By Mark Boada, Senior Editor
Like the typical American, I believe I’m an above-average driver. Which means I’m probably overconfident, at least occasionally complacent and not as good as I think I am. It also means I’m probably not much different from a lot of fleet drivers.
So, it was with mixed feelings that I headed out to Driving Dynamics’ all-day, behind-the-wheel driver training course. What, I thought, did it have to teach me? After all, I’ve been driving for nearly 50 years, and have driven hundreds of thousands of miles as a professional driver (during college and between jobs I’d been a limousine service driver), during which time I never once had an accident, not even in mid-town Manhattan during rush hour and on the treacherous Belt and Southern State parkways, with their shoulder-less, too-narrow lanes, sewer grates, potholes and crazy-fast drivers.
But then again, there was that rear-ender I caused a few years ago, fiddling with my new toy, a shiny new GPS. And there was that former co-worker of mine who took the same course and said that within two weeks afterward, one thing she learned at the course saved her from an accident.
It was a gray, damp morning around 8:30 a.m. when I pulled into the vast, empty parking lot at Citizens’ Bank Park, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies, where the course was being held. I was the last to arrive and pulled up behind around 25 other vehicles next to the trailer that Driving Dynamics uses for its classroom sessions.
When I walked in, the dozen or so fellow students were already listening to the lecture and slide presentation given by Gayle, one of the day’s four instructors. A former race-car driver, she made it clear she knew from experience what she was talking about. She told us that the overwhelming number of auto accidents could be prevented if the driver had just one extra second of awareness and knew what to do with it.
That observation is the basis of Driving Dynamics’ “One Second Advantage” defensive driving philosophy. Its online and lecture lessons are supposed to teach drivers how to create that extra second. The goal of its behind-the-wheel training is to teach what to do with that second. The day-long course alternates between sessions of lecture and discussion, and time driving to practice accident-avoiding techniques.
The opening lecture refreshed my recall of the right way to hold the steering wheel (“hands at 9 and 3 o’clock”), how to slide your hands when steering, to look not just at the road and vehicle ahead, but as far as possible. The second classroom session reminded us all about the proper way to adjust your mirrors (you’re not supposed to see any of your own vehicle in the side view mirrors).
Dimmer in my memory was how to negotiate turns: to ease off the gas pedal and to position your vehicle to the outside of your lane opposite the direction of your turn. The benefit is that you see more of what’s ahead of you and you can make a gentler turn.
But I also learned something new: you should position your seat so your wrists rest comfortably on the top of the steering wheel, with your elbows bent. As small as that was, it was a revelation.
The big surprise, though, was that most of the 12 in my class had taken this course before. In fact, for a couple it was their third time. I asked them why, and they said, apart from the fact that their fleets required them to take it every few years, they learned something new each time. I was curious to find out if the behind the wheel exercises taught me anything new on this, my first appearance.
The first exercise was fairly simple: three times each of us accelerated down a straight path and, guided by an instructor speaking to us over our FM radios, slammed on the breaks, first from 25 MPH, then 30 and again at 35. The idea was to feel the pulsing of our anti-lock brake systems and note how we were able keep the vehicle straight. Not a biggie, I thought, but it was good practice to see how reliable the brake system was.
That was followed by a couple of exercises in backing up. The first was to park precisely using our side view mirrors to see the instructor and some traffic cones. Another fairly easy one. But then came the first challenge: to weave your way backwards through four small cones, just using your mirrors, without swinging out too widely and without knocking any over. A driver or two knocked a few, and while I didn’t, I was surprised that I experienced some anxiety and uncertainty over how well I would do.
More challenging exercises were to follow, and each time I experienced rising levels of anxiety. One was how to recover from a skid, both of the front wheels and the rear. For this, we were an instructor and three students in a car. I admit I was intimidated, so I made sure I chose the seat that would make me the last to drive.
The vehicle was a specially rigged compact car that enabled the instructor to simulate a skid by turning either the front or rear wheels askew. It was uncanny how much it matched the feeling of a car out of control. Recovering while heading straight was challenging enough, and so was recovering rapidly from a front to a rear-wheel. It was even hairier when negotiating a curve and trying to stay reasonably close to within your “lane.”
My heart rate rose noticeably during the final set of exercises: practicing high-speed panic stops both in a straight line and then while turning to avoid an obstacle, like a pedestrian or another vehicle. These were cones, but the hairy part was that you weren’t allowed to hit the brakes until told to by the instructor over the car’s radio.
I really messed up – not that I hit anything or swerved out of control, but that I always chickened out by braking just a split second before I got the instructor’s command. On reflection, I realized that I was afraid that, despite the ABS, I was going to spin out of control. It didn’t help, either, that each of three passes was done at higher speeds. Revving my car up to 40 MPH over the relatively short approach really made me sweat!
The day definitely changed me. For one thing, it renewed my respect for the forces of high-speed driving and the need for constant awareness and sense of caution. It made me realize how important good quality and properly inflated tires are to my safety. It also gave me more confidence in the capabilities of modern automobiles.
Before leaving, I spoke to one of the drivers there for the third time. She said she found that the heightened sense of awareness the course creates fades over time, and that coming back helps make her a better driver. I’ve had the same experience with online lessons, and told her I was moved to a greater sense of the need to drive carefully and smart. And you know what? I left looking forward to taking the course again, too. Who’d have thunk it?