By Jim Kerr
My teenage son just completed his high school driver’s ed lessons. The 30-hour class included watching videos of driving situations, emphasis on the dangers of impaired driving, and rules of the road. Armed with this information, the students in the class could write their driver’s tests and get a learner’s license.
To give them some practical experience, the students had to drive a simulator for six hours and then drive a car with the driver trainer for six half-hour sessions. The driver trainer has to be a brave man! Though I am a strong believer in driver education, I have some concerns about what driver’s ed teaches, or more specifically, what it doesn’t.
Let’s consider the simulators first. Simulators are great training tools: pilots use them, railroad engineers use them and there are even simulators to train big highway truck drivers. Simulators provide experience in a safe setting, but unless they simulate the actual experience, they fall short of their intended role. The school simulators are the equivalent of driving a 1950’s automobile. Turn the steering wheel and the vehicle slowly changes direction. Step on the brakes and there is no feedback. Press the accelerator quickly and the simulator video slowly gains speed. Most force-feedback computer steering wheels will provide much more feedback than these simulators. Perhaps it is time our education system invested in technology that really trains drivers how it feels to drive. Young drivers are involved in more accidents than any other age group. Investing in driver training is investing in their lives!
Then there is time in the vehicle. Learning to turn corners, make safe lane changes and watch for traffic is important, but how about merging onto a freeway or backing out of a mall parking spot? They spend a lot of time learning how to parallel park but when did you last hear of someone being injured while parallel parking?
Other driving skills are important to their safety too, such as learning how to brake hard. Most vehicles now come with antilock brakes but the students were not even shown what it feels like when the antilock system activates. A few fast practice stops would show students how to stop a car quickly in an emergency braking situation.
How about accident avoidance techniques? All it takes are a few orange pylons, an empty parking lot and a little time. It may cost some tire wear, but the steering skills they learn may save a life, or at a minimum keep our insurance rates lower.
We could teach them skid control. It’s relatively easy: drive the vehicle in a tight circle faster and faster (you probably won’t get over 20 km/h) until the vehicle starts to slide. Then have them correct the skid by steering correctly. Wet pavement, smooth tires and the sudden application of the parking brake make this even more dramatic. Canadians drive a lot on ice and snow. Why not show them how it feels to have a car slide and how to bring it back into control?
For my son’s part, I think driver’s ed was a start, but incomplete. I made sure that he experienced panic stops – first at a low speed and then gradually higher. After all, a deer doesn’t wait for you to slow down before it jumps onto the highway in front of you. We also practiced accident avoidance lane changes. Yes, we did practice parallel parking too, but with systems like Ford’s automatic park assist, back up cameras and object detection systems, parallel parking is much simpler than ever before.
My final step in driver training was to take my son out to the local sports car club Solo 2 event. This timed event allows a single car to drive around a pylon-marked course in a safe environment. As I expected, my son’s first run was wild, as he tried to go way too fast. After talking about how smooth inputs on the gas, brake and steering are the best way around the course, he improved dramatically, getting quicker and smoother every run. In about four minutes of actual driving time, he learned more about car control than he had in his many hours of previous training.
Perhaps experiences like this should be part of every driver’s rd program. It would make the roads safer for all of us and be fun too.