We just finished two weekends of advanced driver training for local Fire Rescue Services. The first two days were a bit tense, because we were sharing the taxiway with a fuel truck, which was there to service helicopters fighting nearby forest fires. Plenty of distraction, at any rate, so there was a bit of a teaching opportunity there.
On the other hand, helicopters coming in with those big buckets on long lines, not far over our heads, was not a pleasant experience. All it would have taken was a significant downdraft and there could have been a major incident. We ended up operating mainly at the far end of the taxiway, which was as close to good risk management as we could come up with under the circumstances.
Day one in these programs is always with regular street vehicles, in this case the pickup trucks used by the fire departments. As with our previous program, we encountered some brake problems, even though these vehicles are serviced regularly by the maintenance yard mechanics. Last year I tried an emergency stop in a pickup that was equipped with anti-lock brakes. Everything looked fine according to the instrument panel, with no fault light showing. However, when I went for big brakes, all four wheels locked, producing a cloud of smoke and scattering spectators in various directions.
This time, we tried the assistant fire chief's truck in a wet braking exercise. The result was appalling. While in everyday use the brakes felt fine, in the first emergency stop the pedal went almost to the floor, and no matter how hard the driver pushed, the braking level never got beyond five on a scale of 10. The anti-lock system did not come close to activating, and this was on soapy wet pavement. Apparently it had been in a shop in the city for a brake check, and was pronounced to be fine. Obviously the mechanic did not test the ABS, or try an emergency stop. They rarely do, relying instead on instrument displays and electronic scopes. There are reasons for this, including available space and liability issues. On top of that, most folk's cars are filled with junk that might come loose in such a test. It is not the mechanic's job to make your car ready to be tested, it is yours.
This goes far beyond Fire Rescue Service vehicles. One out of two German cars we used at a recent school had no functioning ABS and no warning light. I've experienced the same problem in brand new vehicles from GM, Chrysler, and Ford when doing ride-and-drive events.
Well, what is the everyday motorist to do? The answer is actually kind of fun, and definitely educational. If your vehicle is so equipped, test the anti-lock brakes in a safe location. Bear in mind that a good emergency stop requires that the highest brake pressure be applied early in the braking zone. Most drivers do the opposite, gradually adding pressure so the highest level is towards the end of the exercise, which significantly increases stopping distance.
If you don't have ABS, you can still practice an emergency stop to make sure your vehicle will stay straight and do the job.
Jackie Stewart is big on teaching people to do a chauffeur stop at every light, braking harder earlier, then easing off so there is no lurch or spring rebound. This is a great way of training the foot to operate in the right sequence, it is cheap practice, and your passengers will love you.
That's your first and most important task as a test driver. The second one, again to be conducted in a safe place, consists of a few hard swerves, at low speeds, to make sure all is well with the steering and suspension.
Actually, an isolated place is a good idea as well, for both exercises. Observers may not understand that what you are doing is in the interests of safety, and it can lead to some lengthy explanations to people in uniform.