Article and photos by Simon Hill
Performance-minded drivers have long known about the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy, which has been teaching advanced driving skills in Canada since 2008, including track driving techniques and winter driving skills. Now, following the lead of its successful new driver academies around the world, Mercedes-Benz has launched the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy for New Drivers in Canada, aimed at teaching new drivers of all ages how to safely negotiate busy modern traffic.
The first of several planned Canadian locations opened this spring in Vancouver, and as luck would have it, the launch took place just as I was beginning to teach my 16-year-old son Ian how to drive. We’d already put in a few father-and-son driving lessons and I figured we’d covered the basics fairly well. I was interested, however, in seeing how the experts approached teaching, and whether I was missing anything. One quick call to the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy for New Drivers and I was able to book some lessons, and the best part is I wouldn’t have to drive Ian to the lessons: the instructor would drive to our house.
When he arrived the next day, instructor Jim Buerk proved to be cheerful, friendly, and remarkably unflappable. I suppose his experience as a flight instructor likely helps in this regard – once you’ve been exposed to student mistakes in the air, anything that happens on solid ground would seem mild by comparison.
Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy for New Drivers. Click image to enlarge
Jim was also very thorough: in a single 15-minute introduction he reviewed everything Ian and I had managed to cover in our first two or three lessons – exterior checks, oil, tires, lights, seat positioning, hand position and motion when steering (hint: the shuffle is only for the Brits – here we cross over), and mirror adjustment (the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy for New Drivers recommends the SAE approach, which allows much softer shoulder checks, or what Jim calls “shoulder glimpses.” See our previous article on the best side-mirror position).
The Academy uses a “coaching” model rather than an “instructional” model, and on the road this meant Jim asked questions rather than giving instructions. “What’s the speed limit on this road?” “What colour is the car behind you?” “Do you see any hazards here?”
Score one for this dad, because while I used a bit of a mixed instructional/coaching style, Ian told Jim I was actually pretty good at asking questions myself. But one immediate difference I noticed is that while I tended to offer my coaching as Ian drove, Jim would frequently get Ian to pull over – itself an important skill that involves signalling, visual checks, steering control and braking control – and would have Ian perform a self-evaluation once stopped. “How do you feel about that last intersection?” he’d ask.
“I think I did good visual checks,” Ian might respond, “but I braked too late, and went a little wide when I pulled out.”
“I think those are good observations,” Jim would say, pulling out an iPad to help illustrate a point. “Let’s clean it up. What would you like to do?”
Jim also used games to help coach. Want to teach better forward scanning? Make a game of who can call out upcoming signs earlier. Want to work on smoothness? Pretend you’re holding a big bowl of sour milk and don’t want to spill it. (“Whoops!” said Jim after a rather abrupt acceleration, “I think we just lost some milk!” To which Ian responded “Really? I think the bowl was already empty from that last stop!”)