right side of the road.
On the other hand, for a spin where the problem is the car is going the right direction but pointing the wrong way, it's actually what feels intuitive (at least to me); the car is turning clockwise and I don't want that, so turn the steering wheel to make the car turn counter-clockwise.
Or, going back to the initial phrase:
The wrong interpretation: "Steering into the skid" does not mean, when the car starts spinning or skidding, steer to make it turn in the rotational direction that it's spinning.
The right interpretation: "Steering into the skid" means, when the car starts spinning or skidding, steer to make the car point in the positional direction that it's moving.
This clarification also has me thinking about what that means as far as properly applying the advice metaphorically, but as I noted at the beginning, that is not the subject of this post!
Crossposted from Dreamwidth (original here), with comments. Comment here or there; comments here will eventually be duplicated to there.