Advanced Driver Training Day

An old dog can learn some new tricks

By an odd path I stumbled across the website of In Control, a local outfit
offering various types of driver training courses.  It all really started with
hearing an ad from an insurance company on the radio, and how efforts are
starting to train new drivers [i.e. teens] in some real skills *before* they
go tearing around on the roads.  The auto insurance picture in Massachusetts
is about to change [again] with stricter rules about teenagers and discounts
available for completing various types of training courses over and above the
relatively useless "driver's ed".  Boston has become something like the third
or fourth ranked US city in terms of stupid proximity-caused accidents and
road-rage incidents, and it's clear that more people are getting annoyed
enough at this that they want to really do something about it.  Well, except
be willing to back off from each other on the highway and learn how to zipper-

Anyway, one of the training facility locations turned out to basically be in
my backyard, and after reading some of the stuff that In Control touches on in
their "Advanced Driver Training" course -- particularly something called
"tailgating drills", I figured that even with my hitherto spotless record they
undoubtedly could teach me a few things, so I signed up.  If nothing else it
would be an opportunity to try stuff in an "expendable" car that I would never
consider doing in my own.  When I called in I also floated the idea of adding
an Ecodriving side lobe to their material for those interested in driving for
higher MPG, and got forwarded over to Brandon, one of the founders, who seemed
somewhat interested in this [and even offered me a course discount].  After
all, it ties into improved safe and aware driving in a big way.  The
instructors are all "licensed race drivers", which means credentialed through
various racing assocations, but apparently Massachusetts also uses that to
qualify them as an organization that can run these training courses and
authorize changes to someone's insurance records.  So in theory I get an
additional insurance discount for doing this.

So the scheduled day came, cool and cloudy with the promise of showers and
flurries but still dry as I headed out.  I showed up bright and early as
suggested.  What I wanted to try and do was lay aside all my preconceived
notions and existing behavioral filters and just do what the instructors asked.
I pulled up near a tent attached to the side of a large trailer, inside which
were two roaring propane heaters.  Ironically, the space under the trailer
was still open to the outside air, so it wasn't anything like fully sheltered
space.  But it was enough to house a few tables and a big flatscreen monitor
the trainers could run slides on.  Soon a bunch of other people showed up en
masse; apparently a large group from Quest Diagnostics had been sent up to take
this too.  That's a large medical company with an office in Cambridge that's
got a lot of employees driving for work -- there's always couriering blood
samples around at all hours of the day or night, and the sales people are on
the road all the time as well, so they've evidently got a program going to get
them all into some better driver training.  I got the impression that a couple
of them didn't really want to be there, but most seemed serious about learning
to be safer.  Their company cars seem to be those gangsta-ride Chrysler 300s,
albeit the model *without* the Hemi.

Various sundry paperwork was taken care of, and then they passed out a quiz
for everyone to take a first stab at.  Some of the questions are tricky, and
reference facts you wouldn't immediately think about.  Some apparently rely
on knowledge of various incident statistics.  Then they started the actual
class, which ran in a fairly common pattern of a few slides for classroom
presentation, and then up out of the seats [er, camp chairs in this case] to
go do some hands-on.  Which in this case would be driving the four '07 Toyota
Camrys they had lined up outside the tent.  [No, not the hybrid version.]
These aren't cars you'd want to buy used; they spend most of the distance
they travel being seriously abused.  Tires last about 500 miles on these, no
kidding.  The treads I took a close look at had serious cupping.  But they did
do a tire pressure check all round all the cars that morning, so they're
definitely interested in making sure they're up to the task.

First lesson was to get familiar with ABS, and get a feel for what it does
when used correctly.  To start off, we gathered around the door while the
instructor sat in the driver's seat and went over proper seating and hand
positions.  The one-fist-on-top that so many people do is downright dangerous,
not so much because it's inherently unstable but more because when the airbag
comes toward you at 200 MPH, you wind up punching yourself really hard in the
face.  9 and 3 o'clock with thumbs hooked loosely over the side spokes is
what they want to see.  Then several students crammed into each car and the
instructor drove to show what they wanted the students to do afterward -- this
is how every hands-on part proceeded, in fact; instructors drove it once with
several people in the car and then students took the helm one by one.  The
instructor gunned the car across the very long parking lot toward a "box"
formed of cones, getting up to 55 or 60 MPH and screaming into the beginning of
the box at a clip that seemed like he'd never be able to brake before hitting
the "wall" at the end.  But what do you know, he simply slammed the brake hard
and kept it on, and we all felt the ABS kick in and do its intermittent release
thing as the car's nose dove down and it came to rest substantially before the
cones with enough room left to turn out and drive away without backing up.

