Your car's biggest safety feature isn't its antilock brake system, stability control or the rearview cameras that are standard on many new models. It's you.
Human performance and behavior factors contribute to more than 90 percent of vehicle crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Translated, this means you can drive a car with every modern safety feature, but if you aren't a safe driver, you're still putting yourself at risk.
One remedy is taking a driving refresher course. Across the country, driving schools that are better known for instructing police officers, truckers or teens also run classes for average car owners looking to improve their skills.
"I hate to say it, but people have bad habits," says Marc Hemsworth, a longtime Los Angeles Police Department driving instructor who now teaches at the L.A.-based Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy.
Break Bad Habits and Make Good Ones
In advanced driver-training classes, adult students learn to refocus on little things they might have let slip after years on the road. This includes relearning how to optimize seat adjustments and hold the steering wheel to better control the car, but it also involves something as seemingly simple as scanning the road for possible hazards. In law enforcement, it's called having "situational awareness," Hemsworth says.
Training programs also put drivers behind the wheel in conditions they typically wouldn't encounter, such as steering out of a skid on wet or dry pavement. In the programs, instructors take the passenger seat, giving instructions and encouragement as drivers perform maneuvers repeatedly until they can handle them without emotions taking over.
Drivers also can familiarize themselves with vehicle systems they may not have had occasion to use before, such as antilock brake systems (ABS), so if and when these functions intervene during an emergency, a driver will know what's happening and how to react.
What To Know Before You Go
Advanced driver training classes are offered year round, mostly on weekends (although some weekday classes are available, too). Classes run anywhere from a half day to two full days or more, with a little bit of classroom instruction and a lot of behind-the-wheel training.
Some schools own tracks, while others take over parking lots and city streets. Some schools supply students with cars, while others require that participants drive their own vehicles. A few schools specialize. The Bridgestone Winter Driving School, for example, brings people to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for up to three days of driving on snow and ice. Mark Cox, the school's director, says, "Driving is like a sport. To be good you need to practice on a regular basis, but most of us go seven or eight months between seasons of driving on wintry roads."
Prices at advanced driving schools range from $295 for a half-day class driving your own car to $1,200-$2,200 or more for a two-day class that includes use of a school's car. Most programs offer discounts for large groups or companies.
At the BMW Performance Driving School, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the slogan is "Relearn to Drive." And that's the point of these advanced driver-training courses. They're not basic driver's ed, nor get-my-license-back traffic school programs. Here's some detail about the curriculum that you might find at an advanced driver-training program, plus why the skills and knowledge are important:
Seat position: When former U.S. Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton participated in a Long Beach Grand Prix, her husband warned instructor Danny McKeever that she was a lousy driver. It turns out that the 4-foot-9 Retton was just too small for a standard seat and regular accelerator and brake pedals, says McKeever, a former racecar driver and owner of Fast Lane Driving School. McKeever adjusted both pedals in Retton's race car, and voilà: "She had the second-fastest race lap of anyone, because she finally fit in the car," he says.
In driving skills classes, instructors like McKeever teach students to move their seats up or back to have optimal access to the gas and brake pedals.
Steering wheel grip: You may feel safe driving with one hand on the steering wheel, but it's a major no-no. You need a proper two-handed grip, because this is one of your prime interfaces with the car, the sensory port where you'll be able to register whether the tires have a good grip on the road or whether you're starting to lose traction. Advanced-skills instructors teach students to hold the steering wheel with their hands at the 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock positions. They teach the use of a sliding, hand-to-hand shuffle to turn the wheel rather than the hand-over-hand method many people learned in driver's ed, because it forestalls injury if the airbag deploys in an accident.
Braking: While most newer cars have ABS, the majority of drivers have never actually experienced what antilock braking feels like. When the system does come on and they hear and feel its distinctive rapid pulsing of the brakes through the brake pedal, they're sure something's wrong and freak out, driving instructors say. To counter this fear of the unknown, the BMW Performance Driving School asks students to accelerate quickly down a track straightaway that has been watered down and then brake suddenly, at which point the ABS will engage. As they're asked to perform this task at progressively faster speeds, the drivers grow accustomed to the pulsing of the brakes and the way the system enables you to steer around trouble, because ABS is about maneuvering around trouble while stopping, not simply stopping itself.
Lane changes: The BMW driving school and others have students practice changing lanes using progressively shorter distances and increasingly higher speeds to improve their ability to react quickly and control the car during the rapid avoidance maneuvering that follows.
Skids: Most schools use a skid pad (a specially constructed area of pavement) to teach drivers what a skid feels like and how to safely steer out of one in both dry and wet road conditions. At Fast Lane, McKeever demonstrates the wrong way to get out of a slide — by braking — and then the right way — by stepping on the gas and straightening the front wheels to help the car regain traction. Then students take over. "Doing it the right and wrong ways is important," he says. "We want them to understand exactly what's happening."
Avoiding accidents: Racing drivers know that if a car spins out in front of them, it's best to keep looking at where you want to go, not at the car in front of you or even in the direction in which the car is already going. When you look in the right direction, the car goes in the right direction, a reminder of the way in which vision and car control are inextricably intertwined.
Driving in bad weather: Both specialty courses and programs that develop general-purpose skills have students practice driving in bad weather conditions. In parts of the country that don't get much precipitation, rain can be tricky. Rain mixes with the tiny bits of rubber tire and engine oil that collects on dry payment as traffic passes and can make a road especially slick, instructors say. Courses teach students how to maneuver in rain, as well as how to tell when flooded roads are too unsafe to cross. They even navigate hills, banks and corners on outdoor courses created from several hundred thousand gallons of water that's been frozen into ice and snow. They also learn to monitor weather and road conditions, and how to effectively use a minimum amount of traction when driving on slippery surfaces. "Most people don't realize it takes from four to 10 times longer to stop on ice than it does on pavement," says Mark Cox of the Bridgestone driving school.
Distracted driving: The prevalence of cell phones, smartphones and auto entertainment systems that plug into smartphones has led many schools to add distracted driving exercises to their repertoire. For example, the Mercedes-Benz school times drivers as they navigate a coned course. Instructors then put them through the same course a second time while they read a text message, do a math problem in their head or search for something in the glove compartment. "They drive slower or hit cones," says Hemsworth, the school's lead instructor.
Knowing What You Don't Know
Many people come to advanced driving training classes convinced they're already good drivers because they've never been in an accident, says Matt Mullins, lead instructor at the BMW school. It's more likely they've just been lucky, he continues, but luck won't help them in an emergency.
"They don't know what they don't know," he says. Often, people who complete an advanced skills course tell him that they signed up for fun but leave realizing "that they really need these skills but didn't realize that they needed them," he says.
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