Here’s a thing that should make you pause: P-plater drivers have a crash rate 33 times higher than other driver groups, including learners.
Here’s another: P-platers hold 14 per cent of driver licences in Australia, yet represent a huge 28 per cent of road fatalities. More young people die on the road than from any other cause.
I’ve been a full-time motoring journalist for not even a month. I’m still on my P-plates.
Fresh out of uni, I’ve nabbed a job with CarAdvice and, in my third week, they’ve sent me to complete a Level One defensive driving course with Melbourne’s Driver Dynamics. Challenge accepted.
The company rightly believes that this first level of driver training should be a minimum requirement for all of its staff, and I was about to find out why.
Of course, with the knowledge that I’m in such a high-risk age group for road users, it’s not hard to guess.
It feels like it’s five degrees outside as I roll into the Sandown Raceway complex at 8:15am. Following the signs, I’m greeted at some orange cones by CarAdvice friend and Driver Dynamics instructor Chris DeJager.
“Hi, I’m James,” I say, smiling. “I’m here with CarAdvice for the Level One Driver Dynamics course today.” I’ve never met Chris, but I know through our Sideways in Japan travel video that he’s a personable sort.
To my surprise, then, his first question comes in the form of a polite interrogation. “Have you been given many speeding fines in the past mate?”
“Uh, no, never,” I reply. Replace smile with a significantly less cheerful look. Am I in trouble already…
“Are you sure? Because I heard you floor it up the road just now.” Oops, not a good start. Chris points towards the entrance.
“Just through there. But, please, nice and smoothly,” he says, with a smile of his own that lifts my spirits. It’s clear, though, that these guys take this job very seriously.
In convoy with some of my colleagues, we park our cars in a sort-of starting grid formation and meet with some of our fellow CarAdvice brethren. Another Driver Dynamics instructor comes along, but I don’t catch his name.
“Are you all from CarAdvice?” he asks.
“Yeah,” we all reply like a tone-deaf chorus. It’s far too early to be functioning.
“Ah, good to see you all went to the James Ward school of punctuality!” he says, then walks off.
I’m starting to feel like I haven’t made the best impression on these folks, and it’s not even 8:30am.
We’re ushered inside for a theory session (yay, school) where we meet a third instructor, Peter Barr.
Peter is a former racing driver, and is one of Driver Dynamics’ master trainers, with over 30 years experience in driver training. He’s probably older than all of my grandparents, combined – and I’ll discover later that he has the sort of lively personality that would see him make similar observations himself.
One of the first things Peter says, is: “brakes are always your best mates”. A good motto to live by, when driving. It rhymes, too!
He was referring to the dangerous situations you could find yourself in when you lose control, be it skidding or if an animal runs out onto the road in front of you. Just brake. It’s the safest option.
Nothing else you’ll attempt in that moment will be more effective than stomping on the brakes, I learned. And, with little more than that in this initial session, we’re booted back outdoors.
Our first test for the day was a straight-line emergency stop. We’d start at 65km/h and need to come to a halt within 20 metres.
Second would be a brake, swerve, and stop from 60km/h. The initial brake would be within 10 metres, then a further five metres after the swerve, giving a total of 15 metres to come to a complete stop.
8:35am, it’s time to get out there and drive. We hop in our cars and drive out to the car park.
I would be sharing Mr Golfie with our Melbourne sales maestra, Marika. Neither of us had our own cars available on the day.
About 40 others are present for the session, with the majority being L-plate learner-drivers attending with their parents, and other P-platers like myself.
A huge variety of vehicles are on the scene, including some older-generation Subaru Libertys, a Toyota Prius, several Holden Commodores. Even a pair of company-shuttle Toyota HiAce vans are here, their drivers attending in the interests of corporate responsibility and staff safety, which was great to see.
From the CarAdvice camp we have myself and Marika, our resident photographer Tom Fraser, videographer Igor Solomon, bearded news editor Mike Stevens, tech man Cheng, and the ‘trending now’ man himself, Paul Maric.
We’re greeted outside in the Sandown carpark – today’s training area – by Kevin Flynn, the founder of Driver Dynamics and lead instructor. Kevin, who I now realise is also the gentleman who made the punctuality joke earlier, takes us through our first challenge – the straight-line emergency stop.
To get started, Kevin’s team soaks the asphalt with water and sets out some orange cones to mark the 20-metre zone we need to stop in.
