It's just after 10am. Sydney has turned on one of its inimitable best; an absolute peach of a day. Clear as crystal. A gentle breeze puffs a few tufts of cloud across the sky and dapples the shadows under the trees. It's ramping up to being a perfect day for getting out on a boat or spending the afternoon in a beer garden somewhere. On any other Sunday, I - and the four young women with me - probably would be doing just that. But this day, we're not. For the five of us, the stunning day is barred behind vertical blinded windows.
We're sitting in a classroom staring at a whiteboard listening to statistics about car crashes. Not only are we not outside cruising, drinking beer in the sun or generally enjoying ourselves, the four sitting indoors with me have actually paid for the privilege of being cooped up indoors and talking about dead people...
I'm a guest of Honda Australia at its HART Centre in Sydney. HART is Honda Australia Roadcraft Training, an impressive example of a motor manufacturer putting something back into the community it sells cars to. HART is a purpose-built driver training facility (it was originally the NSW Police driver centre) and every day of the week it is jam-packed with people like Lauren, Samantha, Renee and Michelle who don't want to become one of the statistics we're talking about - with growing squeamishness - on our roads. Outside, there are three classes of motorcyclists doing pretty much the same thing.
Of the class members, Lauren has a story to tell. Just a couple of months ago, she was involved in a crash in which she hit a truck, left the road - and the ground - and speared into a tree. The Toyota RAV4 she was driving was a total write-off. Although not injured, it's clear to the remainder of us Lauren was shaken up by the experience. Ironically, her father and other members of her family have completed similar courses in the past. But for her, the crash came first.
The four young drivers (none has been driving more than three years) are partaking in HART's Survival Skills course, designed to make 17-25 year olds aware of the five major crash types that claim and maim so many of them. It's a sad fact of life that young drivers are statistically more likely than most other age groups to be involved in motor vehicle accidents. That's due to a potent mix of circumstance and inexperience, something that today's course will attempt to redress.
The classroom component of the course began with a quick questionnaire about each of the students' attitudes toward and perception of their own driving skills, such as how close they follow other cars, how diligent they are at sticking to the widespread Australian suburban street limit of 50km/h and how competent they are at controlling situations, on a scale of 1-10. I sneak a quick peek at some of the answers and there's a comforting lack of bravado in their answers - something that would no doubt be different if there were young men in the class.
The main crash types for young drivers
As HART's Duncan McRae explained to us, one quarter of accidents for under 25s are rear enders. The Australian population average is 20 percent. Duncan stuns us with some statistics: "There were 14,100 people hospitalised last year as a result of rear end crashes," he tells us. Up goes the number onto the whiteboard. "The NRMA (Australian insurance company) paid out 60,000 rear end claims, totalling $200M." More numbers go up. "And they're just the ones that are reported!"
Solution? It's easy. According to Duncan: "Keep a three second gap."
Nineteen percent of crashes are caused by people pulling out of side streets. Duncan asks the class whether, typically, they think the young driver is pulling out of the street, or travelling on the main road?
General agreement is that it would be the P-plater pulling out. Duncan shakes his head. "It's usually the P plater travelling straight on the main road. What happens is the P-plater thinks he's in the right. He has legal right of way. So he doesn't believe the car from the side street will actually pull out in front of him." But, often, it does...
Head on crashes, with people turning right across other traffic, are 17 percent of crashes. Once again, lack of experience is the root of the problem. "Inexperienced drivers don't have depth and speed perception. They turn right and booom!"
The remaining one-third of crashes are what crash-watchers call off-path straight and off-path turn.
HART driver trainer Duncan McRae then discusses the five most common crash types for under-25s. Duncan is an enthusiast driver and has been a driver trainer for 12 years.
"So, why do people crash?" Duncan asks us.
Over the next hour or so, Duncan leads us through the main types of crash situation. Then it's outside into the sun where we get some on-road practice.
The first exercise is a simple one: Standing on the road around a couple of road markers, each of the class members is asked approximately how many car lengths behind the next car they usually drive. Opinion varies - two lengths? Five? Duncan paces out a mutually agreed length of road, adds a bit for luck and plonks down a road marker. Then he asks the students to drive past at 60 kays, stopping only if Duncan gives them signal. Each student does this several times - letting them past some times, signalling to stop on others - before Duncan calls them out of their cars for a discussion.
As he has ably demonstrated to all of us, no-one has managed to pull up in the allotted space between the road markers. Three or four car lengths is nowhere near enough room at 60km/h
His summary is simple. "At 60km/h, you've probably travelled five car lengths before your start to brake. That's 25 metres. Half an Olympic swimming pool... That's why you need to leave a three-second gap between you and the car in front."
