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Static and Kinetic Friction

Friction is a key concept when you are attempting to understand car accidents. The
force of friction is a force that resists motion when two objects are in contact. If you
look at the surfaces of all objects, there are tiny bumps and ridges. Those
microscopic peaks and valleys catch on one another when two objects are moving
past each other.

This explanation is a little simplified. There are other processes at work, including
chemical bonding and electrical interactions.
The level of friction that different materials exhibit is measured by the coefficient of
friction. The formula is = f / N, where is the coefficient of friction, f is the amount
of force that resists motion, and N is the normal force. Normal force is the force at
which one surface is being pushed into another. If a rock that weighs 50 newtons is
lying on the ground, then the normal force is that 50 newtons of force. The higher
is, the more force resists motion if two objects are sliding past each other.

There are two forms of friction, kinetic and static. If you try to slide two objects past
each other, a small amount of force will result in no motion. The force of friction is
greater than the applied force. This is static friction. If you apply a little more force,
the object "breaks free" and slides, although you still need to apply force to keep
the object sliding. This is kinetic friction. You do not need to apply quite as much
force to keep the object sliding as you needed to originally break free of static

Some common values of coefficients of kinetic and static friction:


(stati (kinet

Steel on steel



Glass on glass



Metal on Metal



Ice on ice



Teflon on Teflon



Tire on concrete



Tire on wet road



Tire on snow



These values are approximate.

Now, finally, how does all this relate to automobiles?
In some places, especially Alaska in the winter, you must keep friction in your mind
constantly as you drive, in order to avoid an accident. You have to limit your speed
in order to be able to stop at a reasonable distance, and to negotiate curves.
Braking distance can be calculated using the equation d = V^2 / 2g
d = Braking Distance
g = Acceleration due to gravity (9.80 m/sec^2)
V = Initial vehicle speed (m/sec)
= Coefficient of friction between the tires and the roadway
Notice that initial velocity is squared; this means that if you travel twice as fast,
your stopping distance is squared, not doubled. This is why the two second rule
("travel at a speed so that two seconds pass between the moment the car in front of
you passes a landmark and the moment you pass the same landmark") is not valid
for high speeds; your stopping distance increases exponentially as you go faster.

A higher coefficient of friction decreases your stopping distance. It is better,

therefore, for your tire to be using static friction rather than kinetic friction. If the
tire is rolling along so that the surface touching the ground is never sliding, then
static friction is acting to slow the car. If the wheels are locked and sliding, then
kinetic friction is acting to slow the car. In order to utilize static friction when you
need to stop quickly, there are several options. You can attempt to apply just
enough brake to stay within the static range of friction and not too much to lock the
tires. This is the best option, in terms of stopping you the quickest, but it can be
difficult to be that precise with the brake. It can be especially difficult if you are
about to hit a moose. Another option is pumping the brake, which has the effect of
alternating the use of kinetic and static friction as the wheels lock and unlock. This
is not quite as efficient, but easier to do in an emergency. A final option is to have
your car take care of the braking for you, through antilock brakes or more
sophisticated computer-controlled means. Antilock brakes do the same thing as you
do; pump the brakes. The best solution is, of course, to drive slower.
Traveling around a curve causes you to experience a slightly different set of forces,
as you must deal with the tendency for a car to want to travel straight ahead. This
is explained by Newton's 1st law: an object will not change velocity without a force
acting on it. In this case, you are causing the car to change lateral velocity and
move to the side by applying frictional force from the tires. If the tires don't have a
coefficient of friction large enough to provide the force needed to move the car
laterally, then you slide straight forward and off the road.

Usually, the tires must maintain static friction in order to turn the car. That limits the
maximum speed to a rate at which the tires do not slip. The equation that models
this situation is:
Vmax = square root of ((static) g r)
Vmax = Maximum velocity
g = Acceleration due to gravity (9.80 m/sec^2)
r = Radius of curve
= Coefficient of static friction
If you are traveling around a curve with a radius of 10 meters and no snow or rain,
Vmax = square root of (1.00 * 9.80 m/sec^2 * 10.0m) = 5.4 m/sec, which is about
22.1 mph. Any faster and the tires would slide.

