A Cyclist Signs Up for Advanced Driver Training

What was an avid cyclist doing in a place like this?

I like to ride my bicycle but sometimes I have to drive.

Over 40 years ago on dirt roads and snow in Vermont, I learned to steer into a turn; to manage the situation when a car loses traction, rather than to blank out or panic.

I shot the video above recently, in a class with hands-on driver training which goes well beyond that. All of the instructors are racers. They test the limits of traction at every turn on the racecourse. But here, they are teaching skills for crash avoidance on the road.

My son took the class with me. He had taken a conventional driver training course and already had his driver’s license, but he had no experience handling a car at the limits of traction.

The InControl course begins with a classroom lecture. Our instructor, Jeremy, explained that driver training is broken in the USA: that over 40% of new drivers have a crash within the first two years; 93% of crashes result from driver error and so, are preventable. He also explained that he would be teaching about steering, braking, hazard perception and avoidance.

Jeremy handed a quiz sheet with 16 questions to check off, true or false. We were told to hold onto our quiz sheets because we would review them later.

The most compelling part of the course is the hands-on practice. It is conducted under safe conditions on a closed course, in a huge, empty parking lot, in cars with a low center of gravity; an instructor is always in the car. As shown in the video, we did the slalom — at first with an instructor driving; then each student took a turn driving. We learned how great the effect of small increases in speed can be on the ability to maneuver. We practiced emergency stops, then swerving while braking; we had the backing demonstration and the tailgating test, as shown in the video.

To learn how to anticipate potential hazards takes time, and experience. The InControl class can discuss this but not teach this. A driving simulator like the ones used to train airline pilots would help to build that experience under risk-free conditions. Video gaming technology is approaching the level that it could do this at a relatively low price. Computers are up to the task, but they would need multiple visual displays and a special “driver’s seat” controller. Lacking that technology, I have traveled many miles with my son, both as a driver and as a passenger, coaching him. His many more miles of experience stoking our tandem bicycle were a fine lead-in.

What did I learn in this class, with my nearly 50 years of experience as a licensed driver? Several things of importance — among them:

  • Despite my decades of experience, I answered several questions on the quiz incorrectly. I’m not going to provide a crib sheet– go take the course.
  • There is a very significant advantage to having different tires for summer and winter use, due not only to snow but also to temperature difference. Winter tires have “sipes” — small grooves –to develop a “snowball effect” — actually picking up snow so it will adhere to other snow, and improving traction. Tires should be replaced when tread is still twice the height of the wear bars.
  • Side-view mirrors should be adjusted wider than I had been accustomed to — so their field of view starts where the windshield mirror’s field of view ends.
  • The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s standards for a 5-star safety rating are lower for SUVs than for passenger cars, as a result of industry lobbying (Any surprise?)
  • Importantly, that antilock brakes do more than allow shorter stops. They allow steering during emergency braking, and we practiced this as shown in the video.
  • Most importantly, to me as a cycling instructor, that learning to manage risks is essentially the same for bicycling as for driving a car. The attitude is the same, and hazard recognition and avoidance are similar. One important difference is that a well-trained cyclist’s brain is the antilock braking controller on a bicycle.

As I write this today, my son has driven himself to his classes at the local community college 12 miles away. Like any parent, I cross my fingers every time he goes out the driveway, but I am pleased to report that he has is cautious and calm as a driver and that his driving inspires confidence, with exceptions at a very few times.

I wish he didn’t have to drive. I don’t like the environmental burden it imposes, and I don’t like the risk. If public transportation were at all reasonable, he would be using it. If the college were half as far away, he’d be riding his bicycle at least on days with good weather. For now, his getting a college education wins out over those concerns…

7 responses to “A Cyclist Signs Up for Advanced Driver Training

  1. Actually, high performance driver training probably has more benefits than equivalent cycling training simply because high performance driving is inherently more dangerous than even cycle racing. Unfortunately, few motorists recognize that knowing how to drive their cars at or beyond the limit is worthwhile. Perhaps the common person out on a bike on a sidewalk with no lights in the dark has more in common with the average motorist than we prefer to believe.

    • True enough but maybe I should clarify: the goal in this class is not to learn to use public roads as a racecourse — it is to learn extreme maneuvering to avoid a crash. The instructors repeatedly urge caution, and make the point that even small increases in speed have a large effect on that ability to avoid a crash. The instructors also strongly stress the hazards of distracted driving.

  2. John’s clarification is important. Performance driving should only be practiced on a closed course. I didn’t see helmets discussed, but the performance driving I have done requires helmet use, inspection of the cars, removal of hubcaps, turn marshals, and, in some locales, use of five point seat belts and roll bars.

    As in the case of quick stop and instant turn on a bike, practice of maneuvers one would never deliberately do on a public road still may pay dividends that one day when everything you know is suddenly needed. Actually, I do practice the bike maneuvers on public roads, but only when I can verify no other traffic is around. My daughters have only done slaloms, skids, and panic stops in locations off of public roads. And I like it that way.

  3. Congratulations John. I found that advanced courses in motorcycle and automobile driving were all helpful. While I concur that learning how to control a vehicle at performance limits is helpful, what I took away from those courses was that one’s choices about driving — e.g., how fast to drive given conditions, a proper level of awareness, mental/emotional status (especially for motorcycling), and when/where to drive — were more important than the actual handling skills for accident avoidance. Did you come away with a similar conclusion?

    • The class stressed choices about driving, but I had picked up most of this on my own, one way or another — through experience driving and also as a bicycling instructor. The specific items I mentioned in my post were new to me. I do think that I drive a bit more cautiously now than I did before taking the course.

  4. Thanks, John. This is an excellent post and the video is compelling. I am passing this link on to our LANL Traffic Safety Committee and Worker’s Safety Team.

    Our local BMW motorcycle shop enthusiastically offers the Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses. They are taught by members of the shop.

  5. 1. I’ve been a teacher of performance driving, a division winning driver in ProRally, and am a bicycle commuter. The principles are always the same. Eyes up and on the desired – not the actual- trajectory, and the early anticipation and response to subtle mechanical inputs. These factors are helped by a mechanical sympathy for the factors affecting contact patch size and limitations.
    2. Proficient Motorcycling by Stephen Hough is probably the most valuable book I’ve read on the topic. Concise, to the point, and practically applicable to any wheeled transport that moves faster than a walk.

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