Other activities on the day involved the students witnessing distances involved in braking from 80, 60 and 40km/h. Braking seems something that is inadequately trained into young drivers. With all of us aboard a Honda Odyssey people mover, Duncan demonstrates how smooth a stop can be by using the setup, squeeze and ease technique. Another demonstration and Duncan jumps on the brakes, swinging the Honda's ABS into action. The car shudders violently to a stop. The braking test comes as quite a surprise to the four class members - it's the first time any of them have experienced what ABS sounds and feels like when it's in action. Despite the 'panic' stop, the car has pulled up only a metre or so shorter than the first, more relaxed stop.
There are several other driving activities, all aimed at getting us to think actively about creating space around our cars and 'owning' the responsibility of our own safety. With all of us sitting in the Odyssey, Duncan also gives the class some tips on sitting correctly in the car: Keeping the steering wheel low so the airbag is most effective; having a relaxed - not slouched - seating position and using a footrest so you are in good control; keeping your seatbelt low and firm so it can 'work' if it has to; keeping your legs bent and seat upright so a crash doesn't ram your thigh through your throat. None of it is rocket science - it's all simple, basic common sense, but a bit of an eye-opener for all of us.
Training through the years
There have been several different philosophies taught over the years with both handling/steering technique and braking. Driver training, as we know it, began with the English police forces in the 1930s. But as Duncan explains it, society is a lot different to how it was back then. Some examples:
"Back then a legitimate trained procedure for avoiding an accident was to swerve out of the way. That may have been a tactic in the 1930s where there was little traffic, but these days to suggest that is ludicrous; it's just about impossible to swerve. There are poles, cars in the lane next to you, too much traffic."
Another old theory was to 'cover the brake' and that's not a bad thing. But as Duncan explains to us all, there's a new way to think about keeping yourself out of trouble. It's three-step braking: Setup, squeeze and ease. The setup involves putting light pressure on the brake. Not only does this get you off the accelerator and light-up the brakelights, it takes up the slight slack in the pedal assembly, gets the pads against the rotors and settles the car on its suspension.
There's another ancient notion of being a better driver by 'straightening the bends'. Duncan tells us that once again, it's a hangover from the days when cars were far more ill-handling and roads were quieter. Unfortunately, it's a flawed technique that is still apparently peddled by some driver training schools that have their roots in 'car control' techniques rather than prevention strategies. His explanation, using a diagram on the whiteboard, is simple.
"Straightening the bends aims you straight at the oncoming traffic if some other clown stuffs up and ends up on your side of the road!"
During the day, Duncan and I discuss driver training in general - its accessibility to young drivers and its success. We get around to a personal beef for both of us: the lack of training for the biggest captive audience of all: Schools. I regard the lack of government-sponsored driver education in schools as a big rip-off of our youth. Duncan agrees to some degree, but reminds me of the different philosophies of driver education.
"There's a school here in Sydney that sends all its Year 11 students to a driver training session where they learn all about skid control, panic braking - all the squealing tyre stuff. It's supposed to raise their skills and confidence. What it actually does is give them a 'I'm better than you' attitude."
"Mate, for some of those kids, that sort of stuff is a death sentence."
In the afternoon, Duncan takes us for a drive around the local suburbs in the Odyssey with all of us on board. Duncan gives us a running commentary of what he's seeing and anticipating. It's a constant stream of information: "Silver car coming in ahead the left - what's he doing; okay he's stopped. Car over right shoulder, in my mirror; van up ahead turning into my lane - yes, he's seen me. Lights ahead; they're orange. Check my mirror - behind me is clear so I'll stop. Car beside me is running the light; he's put his foot down..."
"Lights are green - no red-light runners; move off. We're in front so we'll draw in front of the car behind. Parked car in gutter lane; people coming out of house - they're staying there...."
It's an almost incessant blast of information and our eyes dart around to Duncan's words. It's a great exercise in roadcraft and has a lasting impression on the class - later, two of them make mention of it as the most eye-opening aspect of the day. Then the students have a go. Duncan's summation? "People often bleat about having to go as slow as 50km/h in suburban streets. I reckon, with all the information you have to crunch, you're flat out doing 50!"
What the class thought:
Renee (front left): "I found that the concept of 'setting up' for possibilities made me more conscious of the dangers. I'll anticipate more from now on. And I'll also cut down on unnecessary lane changes."
Michelle (front right): "It was more than interesting. That three-second gap and distances at 40-60km/h thing will stay with me to avoid crashes. You just think, 'Omigosh!'"
Lauren (back left): "Sitting in a car, there's a lot going in around you that you don't always realise. I'm more conscious of it now."
Sam: (back right) "That three-second rule, and knowing how to apply pressure to the brake. I never knew how ABS works or what it felt like."
Honda conducts several courses at its Sydney training complex, including Pre-learner, Learner 1 & 2, the under-25s Survival Skills course we witnessed, and Risk Management for experienced drivers. HART is accredited by and contracted to the NSW government licensing authority as a provider of compulsory licence training for motorcyclists. HART also runs several skills acquisition course for motorcyclists, car drivers and 4Wdrivers.