          X X            X
    -->                  X
          X X            X

Back at the tent, the rest of the students piled out of the car and one swapped
into each driver's seat, and off they and the instructors went.  One of the
women from Quest was already starting to freak out in anticipation of motion
sickness, so they encouraged her to go first!  The course took up two sides
of a long parking lot with one "activity" placed at each end, allowing plenty
of room to build speed beforehand.  The activity and thus the layout of cones
changed for each demo or type of training run, so that's what the other
instructors were outside doing during each of the in-the-tent classroom
times -- setting up the next one.  So as the first hands-on, everyone got to
try the ABS and see how well it really does work when the driver unambiguously
tells the computer "I need to STOP right now".  And our car did stop, well
within the 80 or so feet allowed by the box.  The intermittent screeching you
can hear in the promo videos on their website is just about how it goes -- just
when a little bit of sliding starts, the ABS releases that wheel just enough
to keep it turning and never actually skid.

Now, I've played with this a little on snowy days just to feel the ABS doing
its thing but *without* scrubbing off tread on the pavement, but there's
nothing like trying it in non-slippery conditions to get the full effect.
Frankly, it was a bit terrifying to see the grass at the end of the parking
lot flying toward me at high speed and with someone next to me calling for
more gas, not be able to do anything about it yet.  I had to just trust the
guy.  Already what we were doing was crying out against all my own instincts
to go into a long glide if I see a stop coming up, but I fought that back and
gave it go-juice when the instructor told me to and jumped on the pedal when
he barked "brake!".  My application thereof was a little tentative on the
first run but still managed to avoid the wall; the instructor noticed that and
commented that my rapid but smoothly increasing brake pressure was the essence
of starting the "threshold braking" you'd use with non-ABS cars but in the
case of working ABS, shorter stopping distances were obtainable with a solid
slam-n-hold.  The second and third runs were much more formulaic once I
actually had the feel of the pedal.

After everyone cycled through the cars and got their chance to play, it was
back into the tent to talk about steering, smoothness, and looking ahead.  What
do you think would come right after that as a demo?  The slalom, of course, and
we wandered back out of the tent to find the course magically transformed with
a line of seven cones near each end where the "boxes" had been.  The idea here
was to grip the wheel correctly and carve our way through the cones using
nearly-180 degree swings of the wheel which is easy to do without shifting hand
positions, and try to anticipate the next couple of cones while maintaining
enough spatial sense to be confident that the one being passed right now [which
has long since disappeared from view] wouldn't be clobbered by the back wheel.
Turn in too early, and you do the equivalent of going over the curb.

The slalom was done at various escalating speeds, part of which was to show how
it gets much more difficult with only a small speed increase.  I found that I
wasn't being nearly aggressive enough on the wheel movements at first, but only
tagged one cone on my first of three or was it four? runs and began to get the
idea that it was okay to put the car close to the breaking-away point as long
as I was about to swing right back out of that and head for the next turn.
I don't think anyone actually managed to spin any of the cars out; the Camry
sticks to the road pretty well even in such hard maneuvers and especially when
the driver is smoothly targeting where the car is headed rather than just
missing nearby objects.  Far too many people negotiate turns by just looking
at the things they're trying to avoid, rather than looking farther out at where
they want the car to *go* -- the latter thought process has been part of my
driving style for years now, but during this bit even I might have been looking
a little too close in, and wouldn't have minded several more runs at it to work
on the fine points.  That's not going to happen in a 4 hour class with 14
students, though.

Now, one minor difficulty with this part was when the instructor wanted me to
apply a little more throttle.  [Hmm, do we detect a recurring theme here?]
Slaloming does scrub off some speed, so one must make up for it a little.
Most automatic-transmission cars have a very fast-off-the-bottom throttle
response, for whatever stupid reason -- so a small foot motion yields a
relatively sudden drivetrain torque response and it's often really hard to
exert fine-grained control down there.  The Prius is refreshingly quite the
opposite of this, with a very "slow bottom" response and then all the git-go
is there if you really put your foot into it.  So by trying to keep speed up a
little more through the slalom by "feathering" as is sort of hardwired into my
right foot by now, I'd wind up applying too little or too much.  It's this
common quick-off-the-peg response that is partially responsible for so many
people being jerky and abrupt when maneuvering on the road -- not only do they
not really care about being smooth, the car caters to that.  It's a *horrible*
design model, really.  Usually it's just an effect of how the throttle linkage
is set up, but here's the crowning irony about these cars: the Camry is
*throttle-by-wire*, so there's NO reason the response curve couldn't be at
least linearized in software if not fixed to invert the curve a bit.  But no,
the programming has retained that same "drive stupid" coarse control found in
every other slushbox setup.  Bah.  Anyways, making it through the cones was
more about proper steering than speed, so I did okay.

