Should driving courses be essential?

Zoomer | May 25th, 2010

In almost every province in Canada, obtaining a driver’s licence is easier than solving the Sunday Sudoko.

At best, new drivers might learn some defensive awareness, to watch out for other drivers doing stupid things. At worst they learn the wrong seating position or wrong way to adjust their side mirrors.

The system for securing a licence to operate a 1.5-tonne piece of equipment that has the potential to harm others as well as ourselves is based, almost exclusively, on obeying the laws that various governments have put in place to keep traffic moving or from damaging property or people.

Sure, new drivers are instructed on how to keep their cars between the lines or from following too close to others, and maybe how to manage a busy intersection or overtake another car on the highway. And, of course, learning to parallel park has such prominence in the primitive driver’s test that failing to do so properly often means starting the test process all over again.

But seldom, if ever, does anyone learn how to drive correctly, unlike in countries such as Germany. Rarely is there any instruction on the dynamics and physics of what a car is not only capable of doing, let alone what the driver can and should do to shape the many physical forces on the car while it is going through its many motions.

How many new drivers know what oversteer, or understeer, is? How many have practiced emergency braking in wet conditions? How many will ever learn to fully control their cars in all kinds of situations, or learn how their cars can fully perform? And how many walk away with the immense satisfaction that comes from mastering the machine?

Mercedes-Benz, for one, attempts to teach drivers precisely this set of skills. The company is not, of course, the only auto manufacturer to offer an advanced driving course: BMW, Porsche, Audi and even tire makers such as Bridgestone offer them too. But the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy course, which recently stopped at Calabogie Motorsports Park outside Ottawa as part of a cross-Canada tour this summer, has the benefit of serving up the company’s entire fleet of cars, even its high-performance AMG models, to students who range from the newly-minted to the seasoned professional.

The course is offered in two options, a half-day that teaches essential basics such as how to sit and hold the wheel (at 3 and 9, not 2 and 10), how to brake smoothly, how to steer into a corner and where you should be looking (as far ahead as physically possible and where you want the car to go). The half-day program is a good primer for the full-day “mastering performance” course that puts participants in the controlled setting of a racetrack so they can fully explore, and develop, their skills.

Based out of Vancouver, a team of experienced instructors explains such essentials as concentration, smoothness, awareness and control in a morning classroom session that focuses on some of the basics. After the classroom, students climb into a $1-million fleet of 2010 Mercedes cars that range from the B200 Turbo to the CLS63 AMG. At Calabogie, a roughly 5-km track with more than 20 turns over a spectacular forest setting, we practiced trail-braking, late apex turning, and finding the quickest line around corners, as well as being reminded to stay smooth, stay focused and maintain proper vision over several hours of lapping, changing cars every couple of laps.

For most students, the course was genuinely revealing – everyone was wearing a large grin at the end of the day and many were surprised at what the cars could do, as well as what they could do with the Mercedes cars. It also served as a reminder that no matter how good of a driver you may think you are, there are always things that can make you better, faster, smoother. It was also just plain fun.

At $1,595 for the Mastering Performance program and $395 for the half-day Driving Experience, the Mercedes-Benz driving academy is not cheap. But the true value is that it teaches students skills they will use each and every day for the rest of their lives — skills that may one day save their own life or that of someone else.

For more information, go to mercedes-benz.ca/drivingacademy or call 1-866-577-6232.

Photograph by: Derek McNaughton, Canwest News Service