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The author poses with the awesome gullwing SLS AMG
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Mercedes driving course helps teach safe driving techniques – and more

By Jim Bray
August 1, 2013

What did the driver of the German car say when he wrapped it around a light pole?

"That's the way the Mercedes bends!"

A bad joke, indeed, but a good way to illustrate what Mercedes-Benz is accomplishing with its Driving Academy, a roving series of courses designed not only to help you drive more safely, but to also understand the capabilities of your car and its technology. It's also a delicious way to drive a whole bunch of fine Mercedes-Benz vehicles in a single setting – and how bad can that be?

Held in various versions and at a variety of venues across Canada, the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy is billed as "an exclusive and unmatched driving experience."  It's also a Heckuva lot of fun, even in the short, half day "Driving Experience" course the company invited me to attend at Stratotech Park, a small but more than adequate (and unfortunately soon to close) race track facility near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta.

The MBDA menu also includes the "Mastering Performance" and "Winter Driving Academy" courses, but even the Driving Experience is a good introduction to the basics of safe driving in a modern, state-of-the-art vehicle. For those with an even more performance driving bent, there's also an AMG Driving Academy that ups the ante and uses AMG-spec vehicles exclusively.

Since the eight of us wide-eyed car nuts there – some of whom owned Benzes already and some of whom just wanted to up their driving skills – were only doing the basic course this time, we cycled through eight current models that weren't all AMG's (though enough were to make it highly entertaining!) but which ran the gamut from the small B-class "wagon" through C, E and CLS-class models, a couple of SUV's, and all three two seat sports cars, including the intoxicating-sounding gullwinger, the SLS AMG.

And don't think that just 'cause our session was the half day introduction that there was no meat; the opposite, in fact, is true. Oh, we didn't get any free lapping time, and the periodic rain and the ubiquitous mosquitoes put a bit of a pall over the proceedings (you can't blame Mercedes-Benz for Mother Nature's lack of cooperation!), but the lessons imparted are important and really should be learned by every driver.

The Academy kicked off with a short classroom session in which we were taught how to set our driving position, including seats, steering wheel, and mirrors. We learned to put our seats as low as they'll go, with the back raked reasonably straight and the bottom cushion positioned so you can press the gas pedal to the floor while your leg is still bent somewhat at the knee. And to sit firmly in the seat so it helps holds you in place (of course, some seats are better at this than others).

The low seat position, the expert faculty told us, helps you to "aim high" with your vision, looking as far ahead of you as possible to give yourself the biggest view and the most warning possible. And to "look where you want to go," about which there'll be more later in this piece.

Hold the steering wheel with your hands at nine and three o'clock – despite many of us having been taught to use 10 and two o'clock. Nine and three gives you the best range of steering motion without having to move your hands from the wheel; it's also the most comfortable and efficient once you're used to it – and it's the best position to take advantage of the increasing buttons and gewgaws appearing on steering wheels these days. Your arms should also be bent somewhat, though not enough that your paunch gets in the way.

Make sure to keep your left foot on the "dead pedal," which is there to help you stay in place during "spirited" maneuvers. If you're driving a manual transmission, keep your foot on the dead pedal when you aren't clutching.

As far as the mirrors are concerned, this one seems counterproductive, but it really works (I've been using the technique since my first advanced driving course). It takes a bit of getting used to, however. Here's what to do: tilt the outside mirrors outward so they don't show anything you can see from the inside mirror. You'll find that means sliding them outward surprisingly far but you'll (eventually!) be glad you did.

The theory behind moving the mirrors so you can no longer see the sides of your car (the way so many of us were taught) is so, to paraphrase our instructors, "you can prevent a collision rather than just witness one." This setting strategy not only gives you a broader and more panoramic view of what's around you, it also means you don't need to shoulder check – something it seems many people don't do anyway and which can be difficult depending on where a vehicle's B pillar is located. In fact, the instructor claimed he hadn't done a shoulder check in something like 30 years, which some students found quite shocking. 

But I can also tell you from experience that it works. Try it!

Oh, that doesn't mean you shouldn't ever shoulder check; I have an onramp near my home that demands it, thanks to its idiotic design, but with your mirrors set properly you can make a quick "shoulder glance" that doesn't require you to take your eyes completely off what's in front of you – for instance, some oaf jamming on the brakes up ahead.

Getting on track…

The first on-track exercise was the slalom through cones, which is an ideal way to practice the "look where you want to go" philosophy. Here, you steer the vehicle between the cones, trying not to hit them. But you don't look at the cones; you look at the brave instructor standing at the end of the run, giving you instructions as to which cones to steer around and which ones to ignore.

The reason? Since you want to go through the slalom to its end, focus your eyes on the end. You can still see the cones in your peripheral vision but, sure as shooting, if you look at them, that's where the car will go – and it's as embarrassing as all get out to knock a cone over. I was lucky this time, but I've had my share of egg on my face in past slaloming sessions! And, as it turned out, later in this Driving Experience…

The next exercise was to illustrate panic braking with ABS-equipped cars. So we screeched off from a standing start and when we reached a pair of cones we hit the binders hard, screeching to a nicely-modulated stop. Then we gathered at the other end of the track to do it again, but braking and steering into a curve at the same time, something made safer by ABS. This was another classic illustration of "look where you want to go."

Next, we went through an accident avoidance exercise where we had to make a quick "panic" left-or-right turn (depending on which way the instructor signaled us to go) around an obstacle (which happened to be said instructor, and more cones).

With this exercise, too, we were admonished not to look at the cones or the instructor but at where we wanted to go (around the curve or obstacle). Do it wrong and you'll hear an embarrassing noise – either a resounding "splat" as the instructor bounces off your vehicle's hood (fortunately, this didn't happen, though it would have made an interesting test of Mercedes-Benz pedestrian injury avoidance technology!) or an embarrassing scraping noise as a cone becomes lodged in the vehicle's suspension.

I was feeling pretty good about my overall performance until the accident avoidance exercise, when I noticed an embarrassing scraping noise loud enough to drown out the derisive laughter from the rest of the assembled multitude.

Perhaps these exercises are also meant to be used as a smugness prevention technique…

It was a lot of fun but more importantly, it was excellent information you should use every time you drive. Heck, I'm not a legislating type of guy (I'd like to see many laws repealed, in fact), but I'm of the opinion that such courses should be mandatory for everyone who wants a driver's licence and I'd bet if that happened, a lot (if not most) of the problems on today's highways would solve themselves.

And maybe the police could go back to hunting bad guys instead of sitting on the side of the road generating revenue.

The Mercedes-Benz driving academy isn't cheap: the half day course recounted here costs $395, with the full day "Mastering Performance" race track course listing at $1695. The AMG Driving Academy's full day basic course costs $1895, while the two day advanced course will set you back $3995.

Not a pittance, indeed, but amortize that over all the years you drive and take into account how much better it will help you drive, and how many collisions it may help you avoid, and you could think of it as cheap insurance.

Speaking of insurance, maybe your insurance company will give you a break on your premiums if you can show them a certificate from such courses. Mine won't. They'll give me a break if I buy a hybrid, though, which means I won't be saving any money from these guys in the foreseeable future!

After the session we had a bit of a debriefing and were given a Driver's Handbook that covers the issues dealt with in this course, and more. It was a nice thing to take away and use as a reference.

This is probably my fourth or fifth advanced driving course and I can tell you from my experience that these techniques work. If you practice them every time you drive they'll become second nature quickly and could help save your – or someone else's life. That's a very worthwhile thing.

Copyright 2013 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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