Robb Gravett

More and more ‘extra-curricular’ training is popping up for both young and mature drivers alike. There are things like the SEAT Young Driver programme and the facilities at Mercedes-Benz world, aimed at getting people behind the wheel early so they have some experience under their belt before taking on-the-road lessons.

But there are also training programmes for drivers who have already passed their tests, covering everything from simple motorway driving, as part of Pass Plus, to advanced car control on skidpans. Professional drivers are often sent on such courses as part of corporate risk reduction schemes, but the benefits to regular, everyday road users, particularly new drivers, are huge.

What’s more, these courses can be incredibly good fun. We have been to a skidpan to learn how to drive on ice or snow, and most recently we went to a Volvo sponsored Ultimate Car Control day to learn the best way to avoid an accident in any situation – and how to react if a crash is inevitable.

We spent the day at a not-very-top-secret testing facility under the tuition of former BTCC driver and 1990 BTCC champion Robb Gravett, and he told us, quite simply, that braking and steering at the same time is a really bad idea.

There was, of course, more to the day than that – we learnt how a car reacts to specific inputs and how safety systems like traction control work – and they really do work, so avoid turning them off when you’re feeling brave (if you have them at all). After that, we went on to the practical aspect of the day, and that’s where things really start to come together.

On the road, under normal circumstances, most drivers use relatively very little braking force. Pressing the brake pedal moderately is so deeply ingrained that we don’t really understand just how quickly a car will decelerate if you step on it with all your weight.

Volvo C30 Hard Braking

So, initially, that’s what we did, in the various Volvos that were available to drive. Under the full might of the brakes, a car does things you might not expect – superficially it might, if it is modern, flash its brake lights – and the seatbelts might lock you to your seat, and the brakes might judder and make grinding noises, depending on whether ABS is working or not.

But what it won’t do is steer properly. If you’re hard on the brakes, turning the wheel is pretty much pointless – the driving wheels will point where you want them to, but the car won’t follow. So if there’s something in the way brake as hard as you can in a straight line, and if you really must steer, do it at the very last second and back off the brakes before you do it.

What’s more, if a crash is truly unavoidable then avoid the compulsion to steer at all – just go headlong into the object or car that’s in the way. Cars are designed to take frontal impacts better than side or oblique ones – seatbelts, crumple zones and airbags do their best work if you plough straight into something rather than sliding in sideways.

It’s all well and good explaining this, but really, without experiencing it practically it’s fairly tricky to get to grips with. On the day there were cones to simulate various obstacles and to be used as braking points, and through the day the braking zones got smaller and smaller, gradually building confidence in the car’s ability until the correct brake and steering inputs were automatically stored as ‘muscle memory.’

On top of all of this it was incredibly good fun – it’s not often that you can push an everyday car to such extremes in a safe, controlled environment with an expert on hand to inform you exactly what is going on and how to improve your skills.

It’s an excellent and eye-opening way of learning about how cars behave at their limits, and it prepares you to react should a hazard present itself in real world driving. The unfortunate downside is price – a day with Ultimate Car Control costs upwards of £200 because, primarily, it’s designed for companies wishing to reduce risks and the number of accidents.

Young drivers are spending a small fortune on insurance every year because they have no choice – and yet insurance companies don’t recognise training courses such as this one as valid ways to reduce risk, and so cost.

It really is a shame, because many accidents involving young drivers are down to inexperience, and day courses like this improve the knowledge of all drivers, even those who’ve racked up thousands of miles.

For more information on Ultimate Car Control, click here.



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