Braking bad habits

New 'advanced' driving schools are buckling in experienced drivers to try to change old ways.

traffic 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
traffic 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Like most Israeli drivers, I'm sure I'm the best on the road. Plus, I grew up in the Motor City - so I have cars in my blood. And it was with this attitude that I skeptically made my way to the Maslulim driving school near Rosh Ha'ayin early one morning. Admittedly, I was curious to see if this was going to be a rehash of all the things I'd learned in driver's ed when I was 15 that perhaps weren't taught in the Israeli version. Or maybe there really are some new tricks out there. Maslulim is an "advanced" driving school where people can go to improve their skills, to learn how to react in emergency situations and even to learn competitive rally driving. I was signed up for the most basic course: a four-hour mixture of lectures and hands-on practice in "lifesaving driving." After parking, I strolled toward the low mobile-home type building where the initial lecture was to take place. The assembled group was made up mostly of middle-aged employees of Motorola. As was later explained to me, a large majority of Maslulim's clients (at least at the most basic level) come from the hi-tech sector. It's in the large companies' interests to invest in teaching their employees better driving skills, since in the long run it saves them in insurance and repairs. (Having their names on the cars might also have something to do with it.) Around 800 people go through Maslulim's basic course (NIS 545) each month. In the little classroom, we were greeted by Efrat and Gidi, two of the school's instructors. Like all of the instructors working that day, they were young, clean-cut, attractive and personable. Gidi, who recently won the Fiat Siena Cup in Turkey, presented the initial 45-minute lecture - complete with magnetic cars for exemplification and short videos depicting awful car crashes. And yes, as it turns out, there are new tricks to learn. Many of the well-worn car truths that have been drilled into us are already passé; cars have changed and their safety features have been upgraded. For instance, many people haven't fully adjusted to the advent of ABS (antilock braking system). Pumping the brakes can't compare to the speed at which ABS pumps them for you. So if it's wet out, it's still 100 percent safe (and recommended) to slam on the brakes as hard as you can when faced with an emergency situation. Of course, try telling a 45-year-old Israeli he's wrong. This is where the instructors were particularly impressive. They found ways to teach the more stubborn without deflating their egos. The lecture mixed statistics with audience participation. Gidi asked people to predict what would happen when cars traveling on the same road for the same distance with only an eight-kilometer-per-hour speed difference between them were faced with an emergency and had to stop. People offered their suggestions, and when Gidi gave the right answer, many were stunned. Some even tried to argue, but when Gidi patiently explained why he was right - taking into account mathematics and minimal reaction times - and demonstrated with the little cars on a magnetic board, all acceded. He also managed to surprise us and win our trust by presenting all kinds of data; for instance, a British study has shown that reaction times on the road are longer when a driver is drunk (not surprising), but even longer than when he is talking on a speakerphone (quite surprising) and considerably longer when he is holding the cellphone in his hand. Which is not to say that it is safe to drive under the influence of alcohol - but it does make you question why it is legal to use a phone while driving. Some of the most important suggestions were to avoid traveling on autopilot; to be defensive and always suspect the other driver; to make emergency procedures automatic and thereby cut decision-making time; and to use the brakes. Most of these sound like obvious suggestions - but sometimes we have to be reminded of things we already know. AFTER THE LECTURE, we took a quick coffee break and then moved over to wooden bleachers set up under a tin roof, looking out at the asphalt driving course. There, Efrat (with the help of other instructors in a car) demonstrated the safest way to position yourself in the car, including seat angles (as upright and conformed to the seat as possible), leg angles (your knee should be slightly bent when you've depressed the brake pedal to the metal), distance from the steering wheel (your wrist should touch the wheel at 12 o'clock) and hand positions (surprise! We no longer hold the wheel at 10 and 2 - 9 and 3 give better control and turning radius, and in case the airbag opens your arms won't be thrown into your face and burned by the 300 kph force of the gas that causes it to inflate). The Maslulim team then demonstrated how ABS works - even on wet surfaces and on turns. Then came the fun part: practicing. We split up into groups of three and were each assigned an instructor. We went out to our cars and took turns "getting used to" the brake system. We lined up at the end of what felt like an airport runway, but with sprinklers wetting the end of it. The instructor asked if I were ready, I said yes, and she shouted, "Pedal to the metal!" and