Test-course safety is done with hazard blinkers; if a run knocks over some
cones, whoever's driving the car just lights the hazards and goes back over
so the instructor can lean out and fix it, while the next car waiting to run
sees this and stops to wait until they're clear.  [In fact, bringing the
passenger door even with the fallen cone long after it's out of view is a good
little spatial-relations exercise for the student to do.]  The instructors have
this track management down to an instinct, and the students quickly pick up on
the ways to make sure there aren't any space conflicts.  When a car takes its
run, it's pretty much got the whole area to itself until it clearly finishes
and leaves.  This is especially relevant for the slalom test, where more cones
were likely to get knocked over.  As a result this took a little longer to get
everyone through it.

Next, they talked about following distance.  My favorite part.  The whole
MPH/10 car-lengths thing is an outdated myth; they recommend 3 seconds as
a ballpark minimum.  "If the car ahead of you is going 60, and whether you're
HERE or HERE, how fast can you go?  60, right?" to point out how tailgating
doesn't get anybody there any sooner.  The real challenge is how to cut
through well-established bad habits and unequivocally tell this to those long
chains of yupsters bobbing along right behind each other in the left lane.
The hands-on exercise for this was interesting, and more of a demo of what
not to do.  They set up one of the cars as a "rabbit", trailing a very abused-
looking cone on a rope about 50 feet behind it.  Two more cars lined up next
to the rabbit on either side, not actually following but in a position where
they could respond to what the rabbit did.  On a "3, 2, 1, go" barked over the
radio, everyone floored it.  The idea was for the following cars to get to
speed with their noses even with the cone in back of the rabbit, and watch
for the rabbit to light the brake lights and stop suddenly and react by also
stopping as quickly as possible.  Instead of having a rear-end crash, the
following cars would go past the rabbit some way -- they had calculated the
rope length such that if a following driver reacted *perfectly* at the moment
of brake lights and crammed into full ABS, they would wind up just coming even
with the back bumper of the rabbit, i.e.  just kissing the car in front without
damage.  At 60 MPH or 100 feet per second, that's allowing about half a second
to react and get on the brakes, in which time the distance delta should go
from 50 feet to near zero.  Most students shot way past the rabbit, of course,
bringing home the idea that the following distance used by most people on the
highways is nowhere near enough even when you're *ready* for a car ahead to
stop suddenly.  Throw in even the smallest distraction, and the last thing to
go through the rabbit's mind is the next car's engine block.

    ==>                                                       ==>

       o--------==>          ends up as             o./\./-==>

    ==>                                                     ==>

My problem here was not pushing quite hard enough on the takeoff, so I wound
up just not being able to keep even with the cone.  So I was still trying to
accelerate as the rabbit went to stop, and basically blew the whole thing.
Everyone had some trouble keeping even with the cone one way or the other,
since the length of the parking lot limited the whole scenario to what could
be set up during acceleration without any at-speed time to stabilize.  And
around this point in the morning, soggy snow started coming down so soon we
were into some wet-road conditions.  I noticed that the last few rabbit runs
were doing their stop earlier, to make sure everyone had more "runway" at the
end in case it started getting slippery.  But the point was definitely made;
their rope is substantially longer than a lot of the gaps we see on the roads.

Now it was time to put it all together into an obstacle avoidance scenario.
Here it was discussed how important it is to brake before steering, because
that throws the weight of the whole car forward onto the front wheels where
most of the braking power comes from, tightening up the suspension and digging
the tires into the pavement -- which then gives much more steering control
once a turn begins.  Turning too early dives the weight onto *one* wheel,
which starts some screwy, hard-to-control dynamics especially in SUVS which
have that nasty tendency to roll once the weighted corner rebounds and throws
the whole vehicle over the other way as the terrified driver overreacts.  The
course setup for this was more complex:


                            - ->
            X            /
         X  X
      X  X  X                X             X
     ---->                   X            --->
      X  X  X                X             X
         X  X            \
                            - ->


