Fishtailing is a situation that many drivers will come across. It is the result of a loss of traction on the rear wheels. 

But what exactly causes fishtailing, what should you do if it happens to you, and does it have any influence on your choice of car tyres?

Why does fishtailing occur?

When your rear car wheels lose traction, they have very little grip on the surface. As a result, they can readily slide out, causing the vehicle to skid. This can simply define fishtailing.

car on corner in rainFishtailing 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 is called “fishtailing”, as the rear of the car moves somewhat like a fish’s tail.

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 sand 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 higher speeds result in less grip and traction.

car skidding on snowSnow 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 applied forces.

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 on driving - however, this requires both a quick reaction time and a strong understanding of how your car handles.

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 recommended. Such turns should be made carefully and you should also take your foot off the gas 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 could. Moving against the direction of travel, 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 lifespan or quality. 

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.

car driving through water

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 skid. 

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 grip. While this is normally a benefit for drivers, it does mean that they need to be 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, like black ice for example.