I threw my foot down. Soon after we took off, the speedometer reached about 60 kph. All of a sudden as I sped down the course she shouted, "Brakes!" and I slammed my foot on the brake pedal. The ABS kicked in and the car jerked to a stop. We repeated the same lesson a few times, and she showed how when your left foot is pressing down on the footrest, your stopping is more effective. I learned how to swerve properly on a wet surface while slamming on the brakes. Yup - you can turn and brake simultaneously; no need to fear your car spinning - inertia keeps you going in the right direction. After each person took his turn emergency stopping, we went back to the bleachers. Instructors demonstrated another event that could happen on a wet surface: If you turn too fast and somehow the wheels lock up, you'll spin. And then what? After we watched the instructor speeding down the course and sliding into a spin a few times - just like you see in the movies - it was our turn. I got some preliminary instructions from the instructor, and again, the "pedal to the metal" instruction. Toward the end of the runway, she told me to take my foot off the gas and turn left hard. She threw the car into neutral and yanked on the handbrake. The first time we did this, the car stopped pretty well, making a 180° turn; as it turns out, my car has "ESP" (electronic stability program) - a stabilization system that helps the car stay in control in all situations by braking and releasing wheels individually based on need. And it works. But the second time we did the same exercise, I disabled the system. When we made the turn that time, we went spinning out of control. I felt like a stunt driver in some Hollywood action movie. While it was really fun on the driving course, the same thing on a highway would be absolutely terrifying. The moral of the story is not to take turns too fast and not to use the emergency brake for anything but parking. And at the end of the lesson, I got a little movie refresher course to take home with me, and a certificate that might get me a discount on my insurance. THE MASLULIM course is helpful and informative, and its drivers are knowledgeable and friendly. They each go through a highly selective process to attain even the most basic level of instruction certification. The common denominator among them all is an interest in the field. They don't have to have any prior knowledge before starting Maslulim's training course, explained Re'em Samuel, the founder of the driving school. He placed emphasis on instructors' abilities to be informative yet congenial at the same time. Their initial course is about three months, and the first course they can instruct is the one I did, the "Lifesaving" course. Samuel certainly had an interest in the field before he started Maslulim. Like many little boys, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Ganei Tikva native wanted to be a racing car driver. He went to France to visit a cousin and they went to see a rally; he fell in love. Still, it took him years to achieve his dream. He came back to Israel, earned a degree in economics and saved up money. He moved to France in 1989, convinced the racing car licensing boards that he was fit to compete despite his juvenile-onset diabetes, and eventually won two championships. But racing is an expensive hobby, and he was forced to come home. He wanted to open a school for drivers; from his experience in France, he realized that many people go to sport-driving schools just to learn to drive better, with no racing aspirations whatsoever. And Samuel learned a lot about what speed can do through his experience; as a young driver, he was wild on the roads. But, now in his early 40s, he admits, "If I changed, anyone could change." So at the end of 1996, Samuel opened Maslulim, hoping to influence the local driving culture. "In a place where people are getting killed by Kassams, at least they shouldn't have to worry about dying on the roads," he says. In the future, Samuel hopes to integrate his lessons with those offered by driver's education classes. He is already licensed to speak in schools about driving and would like to work together with driving instructors. But Maslulim has help in its quest to change the Israeli driving experience. I spoke with Gil Ben-Yosef, the marketing director and an instructor at Alternativi - a school similar to Maslulim. The company's full name is indicative of its goal: Alternativi - Creating a driving culture. At the Ramat Hakovesh-based school, all kinds come to improve their driving. The army sends its men, as do the police, the Prisons Service, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the hi-tech sector - and the laymen. Alternativi places an emphasis on knowledge; in its most basic half-day class (NIS 390), the learning begins in the classroom. First, drivers are taught the psychology of driving. Once they are familiar with the dangers of the roads and understand how they can end up in an emergency situation, they're told how to avoid them and what to do if they are involved in a developing accident. Only then do they head out to the course to practice - much like at Maslulim. Ben-Yosef acknowledged that the most dangerous behavior on the road is not paying attention while driving. And the messages of both Maslulim and Alternativi are backed up by Or Yarok, an organization whose purpose is to reduce accidents