Clarington, Ontario – It’s a typical day at the ILR Track School, on the driver development track at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, where several drivers are learning to negotiate the course’s 18 turns.
The cars are pretty much what you’d expect to see on a track. There’s a Nissan GT-R, a Porsche, some modified Mazda3s … and a Volkswagen Tiguan.
Yes, you read that right, a Volkswagen Tiguan. I knew this typical commuter’s compact SUV would make it through, but in addition to brushing up on my driving skills, I also wanted to experience the difference between a car and an SUV when the going gets tougher. (Photos by Gary Grant. These were taken on the orientation lap; helmets were mandatory afterwards.)
Unless you’re a fighter pilot or movie stuntman, driving is the most dangerous thing you’ll likely ever do, and you probably do it every day. It might even be more treacherous than those examples, because those people are trained professionals.
By contrast, the vast majority of drivers learn just enough to get a license, usually when they’re teenagers, and never take any other training course again. They pick up bad habits over the years that never get corrected. Many will pay tens of thousands of dollars for a car, but balk at paying a few hundred to learn how to better keep everything in one piece.
The vast majority of crashes are preventable, and most can be chalked up to driver error. Even situations many think are unavoidable, such as losing control on black ice, can be averted with proper training.
If you’ve never taken any advanced courses, I don’t recommend a racetrack school for your first one. It’s very intense and can be overwhelming if you’re unfamiliar with the basic techniques. Instead, look for car control or winter driving schools, which will take you through steering and braking exercises, and teach you what to do if your car starts to slide. Once you’ve done those, you can opt for track training to sharpen those skills and have some fun.
The first thing the instructors cover is the seating position. It might sound basic, but most people don’t sit or hold the wheel correctly, and this can make a huge difference in an emergency manoeuvre. Your shoulder blades should touch the seat back, and you should be able to push all pedals right to the floor and still have a slight bend in your leg. If you crash with your leg straight out on the brake pedal, it can seriously damage your knee.
Your hands should be at 9 and 3, and there should be a 120-degree bend in your elbows. The old 10-and-2 position doesn’t give you full range of movement. One hand on the wheel gives you no control, and if you grab it at the top, you risk injury from the airbag in a crash. Hold the wheel lightly.
Your vehicle probably has a foot rest on the left-hand side, known as a dead pedal. Drive with your foot on it to support yourself, and never use the wheel to prop yourself up. Always wear your seatbelt, which goes over your hips, not your stomach; and over your shoulder, never under your arm, where it can break your ribs in a crash.
Advanced courses also teach you essential techniques such as keeping your eyes up (most drivers don’t look far enough ahead), how to avoid obstacles, and how to brake properly. If you’re not familiar with your car’s anti-lock brakes, you may react the wrong way in an emergency. So many drivers brake too lightly in emergency situations that many new cars include brake assist, which increases braking pressure in a panic stop; you’ll learn how to do this correctly, too.
Even if you know all of that, many driving skills aren’t intuitive, and advanced courses teach you how to properly handle them in an emergency. You probably already know that you’re supposed to “look where you want to go,” but until you learn to do so on a safe closed course, you undoubtedly won’t.
When your car is skidding, the proper technique doesn’t come naturally, either. If you’re turning the wheel but the car plows straight ahead, as it often does on ice, your first instinct is to turn it even more. Instead, you must unwind the wheel slightly in the opposite direction. Skidding on slippery pavement? You need to maintain your throttle, not let off, if you’re in a rear-wheel-drive car; if it’s front- or all-wheel, you actually need to give it a little more gas. That’s something you’d probably never think to do without proper training.
The Tiguan handled the course well, but I couldn’t take my turns as sharply as in a car, because one simply can’t get around the laws of physics and an SUV’s higher centre of gravity. Any jerky movement of the steering wheel was magnified by my vehicle’s softer suspension, which is tuned for comfort, not sporty manoeuvres. If you drive an SUV, you need to be aware of these differences.
My Volkswagen had all-wheel drive, which many people buy because they believe it’s better in winter. It can give you better traction, but it won’t stop any better than a two-wheel-drive vehicle. It may even be worse due to its extra weight. Instead, it’s all about the tires, which are seen as a grudge purchase by many drivers, instead of every vehicle’s most important safety item.
Training also teaches you that tires can give 100 per cent of their available traction to braking, or acceleration, or turning, but if you ask them to do two things at once, there will be compromises. I’ve learned to brake before turning, and where to start accelerating after I’ve turned, for maximum control—not just on a track, but in everyday driving.
I might have been on a racetrack, but advanced driving courses are definitely not just for racers. Even at commuter-car speeds, this training is invaluable. Give courses as gifts for birthdays and Christmas, and take one yourself. Don’t count on that rudimentary training you got however many years ago to tackle the most dangerous thing you’ll ever do.