Marco Simone was piloting his BMW down a street in Oakville, Ont., this past summer when fate reminded him of how quickly a quiet drive can turn into a demolition derby. “All of a sudden this car shot out of a parking lot right in front of me,” the 52-year-old chartered accountant recalls. “I instinctively looked to the solution, then steered the car where I wanted it to go and out of harm’s way.”
Simone credits his quick response to the extensive training he received at a driving school put on by BMW Canada. “It’s totally changed the way I drive,” he says. Judging from the reaction of a police officer across the street from the near-collision, his new skills have already paid for themselves many times over. “I could see the officer’s face clearly as I passed,” Simone says. “She was standing just outside her car and she had this look of complete shock on her face that there wasn’t a serious collision.”
You, too, can learn to drive like a professional. Several advanced driving schools across Canada promise to break your bad habits and teach you the right way to steer clear of trouble. Prices range from $300 for a half-day session to more than $3,000 for a two-day, fully catered event. While those fees may seem expensive at first glance, they’re a huge bargain if the classes help you escape from just a single accident. Most schools start with class time then take you out to a skid pad for hands-on instruction in emergency braking and avoiding collisions.
“The biggest problem with basic driver training is that it all starts too late,” says Pierre Savoy, 51, a former professional racecar driver and the chief instructor of the BMW Driver Training Program. “By the time we get our driving licenses, we’ve already had 16 years of attitude training. When you mix that with hormones and a sense of invincibility, you have a recipe for disaster.”
Experience corrects some of those problems, but not all. Chances are you’ve developed a lot of bad driving habits over the years, especially in light of all the automotive technology that has come along since we were pimply faced students piled into the back of a driver’s ed car.
Savoy, who has taught such well-known drivers as Jacques Villeneuve, the former Formula 1 champ, believes that advances such as ABS, traction control and stability assist programs can help you drive better, but only if you understand how they operate. “We start off the course with no technology working then turn it back on,” he says. “We let our students see and feel how it works, but all these devices are just driving aids. They cannot tell you or show you what to do.”
Savoy begins reprogramming his student drivers by looking at what most of us take for granted. “We start at the basics driving position. I tell my students it’s like a golf lesson. The first thing you have to learn before anything is the stance.” Begin by raising your seat until there’s 10 cm between the top of your head and the ceiling of the car. Sit in an upright position with both hands on the wheel in the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions, not in the “10 and 2” position that you may have learned. To see if your seat is adjusted properly, straighten your legs and plant both feet on the carpeted firewall behind the pedals. Now slide your seat forwards or backwards until your knees have a slight bend. This ensures you can press the pedals as far as they can go without locking up your legs. Next, place your right wrist on the top of the steering wheel (12 o’clock position) and use your left hand to adjust the seat back. Keep your shoulder blade in contact with your seat. Change the angle until your right elbow has a slight bend. This gives you maximum control and rotation of the steering wheel.
Savoy says the correct driving position is critical to reacting in time to an emergency. “A major European study a few years back concluded that if people had just one second of advance warning, 80% of collisions could be avoided,” he says.
Once you’ve learned the basics in the classroom, it’s out to the skid pad for some real thrills. At the BMW school, for instance, you’ll go through exercises designed to sharpen your reaction time. In one nerve-wracking test, you’ll pilot your car at a row of pylons at speeds up to 70 km/h. At the last moment, one of two instructors on either side of the cones will wave a flag, signaling you to brake and steer either left or right around the pylons and then come to a stop as quickly as possible.
Most beginners fixate on the pylons and turn them into orange plastic roadkill. “If you stare at it, you are going to hit it,” Savoy says. “Most people don’t bother looking for an out.” But with practice and the help of a good instructor, just about anyone can learn to “brake, look and steer” around unexpected obstacles.
That’s exactly what Simone did in his brush with disaster and he’s been spreading the gospel ever since. He’s even taken clients out for a day of advanced practice on his dime. “A number of them liked it so much they said they would be signing their kids up for the course,” Simone says.
Schools of hard knocks
Want to learn how to hit the skids and recover? These driving schools tutor you in the fine points of crash avoidance.
BMW Driver Training
Cost: $300 and up
Where: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver
Info: BMW.ca or 1-866-2BMW-SAFETY (1-866-226-9723)
Powell Skilldriving School
Cost: $395 and up
Where: Port Perry, Ont.
Info: PowellMotorsport.com or 905-985-1600
Skid Control School
Cost: $359 and up
Where: Oakville, Ont.
Info: SkidControlSchool.com or 1-888-516-6522
Canadian Traffic Education Centre (CTEC)
Cost: $495 and up
Info: CTEC.ab.ca or 1-888-466-4962
Sidorov Advanced Driver Training
Cost: $300 and up
Where: Whistler, BC
Info: SidorovPrecisionDriverTraining.ca or 604-905-0146