If you are traveling around a curve with a radius of 10 meters on a snowy day, Vmax
= square root of (0.30 * 9.80 m/sec^2 * 10.0m) = 5.4 m/sec, which is about 12.1

Static Friction
Static frictional forces from the interlocking of the irregularities of two surfaces will
increase to prevent any relative
motion up until some limit where
motion occurs. It is that threshold
of motion which is characterized by
the coefficient of static friction. The
coefficient of static friction is
typically larger than the coefficient
of kinetic friction.
In making a distinction between
static and kinetic coefficients of
friction, we are dealing with an aspect of "real world" common experience with a
phenomenon which cannot be simply characterized. The difference between static
and kinetic coefficients obtained in simple experiments like wooden blocks sliding on
wooden inclines roughly follows the model depicted in the friction plot from which the
illustration above is taken. This difference may arise from irregularities, surface
contaminants, etc. which defy precise description. When such experiments are carried
out with smooth metal blocks which are carefully cleaned, the difference between
static and kinetic coefficients tends to disappear. When coefficients of friction are
quoted for specific surface combinations are quoted, it is the kinetic coefficient which
is generally quoted since it is the more reliable number.

Friction Plot
Kinetic Friction
Static friction resistance will
When twomatch
respect tountil
one the
threshold of
frictional resistance
is almost
motion. Then
the kinetic
constant over
a wide
range of stays
speeds, and
in the
This plot
model of friction
is described
by thefriction.
below. The coefficient is typically
less than the coefficient of static
friction, reflecting the common
experience that it is easier to keep
The above plot, though
something in motion across a horizontal surface than to start it in motion from rest.
representing a simplistic
view of friction, agrees fairly
well with the results of simple experiments with wooden blocks on wooden inclines.
The experimental procedure described below equates the vector component of the
weight down the incline to the coefficient of friction times the normal force produced
by the weight on the incline.
Having taken a large number of students through this experiment, I can report that
the coefficient of static friction obtained is almost always greater than the coefficient
of kinetic friction. Typical results for the woods I have used are 0.4 for the static
coefficient and 0.3 for the kinetic coefficient.
When carefully standardized surfaces are used to measure the friction coefficients,
the difference between static and kinetic coefficients tends to disappear, indicating
that the difference may have to do with irregular surfaces, impurities, or other factors
which can be frustratingly non-reproducible. To quote a view counter to the above
model of friction:
"Many people believe that the friction to be overcome to get something started
(static friction) exceeds the force required to keep it sliding (sliding friction), but with
dry metals it is very hard to show any difference. The opinion probably arises from
experiences where small bits of oil or lubricant are present, or where blocks, for
example, are supported by springs or other flexible supports so that they appear to
bind." R. P. Feynman, R. P. Leighton, and M. Sands, The Feynman Lectures on Physics,
Vol. I, p. 12-5, Addison-Wesley, 1964.

What is Static Friction?

Have you ever noticed that it's harder to get a shopping cart moving than it is to
keep it moving? If you try to push your couch across the room, the first push is the

hardest part. Maybe people assume that's nothing more than psychological, but
there really is a physics reason for it. The reason is static friction.
Friction, in general, is a force that makes it harder for two objects to slide
alongside one another. Static friction is the friction that exists between a
stationary object and the surface on which it's resting.

A frictional force occurs when you try to

push an object alongside a surface
Once the objects have already started moving,kinetic friction takes over. This is
the friction that exists between two objects moving relative to each other. Kinetic
friction isn't as strong as static friction, and so it is easier to keep the shopping cart
What Causes Friction?
If you were to see an extreme close up of an otherwise smooth surface, you'd see
that it contains a whole landscape of mountains and valleys, pits and bumps. These
imperfections cause two surfaces to grip each other and make it hard for things to
But when an object is stationary, there is also something called adhesion between
two surfaces. Adhesion is where two non-moving surfaces stick together slightly,
due to some light chemical bonding between the materials. This is what makes
static friction so strong.
Equation for Static Friction
Force is a push or pull, measured in Newtons (N). Friction is one such force. We can
calculate how many Newtons of frictional force there are between two surfaces
using this equation:

Equation for Static Friction

The coefficient of friction is just a number that represents how much two surfaces
grip each other. The normal force is the force a surface applies to an object to
keep it sitting on a surface. Without a normal force, objects would fall through to the
ground, because there would be nothing to hold them up. On a flat surface, this
normal force is equal to the force of gravity acting down on the object, and this can
be calculated by taking the mass of the object (in kilograms) and multiplying it by
the acceleration due to gravity:

Equation for the force of gravity

So for example, if a block is resting on a slope with a coefficient of friction of 0.1,
and the normal force acting on the block is 2 Newtons, we can use the equation for
static friction above to calculate the force of static friction between the slope and
the surface:
0.1 * 2 = 0.2 Newtons
The equation for static friction is almost identical to the equation for other kinds of
friction, such as kinetic friction. The only difference is that instead of the coefficient
of static friction, you would use the coefficient of kinetic friction instead.