Vehicle Balance: Understanding and Managing Balance While DrivingUpdated Sept. 30, 2020
The term “vehicle balance” refers to the distribution of the car’s weight across its four tires connecting with the road. If your vehicle is well-maintained, has good suspension and optimal tire pressure, it will be evenly balanced when stationary on a flat road. Your car’s balance will shift when acceleration, braking or turning cause weight to move from one area of the vehicle to another. You must understand how vehicle balance will be affected by the way you drive, as a dramatic shift in balance can result in loss of control, accidents and collisions.
When sudden acceleration, deceleration or turning changes the balance of your vehicle, the tires on the “lighter” side of the car can lose traction. In extreme cases, loss of grip on the road’s surface can result in skidding, spinning out or rolling over. Keep in mind that the effects of a shift in weight will be heightened when driving at high speeds, on a wet road or under any other circumstances where traction is already poor.
To manage your vehicle’s balance safely, you must:
- Keep the suspension and tires in good working order
- Practice proper braking, acceleration and turning techniques
- Learn how to adjust your driving for adverse roadway conditions
- Get familiar with how your vehicle handles, as all vehicles respond to balance changes differently
Developing a sense of balance
While driving, you will be able to feel shifts in your vehicle’s balance. Tune into this kinesthetic sensation, as it will help you to manage the car’s weight distribution and maximize your grip on the road surface. For instance, when you accelerate sharply you will feel pulled backwards into your seat as weight transfers to the rear tires. When braking suddenly, you will be jolted forward against your seat belt as the vehicle’s weight moves to the front tires.
Understanding changes in vehicle balance
Any change in speed or direction will alter the balance of your vehicle. As soon as you start the engine and pull away from your parking spot, you will feel an immediate shift in weight from the front toward the back of the vehicle. The wheels are gaining speed faster than the rest of the vehicle (and you) as they are directly powered by the engine. The sensation of being pulled backward which accompanies acceleration is only temporary, as your body and the body of the car will eventually overcome inertia and “catch up” with the wheels.
Very sudden speed changes or turns result in very sudden weight changes. Inside the car, unrestrained items or passengers may be thrown forwards, backwards or sideways depending on the direction of the shift. If you’re traveling in a straight line and the sudden balance change results in a skid, you may end up not slowing or accelerating as quickly as you intended to (which could be a disaster, if you are braking to avoid a collision). When turning abruptly at high speeds, the sudden shift in weight from one side of your vehicle to the other can cause it to roll over.
Managing your vehicle’s balance
First up, you need to make sure you are positioned correctly in the driver’s seat. This will make it easier to sense the balance of your vehicle and control it effectively while you drive. You should adjust your seat so that the top of the steering wheel is either slightly below or level with your shoulders; it should not be more than one inch higher than your shoulders. You should feel comfortable and be positioned in the center of the seat. Fasten your seat belt to ensure you stay in this ideal position as the vehicle moves.
We will explore vehicle balance in much greater detail in the next module of this section. For now, here is a brief summary of how different maneuvers transfers weight from one part of the car to another.
Accelerating transfers weight from the front of the car to the back of the car, reducing traction in the front wheels.
Braking transfers weight from the back of the car to the front of the car, reducing traction in the back wheels.
Steering left shifts the vehicle’s weight from left to right.
Steering right shifts the vehicle’s weight from right to left.
Shifts in balance between the front and rear of the car can occur simultaneously with shifts from side to side. For example, if you were to brake hard while steering left, the vehicle’s balance would be thrown forward AND toward the right. This type of sudden multi-directional weight change is very likely to result in a serious crash, particularly when you are traveling at speed. In this example, the rear end of the car may spin out toward the right and the vehicle may roll over its right side.
When you understand how your vehicle’s balance is altered by changes in speed and course, you can prepare for weight changes and act to counteract any abrupt shifts. In an ideal world, drivers would only change speed or direction gradually. Unfortunately, sudden maneuvers are sometimes necessary to avoid a collision.
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