"You know when you try to go to a website, and it comes up 404 – Error Code?" John Mahler asks my son Ayrton, 17.
"Yeah," he replies, not taking his hands from the wheel nor his eyes from the array of orange traffic cones that he is slaloming through. There is ice all over the track, and water and snow are spraying from his tires.
"Practising accident avoidance makes sure that doesn't happen if you find yourself in this situation on a real road. You're doing this exercise over and over, and your brain will store that information away. If you need it suddenly, your brain won't produce that error code," he finished.
Cars are dangerous places for teens to be. Bridgestone Tire in the United States has started an aggressive campaign to make teens smarter drivers, and safer ones. Its opening quote that "each year, car crashes kill more 16- to 21-year-olds than drugs, guns and violent crimes combined" is a sobering one.
We're in Bowmanville, Ont., at the Mosport Driver Development Centre. A training track beside the main speedway, this is an opportunity to find out what our car can – and perhaps more importantly – cannot, do. Today's group is teenagers, hauled out of bed by parents who want their kids to spin out of control, run over traffic cones, understeer, oversteer, and go sideways off a skid pad – all on ice and blowing snow. Under the watchful eye of an instructor in every vehicle, these young drivers are about to learn what they don't know.
The day is a hybrid of in-class instruction, training exercises, then off to the track in the afternoon to apply everything they've learned. Most advanced driver training sessions follow a similar pattern, though the biggest difference in this mix is the winter element: icy conditions change everything. More attention is paid to winter tires, and classroom instruction includes the scientific side of tire compound and tread configuration, and the impact of winter conditions on steering, acceleration and braking.
My son Ari has had his G1 for about five months. It's an excellent time to get him to advanced training, before bad habits can take hold. I like training that uses our own vehicle; it may be fun to borrow high-powered, high-performance cars for a lap, but it's more important for Ari to know how to work with the vehicle he will actually be driving – our Hyundai Santa Fe. It has winter tires on it, though Bridgestone has a couple of Ford Focuses on hand – one kitted out with winter tires, one without – for students to drive.
Bridgestone notes that when self-reporting, 80 per cent of drivers consider themselves "somewhat confident" in their winter driving skills. Most news reports will tell you the 20 per cent must be out in force when snow actually hits.
The number one way to make yourself a better driver? Improve your vision. An instructor notes that drivers have to retrain their brain to overcome hardwiring. Humans have something called "the eye of the hunter," vision that means they are looking too close to the horizon for driving, and moving much faster than an ancestor running to bring down a mastodon. Students are repeatedly reminded to keep their eyes up, and to focus on the obstacles beyond the one they've already conquered.
If you've driven (or skied) a slalom course before, you know the importance of vision. You look where you want to go, which means you drop the immediate cones to your peripheral vision as you develop a smooth rhythm to tackle the course. This is perhaps never more important than when the course is covered in icy patches, intermittent asphalt, puddles and blowing snow.
Students learned there is more to controlling the car than throttle, brake and a steering wheel: off the gas instead of hitting the brake, more gas to assist in steering the car, and adjusting the weight on the front or back end using acceleration or braking to give the car more traction.
By nature, young drivers can often be champing at the bit for their turn in these events. As Ari watched a friend sliding off a circular sheet of ice on the skid pad, spin 180 degrees then straighten out, he soon understood there is as much to be learned watching as there is participating. Classes are kept small, and divided further into groups who rotate through exercises.
The kids are encouraged to ask questions, both in the car and in the classroom. A scientific explanation of what makes for slippery conditions – water forming as snow compresses beneath a tire, even at 100 km/h – makes for an interesting discussion about the slippery nature of areas under a lot of braking pressure, like intersections.
"What about at 140 km/h?" asks a young man. It's Ari. I groan and wonder how many of these courses I'm going to have to put him in.
The Bridgestone Canadian Winter Driver Training program is run about once a month through the winter, and is looking to expand the teen program into the summer. Cost (before HST) is $295 a person, though I highly recommend the adult and teen combination for $500. Learn alongside your son or daughter, or bring a family of four for $800.
With Bridgestone looking to expand its American Teens Drive Smart program to Canada, it put up a video reminding us all that teens often learn the most from their peers. Check out the amazing top 10 finalists for peer voted safety ads at safetyscholars.com.