The Winter Car Control & Driving School – Why we do this

It’s about 4am and it’s cold. Really cold. Last year it was called the “Polar Vortex”. This year it’s being called the “Arctic Express”. I’m sure that next year it will be called something else by the media who, for some reason, feel they must come up with some cutesy new name for “winter”. Most creatures in North America know well enough to stay curled up in their dens and burrows but a small group of people are beginning to stir on a very chilly Saturday morning. Chilly is an understatement of course…it’s not just chilly…its cold…STUPID COLD! They don’t really want to leave the warmth of their cozy beds and may even grumble aloud “Ugg…what am I doing?” Although, in the time it takes to even verbalize such a thought, they know that the satisfaction of what they are about to do, outweighs the discomfort and even pain that they will endure this day. They are part of a team and there is a job to do. Lives depend on it.

At the same time, another group of people is beginning to stir. They too are enjoying the warmth of their beds while evaluating their own range of emotions. Some are excited for the day ahead, while others are downright terrified. This is a diverse group and all strangers to each other. Like the 42 year old housewife who is so nervous that she is shaking like a leaf. The 20 year old kid who thinks a lot of himself. The 53 year old guy who doesn’t want to go but his wife of the same age insisted that he do this with her. The 26 year old guy who just graduated from Police College, the two teenage sisters and their middle aged mom, and so on. Each one of them are trying to mentally visualize what the day will be like and although they have an idea what they will be doing, none of them are exactly sure what to expect.

Soon, these two groups of people will leave their homes from various places across Southern Ontario, drive 2-3 hours and all converge in the small town of Minden. Welcome to the ILR Winter Car Control School.

The first group are the instructors and combined they have over 200 years of experience as instructors and race car drivers. The second group are the students, and combined they have over seven crashes under their belt (three of which were total right-offs). In total there will be 11 students taking this course. Some have never been in a crash and are there to learn how to be as safe as possible in hopes that they never will crash. Others have been in collisions and are there to learn more in hopes of never being in that situation again. Some have crashed more than once and need a lot of help. The instructors are there to help and at the end of the day, the satisfaction of knowing that nearly a dozen people are now safer drivers, well…that’s the real reward for them. Now you can see why lives depend on their skill and knowledge.

As one of the Chief Instructors, my main role is as the talking head at the front of the classroom who engages the students in the material and keeps them thinking. I saturate them with information about proper seating position (just a simple thing that most drivers do wrong), techniques on how to use their hands and feet, setting the mirrors correctly, etc. All simple things really but they have a tremendous impact on how well you can control a car, and most drivers have no idea that they were initially taught wrong. A lot of drivers figure that there’s nothing wrong with their way of doing things. They’ve been doing it like that for 20 plus years and that’s how they were taught. So what do we know right? Until we show them some better ways of doing the same things…simpler ways…safer ways. We really do have to prove it to them though first before they accept it. Humans are strange that way. Most people don’t like change and often reject it, even when the change is for the better. Sometimes it’s very much like telling a guy that he’s been doing something wrong for decades and his dad was wrong for teaching him that. Some people take that news as quite insulting, and that sets the stage for what comes later….”Oh ya?? I’ll show you!”

As I carry on my day as the in-class instructor, I use a lot of real world examples of what the consequences could be (and have been for others) of not doing things right. I also discuss a lot about our human physiology and what our limitations are in how we have evolved. What feels ‘natural’ often sets us up, as drivers, for disaster. Things that nobody really thinks about or even knows about (outside of the scientific community, specific to those fields of study), and I try and bring that knowledge to the average person but they are going to have a serious impact on how you see the world and react to it. Time and time again, I hear from my students “I had no idea our eyes do that”. Now that they do know, they are aware of how to compensate for that and see their world better.

