Re-Inventing the Wheel: Putting Safety First


Today, Sharon reports on safe driving techniques that families (especially those with new drivers) could benefit from:

“In late September I traveled via Boston Mamas to the GM Proving Grounds in Michigan to test out the GM 2008 lineup. This was a new trail blazed for this road warrior (who fancies sneakers over wheels), but I discovered parallels between the two transport modes; that a little knowledge goes a long way in taking advantage of safety features.
From the running perspective, I have spent years tweaking my form, researching and trying different shoes, and enduring countless hours of blisters. The process has made clear to me that in finding a shoe to fit this foot, behind one company’s designs are many people working hard thinking about every angle of the product. Analogously, safety in a car can vastly be improved and affected by a little imparted wisdom as well as the car itself. During my stay in Detroit I got to see the inner workings of how safety is implemented at GM.

The GM Proving Grounds are mammoth; 137 miles of testing track on a 4000-acre facility. Our first stop was a 67-acre expanse of asphalt where we took a "Driver's Skill Enhancement Course." This course comprised four stages:

1. Evasive maneuvers: We took an Impala down a straightaway at speeds ranging from 30-60 mph. At a fork, we were told at a split second's notice to go left or right. This exercise demonstrated GM's rethinking of the old 10 and 2 hand positioning on a car's steering wheel with that of their 9 and 3 hand positioning. The amount that you need to crank your wheel is very little in a defensive driving maneuver, whereas the 10 and 2 positioning is unstable because of the natural force of gravity that can cause you to over-adjust in a defensive maneuver. The 9 and 3 positioning offers balance between both hands, giving you better control of smaller movements that can get you out of harms way without losing control of the steering wheel.

2. Controlled braking: This exercise was similar to #1, but we learned to shift from gas to brake by pivoting on the ball of the foot, with the heel remaining stationary on the floorboard. This technique was suggested to smooth out jerkiness after using evasive maneuvers.

3. Skid control: This was by far the most harrowing experience of all! We set off at speeds of 10-20 mph, and then when activated, the rear wheels (which were replaced by a bracket of two roll-y wheels), were unlocked to simulate the lack of control in a skid. Contrary to instinct, GM's method was to not implement the brake but rather to steer towards a fixed point in front of you and the car would correct. I quickly learned this to be good advice, as my braking in the skid resulted in spinning around in circles backwards at vomit inducing speeds!

4. Backing and serpentine maneuvers: This exercise did not speak to me as much as the others and basically involved snaking backwards in and out of a straight line of cones.

The last and perhaps craziest part of the course involved testing two different cars – one with and one without Electronic Stability Control. ESC basically auto corrects over and under-steering using an electronic sensor that stabilizes the car in a split second. This mechanism cannot override a crash but it is an effective tool to have when faced with skidding and swerving, and has been cited by The National Highway and Traffic Administration as having reduced crashes by 35%. The difference that ESC makes in a car while screaming down the straightaway into a swerve at 80 mph was clear!

I found the Q&A session with GM executive the most compelling, in terms of feeling an interaction between the brains behind GM and the consumer. The morning's activities, which left me in awe of how a little instruction and practical, hands on demonstration can teach more than any driver's ed course ever could in a life or death situation, led me to ask whether GM would consider offering their Driving Enhancement Course to new drivers across the country. The response directed me to GM's existing safety guidelines for infants through tweens. Not quite satisfied, I re-asked the question with a slightly different spin, highlighting the benefit of all of the research and work that GM has put into the safety features of its cars with ESC, StabiliTrak, and Onstar, and the value of hands on training. The reply focused on GM's involvement with law enforcement to set curfews for new teenage drivers.

Despite these existing measures, all that I had experienced and learned that day really made me feel that the one thing that could set GM apart is working towards safety education (in the hands on nature that we had received it), one wheel at a time. They've made great strides (particularly with their green approach to implementing E85 fuel and hydrogen fuel cells, as well as having LEED Certification, which denotes a high standard of sustainability), but the vision seems not yet ready to embrace the main target group that will be driving their sustainable cars.

The final event included test-driving the 2008 models of the Saab (by far my favorite in every way!), Saturn, Cadillac, Pontiac, and Hummer. We also got to chat with one of the designers of the new concept car, The Volt. Chatting with this designer, and some of the other GM associates strengthened my belief that teens could benefit enormously from the skills we derived during the daylong course. Let's hope this concept comes to fruition sooner rather than later.”

Editor's Note: is grateful to GM for the opportunity to engage in both the viewing of the 2008 models and the safety/test drive course. GM provided Boston Mamas Contributor Sharon with transportation and accommodations to attend the event.

Photo Credit: GM StabiliTrak diagram.