Here one had a choice to swerve right or left, and the instructors had velcroed
a pair of lights up on the dash on either side as not only the trigger for the
student to start the maneuver, but also which way to turn, and they'd randomly
push one of two buttons at the right time.  We would accelerate toward the
entrance and then coast on the instructor's word, and then one of the lights
would go on.  Brake, turn.  Here's where the lesson from the slalom came in --
the other advantage of braking first is that once the car is going slower,
it's much easier to swing through the equivalent of a three-cone slalom
successfully.  The sequencing also allowed a little more time to parse which
way to head before actually doing so, which could be important in a real-life
evasive maneuver when the first important thing is to cut speed while figuring
out where to go next.  And with ABS at work the braking can still be in full
effect but doesn't let the front wheels lock and "plow" to prevent steering.
Most cars came to a stop just a little way past the middle set of gates, while
avoiding the wall surprisingly well.

At the beginning of the class, they wanted to know if anyone was routinely
driving a car *without* ABS, and even handed out different-colored nametags
based on this.  But it really made no difference, because they weren't going
to try to teach threshold braking -- they say it takes months to really
learn to do right -- and there's no way to disable the ABS in Camrys to even
try it.  They could only tell us a little about it.

There was a little more discussion of attitude and mental state, but they
didn't really harp on the road-rage thing too much.  I asked a couple of the
instructors about good ways to lose aggressive tailgaters; they said they
couldn't really offer any particular advice for some BS legal/liability
reasons but other than having a lane they could pass in, pulling aside enough
to let them by is definitely a valid option.  The problem, of course, is that
you'd be doing that all day around most areas of the country.  [This is the
main reason for re-implementing the yuppie button in my car...]

One thing they did emphasize was how phones are a bigger distraction than most
people suspect, even when used with a handsfree headset.  A phone conversation
uses a significant chunk of the same part of the brain that processes driving,
especially over the horrendously lossy audio channels provided by the cell
carriers.  The problem being that not being able to see a person removes a lot
of the normal conversational nuance that we parse, thus the brain has to work
harder on less input to visualize the person, their mood, etc.  So that type
of conversation detracts from driving ability much more than one-way listening
to the radio or even talking to someone present in the same car.  [And we won't
even *talk* about texting.]  I didn't specifically know that before, although
a little looking around turns up several studies and news clips on the subject
that generally agree that phone use is about the distractive equivalent of
drunk driving.  Based on my own very infrequent phone use in the car, I totally
concur and in general refuse to talk to people while driving even if I've had
to answer a call.  Several states have outlawed handheld phone use but still
allow headsets; perhaps this will change as more information and case-studies
flow in.  And of course all the legislation you can throw at the problem won't
get people onboard with fixing it until there's widespread cultural support.

Another quick demo concerned the hazards of backing up, especially in modern
cars with fairly high rear decks.  They put a student at the wheel and then a
couple of instructors crouched down behind the car.  The student couldn't see
them in any of the mirrors.  While backup-cams are becoming more common that
help address such huge blind spots, plenty of cars don't have them and never
will.  Evidently the bright orange cone that we see behind many telco and cable
repair vans isn't just to mark the stopped-vehicle hazard -- it's actually to
force the *driver*, as the last step in wrapping up a work stop, to get out
and check behind the vehicle in the process of putting the cone away.  Bottom
line from the instructors is, try not to back up whenever possible.

We all got our quiz papers back, and rather than someone else having graded
them the instructor went through the answers one by one on the slides so
we could all grade ourselves and get the explanations behind the answers
they wanted.  As a wrapup "make ya think" kicker, they played this video
[originally from DriveCam but apparently circulating all over the net these
days -- WMV format, sorry -- couldn't find a standards-based version].  Finally
they passed out completion certificates and T-shirts and keyrings, and we were
done.  The instructors immediately went into busy teardown mode and didn't have
time to chat; they apparently had to clear all their stuff out of the parking
lot including the tent, since they're only occasionally borrowing space at the
North Andover location.

It was instructional and useful and taught me a few things I didn't know
about ABS and high-stress vehicle dynamics, but I wouldn't have minded getting
much more time on the hands-on stuff to really *practice* and burn it into
muscle memory.  I noted this on the evaluation form they also passed out, and
once again made the suggestion about high-MPG driving and the parallels to
safety and attention to road conditions.  Maybe I need to take one of their
"performance driving" courses or something, and really solidly learn how to
do all the things that I *don't* want to do on the roads.

_H*  071123