Driving techniques for safer cornering

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.

See what happens when drivers misjudge cornering, and it all goes horribly wrong, on the video below.

Amazingly there is no official ‘how-to’ 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

This 10-point plan is how to get cornering right.

  1. Both hands on the wheel, at nine and three o’clock. You cannot competently 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. Smooth is safe. Rough driving is a great 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.
  7. Entry. Ease off the throttle as you turn in. This causes a little weight to transfer 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 the throttle and turning in with the steering is a natural combination that helps the car do what you want.
  8. Mid-corner. Add a little throttle, not very much – just enough to balance the car up, and keep looking around the bend on your intended travel path. 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.
  9. Exit. Opposite strategy to entry. As you see the corner open up and some straight road 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.
  10. 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.