Now… 20 metres sounds like a lot, but when you see the tiny little box of cones you need to stop in from 65km/h, it seems impossible.
First go, I don’t want to hoon up towards the stopping zone – keeping the Driver Dynamics “no idiots policy” in mind – so I nearly don’t make it to 65km/h before Kev suddenly waves his flag and blows a whistle. My signal to stop.
I hit the brakes reasonably hard, or so I think, and come to a halt about a car-length out beyond the cones. “This day is not getting off to a great start”, I think to myself.
Everyone else achieves the same result, though, so… phew. Kev brings us all in for some really good advice.
For drivers of vehicles with anti-lock brakes (ABS), such as the Golf, the best strategy is to stomp on the brakes as hard as you can.
If, however, you are like Tom and Igor, driving pre-2000-model cars that don’t have ABS, the best strategy is to have your heel on the floor and brake hard until your brakes lock up. Then, ever-so-slightly release the pedal so that the wheels start rolling again.
Repeat that process, quickly, and you will come to a stop. Sounds like a few more steps than any regular human can deal with in the heat of the moment, but… well, keep reading.
Back in Golfie, I take note of where the brake pedal’s travel ended, and have another go. I was always taught to be progressive on the brakes, so this is a little different for me.
Making sure I get to 65km/h a little quicker this time, I slam on the brakes as hard as I can on my next attempt, feeling the ABS pulsing against my foot as I come to a halt.
And, to my surprise, I stop nicely within the 20-metre window. Tick! Things are looking up.
Once everyone successfully completes the exercise – including Tom and Igor – Kev gives us some pointers about our driving position. All you young guys with your seat-backs touching the seat behind you… take note.
Kev says, when sitting right back against your seat, your wrists should be able to touch the outside seams of the steering wheel’s rim. Your legs should have a slight bend in them, and you should hold the steering wheel at a-quarter-to-three o’clock (not 10-to-two as Mum and Dad had suggested).
Next was the brake, swerve and stop. A major tip for this exercise – for ABS-equipped vehicles in particular – is to brake hard and turn at the same time. The reason for this is because the weight of the car will shift over the front wheels under brakes, giving the tyres more grip and control for a sharp turn.
Another pointer from Kev: look where you want to go. You’re more likely to head where you are looking – so don’t look at trees or poles, look at where you want to go.
“You’ll often notice that when there’s an accident out in the country, there’s a set of tyre marks heading right toward a pole or tree or something like that. The driver wanted to avoid that obstacle, but that’s where they looked – and that’s where they went,” he says.
Even though it may not sound like much, this really helped when I attempted the task. I’m pleased to report that, thanks to these simple tips, I nailed it without killing a single cone.
Once everyone successfully completes the task it’s high-fives all round from Kev, then back inside for lunch and a theory session.
Peter takes over for the classroom portion of the training, offering some insight into the safety features available in cars and what they do, along with some alarming statistics regarding the road toll and its relationship with P-plate drivers.
Despite the growing presence of modern safety aids like blind-spot monitoring, traction control and electronic stability programs (ESP), it’s very clear to all in the room that the driver is still the most important safety feature in a car. These technologies can help to reduce the severity of a crash, but you as a driver are in control of avoiding a collision in the first place.
“The decisions we make determine the safety of others as well as ourselves,” Peter reminds us. If we decide to rely solely on safety features, that’s the value we’re placing on our lives and on others: very little. It’s always important to remember that we are constantly making decisions on the road, and those decisions can be the difference between being safe or in danger.
Simple things like leaving a larger gap between you and the car in front, limiting your speed in poor conditions, always wearing a seatbelt (don’t laugh, we’ll get to that in a bit), all help to limit the amount of dangerous situations you may come across when driving.
I quickly get the impression that if the only thing I take away from today is “leave a big gap”, I’m already a dozen times safer.
Here are some alarming statistics Peter shares with us:
That’s some pretty heavy stuff, and there is not a person in the room (with the exception of Peter) who isn’t surprised by these figures.
On a lighter note, we would be completing another three tasks during the afternoon:
The first would be a slalom at about 40-50km/h an hour, getting us to practise smooth steering inputs and keeping our eyes focused on where we want the car to go.
Next a brake, swerve and recover. From 60km/h we’d have to brake in 10 metres, swerve around some cones and recover to the right lane. This task tests vision, steering and braking inputs.