on the roads. As bad as the infrastructure is, the leading cause of crashes is the "human factor." SHMUEL ABUAV, CEO of Or Yarok, praised courses like those offered by Maslulim and Alternativi. He pointed out that normally, as drivers, we go through training once in our lives, over the course of about 30 classes in our teens. The only subsequent thing that improves our driving is the experience we gain on the roads. But really, a refresher course can do wonders. Think about those of us who learned to drive in the summer, when the roads are dry and visibility is excellent. Then all of a sudden, we're on our own and the roads are slippery and there's fog. We aren't taught how to prepare for the other unexpected dangers out there. But advanced driving courses - Or Yarok also offers classes - can help us learn to identify emergencies before they happen. Because of this situation, Or Yarok is pushing the government to institute a graduated licensing system, where new drivers take the "theory" test and the on-road test as they do now, but then after six months of driving with an escort they would have to take another exam to see if they've learned to identify dangers on the road - on a computer or simulator. Currently, the Transportation Ministry requires new drivers to take a 12-hour refresher course five years (it used to be three years) after they first receive their license to renew it. These courses are offered at three schools: Afik College, the National Authority for Preventing Accidents and the Michlala L'Minhal. These schools also offer the defensive driving courses required by law for people who have accumulated too many points on their licenses. Yigal Cohen, project manager at Afik, said there are three kinds of courses offered at his institution (NIS 174 each), each with an exam at the end. The first is the required one for all new drivers. The second is a "correct driving" course for people with 12 points for traffic violations. And the third is more intensive classes on problematic driving situations, like how to behave at intersections. The people required to do those classes have more than 24 points. When I asked what was taught in those classes, Cohen laughed and said, "I guess you don't get many tickets, do you?" The difference between the Transportation Ministry mandated classes and the voluntary advanced driving courses is significant. The required classes are only in-classroom and are more basic refreshers than anything else. For example, they don't really go into cars' safety features the way the advanced courses do. Or Yarok admires the way participants in advanced classes are taught about the gadgets that probably were not yet invented when they first learned to drive, like airbags, ABS and Mobileye. I'm embarrassed to say I didn't even know my car had the ESP feature until I tried to spin out on Maslulim's course. I only had an inkling about its traction control feature when it snowed in Jerusalem this year and I saw an icon of a sliding car light up on my dashboard. According to Abuav, the main causes of accidents - at least causes that are under the driver's control - are excess speed, following too closely, driving under the influence, distractions and fatigue. He also points a finger at the physical infrastructure; he says the country's 18,000 kilometers of paved roads lack an adequate amount of guard rails and highway dividers, many roads aren't built correctly or angled properly and there are about 30 junctions in the country known to be particularly deadly. Still, police statistics back up Abuav's points about the human factor. According to a police report on accidents in 2006, the main reasons for collisions were speeding, swerving, ignoring stoplights and signs and following too closely. But things are looking up. The police report pointed to a definite downward trend in fatal accidents in 2006. A total of 447 people were killed on the roads in 398 accidents, which is the lowest number in 40 years. And there were 17,499 accidents, in which 36,241 people were injured. Although it sounds bad, it's better than it's been. And this is all despite the increased number of drivers and cars on the roads. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 1,617,000 licensed vehicles in 1997 and 2,408,000 licensed drivers; in 2006, there were 2,176,000 cars and 3,198,000 drivers. More good news is that the government has signed on to combat the carnage on the roads. At the end of January, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz declared a goal to reduce the number of people killed on the roads by 30% over the next five years. And there are things we can do to become safer drivers. Aside from getting tips on the Internet, we can take courses. We can make an effort to be responsible on the roads - driving safely, making sure everyone is buckled (50% of people sitting in the backseat don't use safety belts, says Abuav), putting kids in car seats, familiarizing ourselves with our cars and even spending a bit more for extra safety features. Also, as both the instructors at Maslulim said and as Abuav told me, never trust the other driver. Even when we have the right of way, we should at least take our foot off the gas pedal when approaching an intersection in case the other guy decides not to stop and we have to be ready to slam on the brakes. Which, thanks to ever-improving technology, won't lock up on us.