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by Tim Beissmann

The brake lights on the car in front will come on. I have been told they will. All I have to do is react and pull up safely behind it.

I’m travelling at 60km/h in the left lane and Honda Australia Roadcraft Training (HART) senior driving instructor, Daniel McMahon, is pulled over in the right lane at the St Ives driver training facility, about 20km north of Sydney.

Before getting behind the wheel, Daniel asked me to place a witch’s hat behind his vehicle to represent the distance I would usually leave between myself and the car in front in a 60km/h zone. I dropped it about 25 metres (five to six car lengths) from the rear of the car.

A quick mental calculation told me that things didn’t quite add up, but I wanted to do the test honestly, as I normally drive, to see the consequences if things went wrong.

Guess what? Things did go wrong.

Daniel taps the brakes as I approach the hat on my second lap around the circuit (to maintain some of the surprise and to make the test more realistic, you’re not told exactly when you will have to react).

I see the lights go on. It probably takes my brain between 0.5 and 1.0 second to register what is happening. I lift off the accelerator and jam my foot on the brake pedal, which by now is between 1.0 and 1.5 seconds after the car in front braked.

It took me up to 25 metres just to hit the brakes, and then approximately another 16 metres to pull the car up from 60km/h, putting me a good three or four car lengths beyond the car in front. In the real world, in traffic, I would have crashed, and the crash would have been my fault.

Sitting behind the wheel of my now-stationary car, I just shook my head. The test couldn’t have been simpler. I knew I had to brake, and yet it still took me 40 metres to make it happen.

How long would it take me to react and brake if I was playing with the radio, or adjusting the air-conditioning, or talking to mates in the passenger seats? More than likely, in the 25 metres I have been giving myself in the real world, it wouldn’t happen at all.

This is the beauty of defensive driver training sessions like the ones conducted at HART. You get to experience the mistakes without paying the price and still learn the lessons – and, hopefully adjust your driving before you next go out on public roads.

When I get out of the car, Daniel is assessing the scene, something he does hundreds of times every year.

There’s no need to talk about the obvious things. We both get it. I can clearly see I need to leave more space between cars. What Daniel wants to focus on are the not-so-obvious things, like what could have happened if this was real life, out on the road. He runs through a number of scenarios, some of them worst-case, but all of them highly plausible and not at all difficult to imagine.

At the end of most exercises, he simply asks: “Learnt something?” I had.

The consequences of increasing speed make for scary reading, and are even more poignant when you witness them from five metres away as we did during the course.

Daniel explained that, as a general rule, a car carries half of its initial speed into the last quarter of the braking distance.

This example makes it easier to get your head around:

Demonstrations have proved that a car travelling 50km/h takes about 12 metres to stop, and a car travelling 60km/h takes about 16 metres to stop. After 12 metres of flat-out braking, the vehicle initially doing 60km/h will still be travelling 30km/h after 12 metres, while the car initially travelling 50km/h will have stopped.

If a kid runs out onto the street from behind a parked car, what speed would you rather be doing?

I know what you’re thinking. Why not do 40km/h? Or 30km/h? Or why not just forget about cars altogether and simply walk everywhere?

The truth is there is no absolutely safe speed, but as Daniel says, the key is to minimise your risk and adjust your speed to suit the conditions.

Another startling statistic is that if you double your speed, you quadruple your braking distance. Therefore, if it takes 12 metres to stop at 50km/h, it will take 48 metres to stop from 100km/h.

The course isn’t all about braking, however. There’s a theoretical component that looks at your attitudes towards driving in different circumstances. You are also encouraged to admit your bad driving habits, and look at the importance of managing fatigue, the dangers of mobile phones, and changing your thinking styles behind the wheel.

When you first get into the car at HART, your driving position (including seat, seatbelt, pedals, steering wheel and mirrors) will be analysed and, if necessary, corrected. You will also get a crash course on your other driving responsibilities that are often neglected, including performing simple vehicle maintenance checks and ensuring the security of the cabin for occupant safety.

At the end of my corporate session, I was taken on a 25-minute driving assessment, with Daniel observing from the passenger seat – an experience very similar to a standard driver’s licence test. At the end you are taken through the assessment and given advice on what you need to work on to become a safer driver. (For the record, I need to perform more head checks and look both ways for drivers potentially running red lights before taking off at traffic lights.)

The HART facility at St Ives was purpose-built for police driver training in the early 1960s. Honda purchased it in 1999 and spent $1.4 million redeveloping the 40-acre site to be suitable for rider and driver training courses.

HART offers courses for motorbikes, scooters, cars and all-terrain vehicles, and for all skill levels: from learners to experienced motorists, and from corporate groups to individual older drivers.

Prices range from $195 for courses for younger, less experienced drivers, to $550 for full-day four-wheel driving programs. It puts HART on the less-expensive side of average for this type of service, and makes it just about the cheapest insurance against crashing that money can buy. It’s not just reserved for Honda owners either. Anyone can do a course at HART in either their own vehicle or one hired at the facility.

The price can also be offset if you present your certificate of completion to your insurance company. Some insurers will give you a cheaper premium if you can prove you are serious about becoming a safer driver and have taken a defensive course (they tend not to do the same deals for higher-speed, ‘advanced’ driving courses).

As Daniel says, the programs at HART focus on prevention rather than a cure. They are not designed to test your reactions to dangerous situations like many advanced driver training courses. If you’re expecting wet skidpans or four-wheel drifting, you’ll leave HART disappointed. The HART courses aim to look at how you perceive and respond to risk, as Honda believes future developments in road safety lie in the cognitive domain rather than calculating control risks.

Personally, the half-day course challenged my skills and my driving mindset. It wasn’t overly in your face or confronting; rather more matter of fact and eye opening.

The drive home was a very different one to the drive to HART. I was perceptibly more cautious, especially around traffic lights. The head checks were more frequent, and the space between my car and the one in front was double that of before.

And guess what? The trip didn’t take me any longer than the one earlier that morning.






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