Our last activity for the day would be another brake, swerve and stop. However, unlike the first version of the exercise, we’d need to fully stop the car within the combined 15 metres or we’d risk ploughing into a row of innocent cones.
Doing the slalom reminds me of race-car drivers on the warm-up lap, swerving side-to-side to warm up the tyres. It doesn’t take too much effort to keep it neat and tidy at 50km/h, but beneficial nevertheless to practise keeping the car in control through some tight turns.
On to the brake, swerve and recover. This was a little more difficult than the brake swerve stop as we would need to recover back to the side of the road we started on, while clearing the cones on either side of the car.
Kev reminds us to look where we want to go when attempting this exercise – not at the cones that we were afraid of hitting on our way through.
Something that really helps me during this task was having my hands at quarter-to-three, because I can turn the wheel further each way without taking my hands off the wheel, and all while having a firmer grip.
Coming up to the cones, I brake hard and turn hard right, then quickly snap back to the left to clear both sets of cones. Looking over at Kev, he has a big smile on his face: “Well done, mate!” he says. I think I’m getting the hang of this now.
After another successful run, we move on to the final task for the day – a brake, swerve and stop manoeuvre.
This is the most difficult of all the tasks today, as we had to come to a complete the stop by the end of the 15 metres, otherwise you would hit a row of cones.
Marika attempted this one first and ploughed through the cones on the first try – not a very promising start.
After Marika; Mike, Tom, and several others came through and also squashed cones under their tyres or front bumpers.
Igor was the first out of the whole group to complete the task correctly – sans ABS, mind you – with no cones harmed in the process. Kev yells, “Get out of the car, Igor!” and gives him a big hug.
I swap spots with Marika and take the wheel once more, hoping to achieve a similar result. I have ABS anyway – how hard could it be?
On my first go, Kev blew the whistle a little too early so I stopped well within the required distance. I went for one last go, with everyone watching me.
After seeing the orange and yellow flag wave, I set off once more. The speedo says 60km/h, and I’m looking ahead, waiting for Kev to run out in front with the flag and blow the whistle.
Approaching the array of orange cones I’m still waiting, and waiting. Is he going to give the signal?
Suddenly, I hear the whistle. Slamming on the brakes as hard as I can, I could feel the ABS working hard under my foot to keep the wheels rolling.
I swerve around the first set of cones, brake pedal still pulsing against my foot. I can hear Kev yelling: “BRAKE BRAKE BRAKE BRAKE!”
The final row of cones starts to disappear under the white bonnet of the Golf, I feel the car come to a stop. I can’t see anything that close to the car, of course, and these little rubber cones don’t make much noise. I don’t know if I hit them or not.
I’m almost panicking. This is nerve-wracking stuff.
From outside I could hear the others saying, “Oooohhhh.” But did I make it?
Kev tells me to get out of the car and take a look, I had stopped centimetres away from the cones. High five!
What a way to end the exercise.
One last theory session stood between us and home time, and we were taught about the dangers of texting while driving (don’t do it) and using alcohol and drugs behind the wheel (don’t do it).
On a more positive note, Peter took us through some useful tips about tyre pressure. Prior to arriving at Sandown, we had been asked to pump our tyres up to 40psi – a little higher than Volkswagen’s recommended 36psi for the Golf.
Why? Pumped-up tyres have more surface contact with the road, meaning more grip. They also wear less, and are less prone to blisters and blowouts in hot conditions. Even better, the reduced friction helps to lower fuel consumption. All it takes is a few minutes at a petrol station to pump them up.
I can’t express enough how beneficial I found the experience – not just the practical side, but the theoretical aspect as well. Anyone, including experienced drivers, can learn a thing or two from the Driver Dynamics team, and it’s a load of fun to boot.
As a P-plater only a month away from graduating to my full licence, I would definitely recommend the Level One defensive driving program to everyone. Especially learner and probationary drivers, as the first-hand experience is invaluable practice for that one time you may need to make an emergency manoeuvre while behind the wheel.
There’s a range of courses out there available to drivers of all ages and skill levels. I can happily recommend Driver Dynamics’ level-one course. Normally priced at $398, the course can be jumped into right now at $199 as a part of a special sale.
Even better, you get a certificate to prove it. Next up, Level Two!
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser, James Wong and Marika Zhu.
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