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By Paul Williams
Photos: BMW Canada
At the beginning of 2003 I decided to become a better, more qualified, driver. My reasoning was that if I’m going to comment on how cars drive, I should have some accreditation to do so.
Starting in April, I took the(with Autos’s Grant Yoxon), and followed that with certification as a driving instructor in Ontario. I drove a Mini Cooper in the Targa Newfoundland rally, took another course through the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, and finally, took the Level 2 BMW “Perfection” driving course in late October. Next year I hope to complete the BMW program (there’s one more level) and get my racing licence.
I’m not a particularly gifted driver, certainly not perfect, but I’m going to be well trained.
The Level 2 BMW course was taken on a very windy day in late October. So windy, in fact, that I thought they might cancel it (watching cones move around on the course is a bit too dynamic, even for BMW drivers).
But everything was set up when I arrived for the one-day course at 8:00 am. The rain had stopped, and although several cones looked like they had minds of their own, the course was on.
The Level 2 course picks up where Level 1 left off, but adds speed. The braking, turning and emergency control exercises were taken at speeds between 50-80 km/h, which may not seem too fast, but is plenty quick on a tight course.
Again I was impressed with the BMW electronic stability control system (called Dynamic Stability Control, or DSC). The difference with the system on or off was the difference between violently spinning out of control, and driving along as if nothing were amiss.
However, we did most of our exercises in 330 Ci’s with the DSC off. We slammed on the brakes with one side of the car on a surface that simulated gravel, and the other side on dry pavement, induced and corrected oversteer and understeer, learned how to steer with the throttle, and performed rapid lane change manoeuvers on a slick, wet surface. You really get a feel for the car’s capabilities, and yours, doing exercises like these.
In the afternoon, now somewhat over-confident, we swapped cars for a set of M3s and hit the slalom. This was definitely the high point of the day.
Each student completed several laps by following one of the three instructors through the course. Because we were connected by radio, the instructor could tell the following student exactly when to brake, when to accelerate, how hard to steer and how fast to go. This was a great way to learn.
After that, we ran a series of laps going for the lowest times with fewest cones knocked over. I’m pleased to say that I came second, and was thrilled by the handling and performance of the M3 on this short course.
On the way home, BMW certificate in hand (or on seat, actually), I reflected on the Ontario Ministry of Transportation driving instructor certificate I acquired earlier in the year. That took a full month, with 120 hours of classroom and in-car instruction, plus a comprehensive driving exam by the school and the Ministry. The qualification permits me to teach the accredited driver education course for Ontario, and that course prepares new drivers for their driving test which licences them for the road.
Oddly, there is no component in this accredited course that remotely resembles the driving skills learned in the BMW program. Not once does the beginning driver slam on the brakes, experience the anti-lock system at work, rapidly change lanes or recover from a skid. In fact, there are no emergency manoeuvers of any kind in the program.
This worries me.
My driving partner in the Level 2 BMW course told me that his partner in Level 1 screamed and took her hands off the steering wheel whenever their car began to skid, which is a scary prospect indeed. In regular traffic, that driver is a danger to herself, and to everyone around her, including her passengers.
But imagine you’re on the road in an emergency situation. Are you sure you’d keep your hands on the wheel and keep your cool? What about the guy in the car behind you?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but we’d all be better off if student driver education included an extensive advanced or emergency driving component in the course – something like the BMW program built into the “rules of the road” type course that many drivers take to get their licence. I’m told that in Europe, this is the case. It should be here, too.
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In the meantime, if you can get into a course like the BMW Driver Training program, you’ll have great fun and you’ll pick up some useful skills as well. If you own or like Beemers, you’ll get a great chance to fling them around in the protected confines of a closed circuit, which is a great way to learn. You can buy gift certificates for the courses, too. I bought a Level 1 course for my son last year. Even though he’d taken driver ed’, his only experience with advanced driving skills was on PlayStation 2.