The class is split into two groups, and while half the group stays with me in-class, the other half goes out with the other instructors to do the in-car exercises; Slalom courses, emergency stopping, collision avoidance and skid pad work. Although truth be told, every exercise is a skid pad really. The whole place is covered in ice about one foot thick and it is so slippery that you can barely walk on it. This is our playground and it doesn’t take long before the 20 year old kid realizes that his confidence far exceeds his skills and he spins out on the ice knocking over a bunch of the traffic cones. The 53 year old guy who tried to show us that he was right and that we were wrong…well, he ended up stuck on the snow bank, and everyone else got to learn from their mistakes. The instant your ego surpasses your skills…things go wrong. However, it’s always better to learn from that in a safe and controlled environment, rather than out in the real world where things can get expensive and could also result in injuries.

It’s a pretty hard day on the in-car instructors. They are paying attention to so much more than the students realize. They are looking at every little detail of the student’s driving techniques…holding the wheel properly, where they are looking, what their feet are doing, even how firmly they are holding the steering wheel. It all adds up. It all makes a difference to how well someone can control their car. Like that wasn’t enough to focus on…someone has to stand outside in freezing cold temperatures to run around and reset the cones that the students knock over. That’s the really miserable job and the instructors take turns doing it so that nobody has to suffer the cold for too long and become hypothermic. Yet no matter who does it, or for how long, they eventually lose feeling in their toes and hands, and the pain of their frozen ears never really goes away until the day is over…no matter how well they are suited up for the cold.

Most drivers have said at some point “It’s not me. I’m a great driver. Everyone else is the problem.” It’s at a school like this where they realize that maybe they were part of the problem. Or at least, that they weren’t part of the solution. By the end of the day though, they will be part of the solution. After well over a decade of being a driving coach and advanced driving instructor, I’m still learning. Hell I’m the only person I know who’s actually read the Highway Traffic Act cover-to-cover (more times than I care to admit). Yes I’m that much of a road safety nerd, but if you haven’t read it yourself…then you certainly have more to learn. You can start there. They are after all a set of rules that you are expected to abide by. How can you obey the laws if you don’t know what they are? By the way, ignorance of the law isn’t a valid defense in court (just a warning).

Now while the practical in-car skills are taught and practiced throughout the day, the morning in-class material focuses on the driver part of the equation and we work on one’s driving attitude and knowledge, and how to recognize and avoid dangerous situations. The more danger you look for, the more you will find, and therefore the more you have a chance to avoid. We also dispel many of the things that have been taught to us over the last several decades that were never good ideas to teach to begin with, as well as many things that should be taught differently but aren’t.

In the afternoon, we start to focus on the vehicle part of the driving equation and once again, we dispel many of the myths and misconceptions about what your car can and cannot do (contrary to what we often hear in marketing campaigns or from the sales person). When I first started driving, I was told that all-season tires actually meant “all-season” and that ABS brakes meant I could stop on a dime and get a nickel in change. I was miss-informed. Today, we are all saturated with new technology, much of which is being promoted under the guise of being a ‘safety feature’, but they no more improve one’s safety than a lucky rabbits foot hanging from the rear view mirror.

By the end of the day, the group of students and all the instructors are exhausted. It’s a long, taxing day for everyone. However, everyone walks, errr…drives away, very satisfied. The students have all had their eyes opened, learned how to better avoid dangerous situations and as a result they’ve become safer, more aware drivers. They have also greatly improved their skills behind the wheel.

As for us, the instructors, we walk away from the day knowing that we’ve made another handful of safer drivers on our roads and taught them some valuable life skills.

As an instructor who takes much pride in his work, my goal is to make drivers safer and my mantra is “Tackling our roads…one driver at a time”. Today we helped 11 more and one will soon be a cop (we’ve trained many police officers, both on active duty as well as up-and-coming). I consider that a great day. No matter how good of a driver you are, or think you are, there is always more to learn. So how about taking some interest in improving your driving skills and knowledge, because let’s face it…the better you can make yourself as a driver, the less likely you will ever have to call your insurance company to submit a claim (or worse).

Driving is a life skill and lives depend on it…yours and your family. That should be incentive enough to make damn sure you get the best training available. If I don’t see you in my classroom…there is room for improvement.

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