Anyone who has been to an autocross or track day knows how much of a learning experience it can be to find your limits and see how the car reacts when you push it just a little bit too far. Typical American driver training doesn’t include this. The first time a new driver gets to feel the pulsing of anti-lock brakes, or the tires losing traction in a turn, is typically right before their first accident. This is the worst possible time to have that experience. Armed with this knowledge beforehand, it may be possible to avoid that first accident in the first place.
This is where Ford Driving Skills for Life comes in. Ford DSFL, and other schools like it, put teens behind the wheel on a closed course and give them these experiences before they need it. Car control is a major part of it, but decision making, maintaining situational awareness, and the effects of distracted or impaired driving are also covered, often through experience in the car under an instructor’s guidance.
(Full disclosure: Ford invited me to attend a recent DSFL class local to me, and gave me yummy snacks and coffee. But they didn’t have to sell me on this idea. I was one of the first instructors for In Control, a similar school in the Boston area, and have also helped teach Street Survival, because I’m already a strong believer in teaching car control skills to new drivers.)
A cornerstone of any class like this is car control skills. Though fast cornering and using anti-lock brakes are skills most enthusiasts take having for granted, they’re not required to get a driver’s license. Most average drivers, especially new ones, have never experienced them before. Ford DSFL has two exercises designed to fix that. In one of them, you drive a Focus toward a three lane split as fast as you can. At the last minute, two of the lanes get a red light, and you have to swerve into the lane that’s still green. You can definitely feel the body roll and weight transfer at this speed. I drove it smoothly the first time, but an inexperienced driver might slide, understeer, or not make it into the proper lane in time due to lack of experience. This exercise is an opportunity to make those mistakes in a safe environment, and learn from the instructor in the car with you what to do differently next time. Most of Ford DSFL’s instructors are graduates of or instructors for the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, and highly qualified to give such advice.
On the way back to the starting line from the lane change exercise is an ABS exercise. It’s simple – from the line, accelerate as fast as you can until the light turns red, then mash the brake pedal as hard as you can. This exercise serves two purposes. One is to give students the experience of ABS kicking in, teaching that the pulsing, vibrating, and grinding is perfectly normal so that they don’t lift off the pedal while braking. The other purpose is to show just how much distance it takes a car to stop. There are signs along the stop zone marking off car lengths, and it is designed to take the maximum marking of seven car lengths to stop if you do it right. This teaches that you can’t stop on a dime, and to watch how closely you follow the car in front of you.
The other car control exercise puts students behind the wheel of a Mustang that has been specially modified with casters to be extremely prone to oversteer. The chalk ovals drawn on the pavement are quite small, but it doesn’t take more than a hard turn at walking pace for the back of the car to swing around. This could be great practice for drifting – my inclination was to try and drift my way around the entire oval. But my instructor kept me in check, having me steer into the skid and let off the gas to bring the car back under control again, which is the actual point of this exercise. Having slid a Mustang around some rally stages last month, I had a pretty good feel for what the car would do. But still, how cool is it for a new teenage driver to get behind the wheel of a Mustang and be encouraged to go slide it around? It’s super fun, and excellent practice for controlling oversteer.
You can have all of the car control skills in the world, but if you don’t use them properly, you’re still going to run into trouble on the road. Ford DSFL spends as much time teaching good decision making as car control skills.
The distracted driving exercise takes place on a slightly more complicated course. There are slaloms, roundabouts (we call them “rotaries” here in New England), and keep right/keep left signs. This is not a speed exercise, and it’s very easy to navigate when you’re paying attention. But for the second time through, the driver is told to do something you never should on the street – take out a phone and start texting someone. The instructor and “back seat drivers” add other distractions, like asking how many miles are on the car or to change the radio station. I shot video from the back seat while my fiancee drove, but the video turned out fairly boring. She has two young boys, and is already accustomed to a high level of distractions while driving. Additionally, she was incapable of typing on her phone while driving. She literally couldn’t force herself to do it while more important tasks, like driving and dealing with distractions in the car (I imitated her boys at their worst to “help”), took priority. Years of experience have taught her well, but it’s a great demonstration for a less experienced driver of just how badly you drive when texting and otherwise distracted at the same time if you try it.
This picture is not out of focus. The impaired driving exercise offers a variety of what I call “beer goggles.” They’re goggles that distort your vision to replicate what you would see at different levels of intoxication. Though a .06 BAC is still legal for drivers 21 and up in most states, your vision is still distorted, as the .06 goggles showed me.
But we did more than just look through the goggles. We had the opportunity to drive an Escape through a very simple course while wearing goggles simulating a .10 BAC. Most states have a legal limit of .08 these days, but .10 was the limit for many years. Even better, an actual police officer watched you drive – not from his cruiser, but from our passenger seat.
So how did that work out for me?
The good news is that the nice officer did not pull me out of the car, handcuff me, and take me to jail. But he would have been right to do so if he’d caught me driving this badly impaired on a public road. My biggest problem was that I couldn’t see the track clearly. It was difficult to tell which set of white lines I was supposed to follow. I didn’t feel comfortable driving more than 5mph, according to the cop. He told me, “As a passenger, I do not feel comfortable riding with you. Especially since you just hit that cone. And that one.” This was with only my vision affected. My coordination and judgement were still sober, and screaming out to me that under any other circumstances this would be a very bad idea.
Again, this exercise gives students the experience of doing something they’re never supposed to do in a safe environment. This is a much better teacher than telling them “Because I said so,” because now they understand exactly why driving while distracted and impaired is a bad idea. I had never experienced “beer goggles” before (well, except maybe that time in college), and though I wouldn’t drink and drive anyway, I had no idea just how much of an effect it had on my driving ability.
How Stuff Works
Most people are appliance drivers. They don’t care about performance, handling, or any of that. All they care is that the car gets you from point A to point B reliably, time after time. I’ve known people who didn’t know how to change a flat tire, and didn’t care to learn. “That’s what AAA is for,” they’d say.
But even if you’re never going to dive under the hood and swap out your inline-4 for a V8, it’s good to know the basics about what makes a car go, and what the warning lights on the dashboard mean besides “it doesn’t go.” Ford DSFL devotes a section of the class to teaching exactly that. They go over, light by light, a picture of a dashboard with all of the warning lights on, what they mean, what’s informational (cruise control on, fasten seat belts), and what’s an actual problem (check engine, ABS). Then they look under the hood of a Fiesta, identify parts, and how to check and refill fluids. This is even more mechanical education than I got when I had my first car, and I wasn’t exactly clueless.
The classes I’ve helped teach placed more emphasis on car control skills. They’re important to learn, but I appreciate Ford DSFL having a more diverse curriculum. It’s not a performance driving school geared specifically toward car control, and gives new drivers a variety of experiences that all help to make them better drivers. I learned a lot from them as well. They’re a traveling roadshow – check their calendar to see when they’re coming to your area. Any school that puts better trained drivers on the road is a good thing in my book, and Ford Driving Skills for Life is an excellent option.