Skidding Through Drivers’ School

I am the proud owner of a member of the most hated demographic of drivers on the road today: a teenage boy. While I know him as a thoughtful lad who loads the dishwasher and takes down the laundry, you only see another brat listening to bad music and blowing off speed limits.

A recent study released by Ontario’s auditor-general provided a huge wake-up call to me, and most parents I know. Apparently, people who have had driver training get in more accidents than those who have not. As someone who is about to lay out nearly a thousand dollars for one of those insurance industry-sanctioned programs, I had some questions.

“They teach someone to pass the driver’s test, not how to drive well,” said Ian Law, owner of the Ian Law Racing Car Control School (and a contributor to Wheels). He went on to note that the driving test covers only a tiny fraction of conditions and circumstances a driver can find themselves in, many of them potentially deadly.

And so it was a recent sunny Saturday morning when I hauled my son Christopher out of bed at 6 a.m., so we could be in Brampton bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to attend Law’s one-day Car Control School. One of us was considerably more bright-eyed than the other. Christopher asked if he could drive there. I laughed.

Christopher got his G1 about two weeks ago; I told him we were going to do the school before he developed any bad habits. I also lied and told him he would get to spend the entire day driving, so he agreed. Law actually has designed a course that intersperses classroom training with driving throughout the day. He and his fellow instructors are outgoing and excellent presenters. In their lessons, they weave the physics of driving with anecdotal references to make their point: you need to understand your car, your body and the circumstances you find yourself in.

You start with the basics: seating position. Guess what? You’re probably in the wrong position to be driving your car properly. Most new cars have ABS brakes, and most people aren’t totally sure how to best use them. Most of us are guilty of doing far too much when we drive – too much steering, too much braking and too much panicking. The 95 per cent of things we call accidents are avoidable – and I’m determined not to add my kid to that statistic.

“Who here is a hooker?” asked Law. We were in a classroom with about 10 people. Nobody, apparently, was owning up. Law held up a steering wheel, grabbed it from the inside with his hand – an absolute no-no – to illustrate. “Oh, I do that,” said one woman. The rest of us sat smugly, non-hookers all of us. “I also sometimes sit on a pillow. Is that okay?” she continued.

“We’ll check your seat positioning outside. Pillows aren’t a great idea,” he said.

Heading outside the first time, Law noted we should all be in flat, thin-soled shoes. I quietly tucked my small-heeled boots under my chair. Christopher pointed to them anyway. As an instructor tried to position Christopher’s feet properly in the van, they finally realized that his size-16 shoes were more problematic than my smart little fashion statements.

The course is divided into five areas: skid pad, collision avoidance, slalom, emergency braking and emergency lane change. For some reason, the instructors were calling the skid pad the Circle of Doom. In the second half of the day, it becomes the Figure Eight of Death. I decided it would be a good place for Christopher to end the day, so of course they sent us to it first.

A precise 13.5 metre circle of orange cones sat before us. Peter Law, Ian’s brother, told Christopher he would be learning exactly how to handle understeer, a very common problem that leads to many avoidable accidents. Driving in a circle just outside the cones, Christopher got his steering set, then Peter reached over to lock the steering wheel into position with his hand.

“You’re in a perfect circle. There is no reason to shift your steering,” he told Christopher. “Now, start speeding up.” And he did, to more than 40 km/h.

I was in the back of our not-so high-performance minivan. I am a backseat barfer at the best of times. Doing tight loops at ever increasing speeds was making Christopher very happy, Peter very proud, and me very green.

When it was my turn, I started towards the cones by grabbing the steering wheel from the inside. “You’re a hooker!” shouted my son. I sighed.

As you speed up, your vehicle pulls away from the cones, as weight transfers to the outer tires. Those tires start to squeal. You are at the edge of your vehicle’s handling, and are about to enter a skid. My instinct? To steer back towards them. The correct thing to do? Ease off the gas, and the van came right back into line.

Christopher learned this instantly. I learned it a little later. Apparently, I have more old habits than a nun’s rummage sale.

The collision-avoidance section is just a flat-out test of your reflexes and your vehicle’s capabilities. Entering a cone-marked laneway at about 60 km/h, the instructor, at the last second before you are about to hit a row of cones, tells you to “brake, left,” or right. You have no reaction time, but if you flunk, you kill a kid.

Farther along the course, you mimic a highway situation, where you need to get around something, but not brake to a stop.

I watched from the sidelines as Christopher got better and better. He listened, and with no preconceived ideas, I watched him learn it right the first time. He got smoother and faster with each pass in each area. Instructors ranged from the calm and reassuring Robin (who took the time to point out that we weren’t wrecking my tires), to a sparkplug named Jordan who barked that each fallen cone meant you’d hit a child.

Back in the classroom, many secrets are laid bare. “I hear we have another hooker,” said Ian, looking at me.

“She’s a hooker with a pillow!” I yelped, pointing to the nice lady who’d owned up earlier.

“You’re a hooker with boots,” said Christopher. The fact he’d absorbed the lessons faster than I had was going to his head.

I entered this program with an open mind, though I really did figure Christopher would get more from it than I would. After all, I’ve been driving for 27 years, and never caused an accident. Instead, I finally learned the capabilities – and more importantly, the limits – of my vehicle and myself. Christopher learned more in one day than I ever learned in those 27 years.

I let him drive all the way home.