The state of our roads is a particularly poignant issue in society. We lose thousands a year to road accidents, whether they are caused by rush-hour traffic, drunk driving or even pedestrians. I recently attended an event where the Ministry of Transport and the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) unveiled the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP).
I won’t bore you with the details but it is basically a system that utilises cameras and a tech-laden Mercedes-Benz Vito to monitor our roads and implement strategies to lower your risk of being involved in an accident.
iRAP is a wonderful system that is sure to save lives in the long run, but I got to thinking: what can a driver do to prevent an accident now? Obviously at the time of the accident there is not much one can do. It is impossible to be prepared at all times. Everybody tells me that it is all about your mindset when driving that enables you to take preventative measures.
I decided to investigate by attending the Subaru Driving Experience at the Gerotek testing facility in Pretoria to see if they could alter my frame of mind when climbing into a vehicle. My first reaction was to laugh it off. I mean, we had the likes of an Impreza STI, Legacy GT and no less than two BRZs around the high-speed oval and then the skid pan. It sounded like a recipe for fun and not a lesson in road safety.
I soon realised that the driving course is not a place for hooligans to come and act the fool. This is a serious course; there is even a briefing session in a room with a presentation (when PowerPoint is involved, you know the person means business).
Our instructor went through road-accident statistics (which I have been bombarded with of late) and then went through all of the active and passive safety features available on most vehicles today and how we would be using those features throughout the day.
With the presentation over it was off to the high-speed oval. Only we weren’t there to hoon it to the vehicles’ top speeds. We were there to see how long it takes for a vehicle to stop the higher the speed becomes. It is truly incredible how the stopping distance is doubled and even redoubled when the increments of speed are raised.
The stopping distance from 60km/h is predictably short, but going up to 120km/h the distance is so much greater, then from 160km/h it becomes shocking. The car takes so long to stop that you actually get an uneasy feeling and reconsider ever putting yourself in that situation on the road. We weren’t done being scared into better driving habits yet though. Next we were off to the skid pan for wet braking.
This is where it became truly scary, even though all the vehicles we used were equipped with ABS and EBD, VDC and every other safety acronym you can think of. The feeling of trying to swerve while braking in the wet can become a lairy proposition.
At 40km/h, it is manageable, but as you go up by 20km/h every run, the vehicle’s ability to stop becomes worryingly absent. As my underpants can attest, braking from 90km/h to a stop when you have nothing but a solid grass embankment to plough into is no joke. The car feels like it takes forever to stop.
Oh, I almost forgot: it’s not all work and no play. The instructors will also let you have a bit of fun after the seriousness is over. They will teach you how to control the dreaded understeer while demonstrating how traction control and other active safety items can save you when you run out of talent. Then the best part of the day came - a lesson on how to hold a powerslide in a BRZ.
As I’m sure you have read, we are massive fans of Tetsuya Tada’s Toyota 86 and its cousin the BRZ. They are beautifully balanced cars that allow even the most ham-fisted driver to slide like a hero. When you sprinkle a bit of water on concrete and add a dash of rear-wheel-drive, the results are hilarious. Even the slightest prod at the accelerator sends the car into a slide.
Once you find the balance point and are able to hold it there, you enter a mystical realm of driving satisfaction where no ego is too big, right up until you hit a big patch of water and swop ends and the subsequent ego deflation occurs.
When the day was over, all of the things I had learned began to sink in, having driven for a few days after the course I can report that I am a better driver for it. Don’t think that I am writing this because I have suddenly seen the perpetual light of safe driving and now want to convince you that speed kills. I believe that that is patently untrue. I am merely writing this to make you re-think the next time you are on the highway driving right up that SUV’s chuff and have no room if they slam on brakes.
Keep a safe following distance, especially in inclement weather conditions. Give yourself a chance and live to drift another day.