You’re hanging upside down in an upturned vehicle with nothing but your seatbelt to hold you in place as the car spins 360 degrees. It’s a feeling you hope to never have to experience in real life. You’re suddenly very aware of just how dependent you are on that metre or so of polyester that’s keeping your head from hitting the roof, and your neck from surely breaking.
As the car twists back to an upright position and the rush of blood to the head starts to subside, you’ll unclick the buckle with a new level of understanding of just how vital it is to push that little piece of metal into place, each and every single time you sit into a car.
This is my first experience at the opening of the new Road Safety Ireland Driver Training Centre of Excellence, and I’m glad I skipped breakfast this morning. One of the instructors comes over and opens the door, advising me not to stand up too quickly and wait a few moments before getting out.
Before I do, he talks me through the terrifying process of what I’d have had to do if the car landed upside down. Seatbelts retract at one or both ends in a collision, meaning the buckle might well be a few inches further down than it was before the crash, making it difficult to find. He explained how I’d have to support the weight of my body with my hands and use my legs to hoist myself back into a sitting position. If there’s another passenger in the front you’ll have to agree with them who gets to escape first as there isn’t enough room for two people to free themselves at the same time. Now imagine the enormity of that decision if you’re in a race against time to get out of a car that may be about to go up in flames. The blood has well and truly drained from my head at this stage.
Believe it or not, this new training centre is not designed to scare you in to taking the bus. The aim is to raise driver safety awareness and develop safe driving skills, and make the roads safer for everyone by teaching us what a massive responsibility it is to sit behind the wheel of a car.
The state of the art facility in Scotstown, County Monaghan is home to a vast range of safety simulators and equipment as well as a track to help test the safety features of modern cars in a safe and controlled environment. Inside the main building you can test your reactions after the effects of alcohol, drugs and even sleep deprivation by means of specially designed goggles. You’ll then be asked to walk along a straight white line while wearing them – a task I found myself worryingly adept while wearing the ‘drunk goggles’, whereas the drug goggles had me trying to scale the nearest wall. Just like in real life, things affect people differently.
There is also a machine which tells you your true weight while unrestrained in a collision at high speed. After a week of eating pizza every day on holiday in Italy last week, I decided to sit this one out lest my original reading give me heart failure, but the shocking results that a speed difference of just 10kmph can make is truly food for thought. Again, wearing your seatbelt is vital to prevent yourself being propelled from a vehicle in a collision, and/or causing death or serious harm to other passengers inside it.
After some more training on tyre safety, braking and stopping distance, as well as advice on correct seating positions, it’s time to do some real practice on the track. Here you’ll learn to deal with difficult corners, dangerous junctions and tricky roundabouts behind the wheel of a Citroen C3 Aircross, a compact crossover representative of many modern cars in terms of size, weight, and safety features. This safety kit is put to the test as you are taught to pull yourself out of a skid, and experience both oversteer and understeer, all under the calm and reassuring guidance of a patient instructor. Finally you’ll be asked to perform a full emergency stop by slamming hard on the brakes and feeling the full shuddery force of the ABS kick in as the car attempts to bring you to a controlled stop – a manoeuvre you hopefully won’t be forced to perform too often throughout your driving career. Of course, these are all situations we hope we’ll never have to face, but by better understanding what is actually going on, the end goal is a calmer and more controlled reaction if it ever happens in real life.
One thought that did occur to me was the possible trauma some of these very real scenarios might cause to a person who has been in a bad crash. In contrast, Road Safey Ireland tell us some people actually find it helpful as a way to overcome the fear of getting back in to a car after an accident. They are currently in talks with the insurance industry about recognising this road safety experience as a premium-lowering exercise for drivers on its completion, and are also hoping to pitch the course as an alternative to prosecution for minor driving offences.
The Driving Training Centre of Excellence offers both individual and group courses in Driving for Work, Road Safety Experiences for transition year students, and training for safety in Motorsport. More details are available on www.roadsafetyireland.ie