|March 9, 2010
By: Kris Hansen
As most of us who have a drivers license in the USA know, the requirements to earn that license are pretty thin. Read a book, take a test, go for a drive, parallel park, perform a hill start, and youre free to hit the highway. To this day were amazed that the most difficult part of the driving test is parallel parking. It doesn’t have to be this way. In certain Scandinavian countries for example, earning a drivers license requires a more advanced skill set, ensuring that drivers are taught the skills to keep their cars on the road. They learn to DRIVE, so they can do so safely. Here in the USA, youre on your own. If you can figure it out yourself, youre ahead of the game. If not, well thats where an advanced car control course can be incredibly beneficial.
For those of us in northern parts of the country, driving in snow and ice is something we have to face for several months, every single year. Many of us enjoy it, and think were good at it, or worse, think that because we have one of the best winter time cars available, were invincible.
With that in mind, we recently took a trip to the spectacularly beautiful White Mountain region of New Hampshire, and the town of Dalton (near the incredibly quaint town of Littleton), to experience the Team ONeil Rally School’s Winter Safety class. Even though the Winter Safety School takes place at a rally driving school, the curriculum is less about speed, and more about car control, skid recovery, and accident avoidance.
Nestled deep in the woods of Dalton, the ONeil Rally School campus is a gearheads playground. Scattered about the facility are rally cars of various shapes and type. You’ll see a gaggle of Ford Fiestas, a gathering of Audi 4000 quattros, and other random rally cars. They even have a bunch of Jeeps for their advanced Off Road schools. And in between you see the heart of the school, the shop. Downstairs is the garage where the schools cars are maintained and repaired. Upstairs is the classroom. You wont be spending too much time there, but pay attention to what the instructors are saying.
We began the school with a classroom session, where we learned the basics of advanced cornering theory, types of skids that a driver might find him or herself in, and the importance of good quality snow tires. Without babbling on for too long, the instructors managed to convey the correct and incorrect ways to approach the art of cornering safely on snow and ice covered roads. They talked about ways to go about driving in a safe way, such as eliminating distractions, proper seating position, hand position, etc, as well as car preparation. Many of their suggestions are common sense things that for the most part, are ignored by many if not most drivers on the road.
Once the introductory classroom segment was complete, the group made its way to the rally course. This might be a good time mention something important about this school – each participant drives in his or her own car during the hands-on driving exercises, which gives students the chance to get used to how their car handles on ice, and also allows students the chance to push the limits of adhesion in a safe environment, and learn ways to recover from a skid, in the actual car they drive every day. The risk of damage to your car is minimal as speeds are quite low here, and the only risk is stuffing your car into a snow bank, or mowing over a rubber traffic cone.
The instructors were quick to remind us that we were not at a rally school, and thus wouldnt be attempting more advanced techniques such as left foot braking, hand brake turns, and so on. And that was just fine with most of us, because thanks to a bit of warming and a lack of recent snow, the course at ONeil was extremely icy. This was terrain that would not likely be encountered on a heavily traveled road in all honesty, but for those of us who go out in any and all conditions, it was a very good test, and the extra slippery conditions made it easier to get the car out of shape at much lower speeds. For those who were just there to get a better handle on winter driving, this was a great learning experience.
Since students outnumber instructors, those who are not driving get to ride along with other students and the instructor in the drivers car. This is actually very beneficial, because you get the chance to see how the maneuvers work without the added complexity of trying to actually drive the car, and you get to see how your fellow classmates learn the skills. You also get to see how well (or poorly) their car deals with the surface compared to your own.
The Winter Safety School sends drivers through 4 driving exercises, all of which are designed to enforce proper and safe driving technique. The first 3 teach the correct methods to get the car to turn on a very slippery surface, and control and recover from skids. First on the icy skid pad, weight transfer and throttle control is practiced. Then on an equally icy slalom course, cornering line, throttle control, turning and steering unwinding are practiced, uphill and down hill (which shows how the car works under power, and coasting), and then finally an accident avoidance exercise. Here students get the chance to really see how well their car stops and turns in an extremely short panic type situation. Again, the only thing that youll hit is a rubber traffic cone if you do it wrong.
After the first driving exercises, we filed into the school’s cabin for a brief classroom session, as the instructors set up the final course. This was a longer road course, which took us around the skid pad, through part of the slalom, a quick panic turn, and then down part of the rally course. Here we had the chance to actually try some of these techniques for real. The road drive started on the skidpad, but ultimately the course wound us up the slalom course, then onto one of the forest roads used for the rally school, past the shop, and back to the skid pad. This was so much fun even novice drivers were having a blast sliding their car through the turns. Every single person in our group finished with a big smile.
We cant stress enough how phenomenal this school is. Even though the author has spent much of his life driving on snow for example, the Team ONeil Winter Safety School was hugely beneficial in that it exposed and hopefully cured several bad habits, and taught some new techniques. Also, being able to ride along with other students was excellent, as we got to see how well the school worked for people who were NOT necessarily comfortable flinging a car around in snow. For people who are afraid of a little slipping and sliding, this course can help them get over that fear, thanks to the newfound ability to deal with it, and the knowledge that the car can slide a little without being hideously out of control. Thats a big deal to a lot of drivers.
The Winter Safety School is about safe winter driving, and advanced car control in winter conditions. In reality, the skills that are taught here work well in the real world, and will hopefully keep people a lot safer and more comfortable on the roads when the going gets slippery. As you can see from the photos, the course is open not just to cars. We were told that the Winter Safety School is frequented by professionals from a variety of fields who are often dispatched to remote areas to conduct their jobs. Apparenlty it’s not uncommon to see work trucks full of tools sliding about on the O’Neil skidpad, along with the Subarus and Audis and other cars and trucks.
The best part of Team ONeils Winter Safety School is the hands-on approach. Yes there is a bit of classroom session, but, its important stuff that will then be practiced out on the ice in the woods, and hopefully leads to a lifetime of safe driving. The instructors are incredibly patient and skillful at recognizing individual student’s abilities, and seem to tolerate a bit of pushing the envelope as a learning experience.
Mostly, we would enthusiastically recommend this school to any new (or nervous) drivers in New England and surrounding areas which are blessed with snow and ice in the winter. Its a far sight better learning the finer points of car control in a safe environment with highly qualified instructors than it is in your nearest parking lot, or on back country roads, which is where bad habits are formed. Quite honestly, wed like to see this kind of course made mandatory in the North Country. It might put a few drivers ed teachers out of work, but it might also make our roads much safer. They cant teach common sense, but they can teach people things that they perhaps have never realized were dumb to do while behind the wheel of a car.
The Team O’Neil Winter Safety School is not a driving school that teaches you how to park your car. They teach you how to keep you from parking it in a snow bank, and get from point A to point B safely, every time, on any surface. Bring your wife and your teenage drivers. This course really benefits everyone!