Top Stories from the Special Reports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, October 19, 1996

Lesson for a Lifetime: Make Your Mistakes at Driving School, Not on the Road

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
DEAUVILLE, France - I floor the gas pedal and peer down at the speedometer. Forty, 50, 60. By the time I reach the stop line and the wet pavement just ahead, I'm supposed to be barreling ahead at 80 kilometers an hour. I've never driven this sedan before, and when I hit the white line and jam on the brakes, my heart is working faster than my brain.

Panic thoughts: Will the car skid straight? Will it veer off into an uncontrollable spin and send me off the end of the track?

Relief comes 40 meters later when the car decelerates to a halt and the instructor crackles over the CB: ''Excellent. Now. Try it again. But this time . . .''

Welcome to safe driving.

I've come to this course outside Deauville fortuitously. Driving at night on a winding road in this pastoral Normandy region on vacation with my family last summer, I passed the Honda Drivers Club school and thought it might be worth a spin.

Three kilometers beyond, I spied a dog on the other side of the narrow two-lane road. What if, I thought, it darts out across my path? It did.

I pumped the brakes and slammed to a halt. The dog skittered out safely past the front of the car. My heart was pounding. Was this a sign? I vowed then to go to driving school.

To most people, driving lessons are for getting a license. But with mortality rates from automobile accidents being the highest of any kind of accident, driver education should be continuing education.

About 400,000 people are killed worldwide in vehicular accidents annually. In the United States, about four times as many people die in such accidents than by the second most common form of accidental death falling.

A driving course ''is a lesson in humility,'' said Christophe Cabourg, who was my instructor and who at 22 started working at the school this year after racing in Renault's promotional formula series and attending the best racing schools in France. ''We think we know how to do something, when in fact we do it a little badly.''

The school I signed up with is sponsored by Honda. Other car makers, including Renault, Mazda, and Peugeot, sponsor similar schools around the world.

The United States Auto Club and the Royal Automobile Club in Britain and in Australia also offer safe driving courses, as do countless private businesses.

L'Automobile Club de l'Ouest at the Le Mans race track in France offers an international panoply of systems, including a Canadian emergency reaction trainer, a Swedish skid car and a freinographe. These systems electronically test the drivers' reactions to emergency situations and measure their progress on paper.

The skid car a frame with wheels fits around the car chassis and simulates different road conditions: wet pavement, ice, gravel or dirt. The Deauville school does not rely on high-tech equipment, but the skid lesson is not easy to forget.

Mr. Cabourg asked me to stand alongside the wet tarmac where I thought he would stop after hitting the brake at 50 km/h. Like most students, I overestimated the skid: The car traveled only seven meters to a halt.

Then I was to stand where the car would stop if he braked while going 80 km/h. I moved up to 10 or 12 meters beyond the stop line. The car sailed by me, 40 meters past the stop line.

The course also teaches simple things like sitting positions: Never sit with the legs straight out, but slightly bent at the knees they're less likely to get broken in a head-on collision.

Arms should be slightly bent, too, because it is less tiring to manipulate the steering wheel that way. Hands should be maintained at 9:15 or 10:10.

Students also learn correct eye use. ''When you're in a corner, you should already be looking ahead to the next corner and planning your route,'' Mr. Cabourg said.

The course I took is on a keyhole-shaped track, with a runway of about 100 meters leading to a circular plateau, made wet by a sprinkler. The school provides the car.

The Deauville school is a relatively inexpensive one for individuals, with each of the two hourlong basic lessons costing 495 francs, about $100. A second course deals with 360 degree spins, slaloms, and cornering techniques, and a third course corrects personal faults.

''What would you do,'' Mr. Cabourg asked, ''if you're driving at 70 km/h and you suddenly see a child standing in the road in front of you?''

I told him I'd pump on the brakes and pray to stop, or run the car into the ditch. He demonstrates his technique, and then it's my turn.

A rubber cone stands in for the child at the end of the runway. I reach the required 55 km/h about four meters from the cone, then floor the clutch and slam the brakes. The car skids. I turn the wheel a quarter turn. Mr. Cabourg had assured me that the car wouldn't veer until I released the brakes. I take his word for it. I let up on the brakes, then turn the wheel the other way to complete the move.

I crushed several cones before I got it right. But if I ever again encounter a real emergency, I'll know what to do.

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