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Watching from the tarmac, Philippe Letourneau, chief driving instructor for BMW Group Canada, can, incredibly, read the four-letter word that escapes from my lips when I clip a pylon at 70 km/h.

I'm practising emergency avoidance and the rubber cone represents what, in real-life, might have been a deer, cyclist or pedestrian.

Repeating the exercise, my performance – and that of the other advanced driving program participants – improves. But it's sobering what this dozen drivers, with nearly 500 collective years of motoring experience don't know – or once learned incorrectly and are now trying to overcome.

Ingrained habits were most apparent during the emergency exercise, where a raised flag simulated the direction of an oncoming deer, pedestrian or cyclist. Everyone was caught, at least once, steering toward the object to be avoided.

"Good drivers anticipate what's coming up," Letourneau says. "You have to look in the direction you want to go, not the direction the car is going. Your hands and feet do nothing without getting information from your vision.

"It's also important to realize that while you may be able to avoid one problem, you may end up causing another. We see this a lot on public roads."

BMW offers its driving programs in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, in summer and winter. Classroom theory in the advanced program includes proper seating position and steering wheel handling, a review of vehicle cornering forces, understeer, oversteer and braking.

But most of the day is spent outside, putting theory into practice. It's the first time many of us have had the pedal to the floor on wet pavement – and no one is panicked. We're also being expertly guided and shown recovery manoeuvres by decorated former stock car racer Kelly Williams. In one exercise, she disables the vehicle safety inter- vention systems to demonstrate the physics of thrust and momentum.

"When it comes to safe driving, at the end of the day, the most important thing is sitting between the steering wheel and the seat," Letourneau says. "The driver brings three things to the table: attitude, aptitude and awareness."

Letourneau also points out that new drivers often spend 25 hours learning theory and just 12 hours on the road to obtain a licence. "Then, your skills aren't tested again until your 80th birthday," he says.

"We certainly advocate that people should do driver improvement on a five-year basis," Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs at the Canada Safety Council, says. "There are various courses, including those from the Canada Safety Council, that are for existing drivers. They're also available for motorcycles, and provide an opportunity to freshen up your skills.

"It's important to review our safety attitudes and realize it's not just other people that things happen to – 80 per cent of us think we're better than average drivers, but chances are we're all pretty much average."

In another exercise, BMW demonstrates the difference between braking at 30 km/h and 60 km/h. Doubling the speed exponentially increases the required stopping distance, which is important to remember in school or construction zones where the speed limit seems painfully low.

"At 100 km/h, you're moving roughly 30 metres per second," Letourneau says. "If you're following too closely, or driving too fast for conditions, there isn't time for a proper reaction.

"Most people never practise what we're doing, so how are you going to be any good at it? You need the skills. When you're out on the road, talking to your car or wishful thinking will not work," he says.

The day ends with an autocross competition to test risk-management abilities; a stopwatch is added to showcase the impact of stress.

Letourneau, who also appears on the TV show Canada's Worst Driver, bellows playfully over the in-car radio that I may have had the worst autocross practice run he's ever seen. Later, in the timed heat, I finish in second place for speed and safety with a "clean" lap.

As my car rumbles at the start line and I gaze across the imposing slalom, my driving partner whispers, "Go for it. We're here to learn. This is your chance to practise life-saving skills in a safe environment."

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