Fishtailing is a situation that many drivers will come across in their driving lifetime. At it’s simplest, it is the result that occurs from a loss of traction on the rear wheels. However, a more apt description is a little more complex.

Here, we will explore what fishtailing is, as well as what you should do if you encounter fishtailing. We will also look at when and where fishtailing is most likely to occur and any influence it may have on your choice of car tyres.

Why does fishtailing occur?

When your rear car wheels lose traction, they have very little grip with the surface. As a result, they can readily slide out, causing the vehicle to, in essence, skid.


Fishtailing can most often occur on slippery road surfaces with low friction.

Depending on the conditions of the road and your driving skill, it may be possible to correct this initial skid very quickly. If not, you may end up skidding in the opposite direction. It is this change in direction that inspires the name “fishtailing”, as the rear of the car moves somewhat like a fish’s tail swimming through water.

Some drivers prefer to refer to this as “tank slapping”. If the fishtailing is strong enough, drivers can often hear the oil in their tank ‘slapping’ between one side and the other. This is still, however, the same phenomenon as fishtailing.

When and where can fishtailing occur?

Fishtailing can occur anywhere and anytime there is a low amount of friction on the road surface. Of course, this means that wet roads, snow and other slippery surfaces can increase the likelihood of fishtailing. Yet other surfaces, such as grit, can also offer little friction and similarly induce fishtailing from your vehicle.
Likewise, this is more likely to occur when driving at higher speeds. This makes sense, since a faster speed results in less grip and traction.


Snow and other low friction surfaces increase the likelihood of fishtailing.

Furthermore, fishtailing occurs when the rear wheels skid out, so your car may be more likely to do this if it uses a rear wheel steering system. This is because the rear wheels are actively turning and, if the road surface isn’t accounted for, could lead to over or understeering.

Rear wheel drive and 4x4 cars also have similar problems, as the rear wheels are powered, increasing the forces being applied.

How to correct fishtailing

Just like other incidents that can happen on a slippery road surface - like aquaplaning - it is important not to panic.
Instead, try to correct the initial fault by steering into the direction of this skid. If you’re quick enough, you may be able to correct the skid entirely and continue driving like normal - however, this requires both quick reaction times and a strong understanding of how your car handles.


When fishtailing, it’s important to remain calm

In other cases, you may find that the rear of your vehicle simply fishtails in the other direction. Again, you should try to keep the car in the direction of the skid. This increases traction in the front wheels, since they are not going against the direction of travel, helping to correct the car.

Similarly, sudden movements aren’t recommend. Such turns should be made carefully and you should also take your foot off the pedal. However, make sure not to apply the brakes, as this sudden shift in momentum will only encourage the skidding. Slowing down naturally is much better and will allow you to regain control more effectively.

Does fishtailing affect the tyres?

As far as tyres are concerned, fishtailing influences these the way any other skid or unexpected maneuver can. By moving against the direction of travel, this will wear down your tyres faster than normal. Of course, fishtailing is a rare occurrence and seldom lasts long enough for this to make an overall, noticeable difference in your tyre quality or lifespan. Nonetheless, it should always be considered and, if you do encounter some fishtailing while driving, be sure to inspect your car tyres at the next available opportunity.


Fishtailing, over time, can cause some wear and tear do your car tyres.

The right tyre choice

To counter this, ensure your tyres have a thick tread and offer plenty of grip. This will provide more friction, giving your rear wheels less opportunities to move out of line.

This can be a problem during the warmer months. Popular summer tyres, for instance, focus on offering a low rolling resistance, yet this often comes at the expense of friction. While this is normally an ideal benefit for drivers, it does mean being extra careful when using such tyres in more severe weather conditions.

Even with winter tyres, the additional grip and traction offered is never a guarantee. This is because there are so many different winter conditions to consider, including the likes of black ice.