Beyond the Driving Test: Real-World Skills for New Drivers

By CanadaDrives & Ford Driving skills

Beyond the Driving Test Real-World Skills for New Drivers


Obtaining a driver’s licence is an exciting time for any young person, ushering in a new sense of freedom and independence with no need to rely on Mom and Dad’s taxi service! But heading out alone onto the road for the first time can also be a source of anxiety for the young person and their parents alike.

Concern for the safety of young drivers is not misplaced. The age group 15-19 years old currently accounts for around 13% of the Canadian driver population but comprises 20% of driver fatalities and accidents. That’s according to statistics from Ford, which established the Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) program across Canada a decade ago in response to that elevated risk. 

Ford Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) program | Photo: Graham Heeps 

The goal is to introduce new drivers to real-world skills, experiences and hazards as a complement to basic driver training, helping to equip them for a safer life on the road. Held in the safety of a closed course, the program is free of charge and open to anyone with at least a learner’s permit (under-16s must be accompanied by a parent or guardian).

Inexperience and poor decision making behind the wheel

Dave Drimmie, program manager, says that there are two major reasons why young people are disproportionately represented in the accident statistics: inexperience and poor decision making. Neither can be rectified in a half-day course, but his team of instructors helps by introducing the participants to real-world concepts like hazard recognition, vehicle handling, speed management and space management.

Dave Drimmie, Canadian program manager of the Ford Driving Skills for Life program | Photo: Graham Heeps 

“We put younger drivers in simulated situations and give them real-world training,” he says. “Two of the exercises are the hot-button topics of the day, which are impaired and distracted driving. 

The statistics bear out that for 42% of younger drivers who are involved in a fatality, it’s due to either drugs or some sort of impairment or distraction. Here, we allow them to drive in a distracted manner, and also in a simulated impaired manner, which seems counterintuitive but reinforces why they shouldn’t be doing it.”

Drimmie recalls how, as an inexperienced new driver, he went off the road in snow while driving at the 60km/h speed limit, which was too fast for the winter conditions. As is often the case with learning new skills, whether it’s at school or on a sports team, he finds that young people are often more ready to listen to a neutral third party than to their parents.

“Our instructors are great communicators, and while we tell them not to be heavy handed, we urge them to deliver it straight,” he explains. “We don’t sugar-coat anything. It’s a serious topic and the statistics bear that out. I think the students appreciate hearing that from us. We’re a different voice. They can tell us what their thoughts are when they don’t necessarily want to talk to their parents.”

Impaired driving

Canada Drives joined 60 young people at a DSFL event in Calgary to see how the program works. In one exercise, we donned blurry-lensed ‘Fatal Vision’ goggles to simulate the visual impact of driving at twice the legal alcohol limit, then tried to pilot a Ford Edge slowly around a course of cones. 

Blurry-lensed ‘Fatal Vision’ goggles to simulate the visual impact of driving at twice the legal alcohol limit | Photo: Graham Heeps 

Even at very low speed and with no mental impairment, we can testify that it was impossible to keep the Edge on course! As our instructor pointed out, as we hit cones the tendency was to hit the brakes, which happens quickly without the mental impairment of alcohol or drugs, and with zero consequences on a low-speed course. 

But at 100km/h on the highway, we’ve travelled half a football field in the time it takes us to react, even before an impairment is factored in.

Adds Drimmie, “We allow the participants to drive with the goggles on in the knowledge that they’re going to drive erratically and run over cones. It reinforces why they shouldn’t be driving impaired.”

Distracted driving

In a second exercise, we first learned a short driving course with turns and signage before trying to repeat the lap while searching up a YouTube video or texting a friend. Having completely missed that one of the signs was changed from the first lap to the second, and having stopped completely at one point to concentrate on the screen, we can confirm that even at low speed in a safe environment, the dangers of distracted driving were all too visible. Drimmie says that many of the students are very new to driving, so it’s important to ingrain the dangers of distraction early on.

“We don’t just talk about texting and driving, but also about when you’re late, or if you’ve had an argument with somebody, or the distractions of people in the car with you,” he expands. “There are many layers of distraction. 

We say to the young driver, if someone is distracting you, you have to be strong-willed enough to pull over in a safe area and have a discussion with the people in your car. Peer pressure is a big thing with this group and we recognize that it can be hard. But we’re trying to teach them that they do have a voice. They have control over the operation of the vehicle and they’re ultimately responsible for what’s going to happen.”

Space management and emergency braking

Participants also take part in a hazard-recognition exercise. We’re taught that vision is everything: an experienced driver might be constantly monitoring the distance to the vehicle in front and whether there’s an open lane beside them, but a new driver might not yet have that situational awareness.

Ford Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) program | Photo: Graham Heeps 

In a DSFL simulation that mimics another driver suddenly cutting in front of you on the highway, we accelerated to 50km/h and then reacted to a call from the instructor to change lanes left or right to avoid the imaginary hazard in front.

The return lane then incorporates a threshold braking exercise to demonstrate anti-lock braking (ABS). Drimmie observes that many new drivers are unfamiliar with the sensation of an ABS system kicking in and might misinterpret the pulsing sensation through the pedal as either a fault with the brakes, or as a sign that maximum braking has been reached, when it could be that only one wheel is slipping. In both cases, it’s important to know to maintain pedal pressure and not lift off.

“We’re also teaching them to leave a proper gap to the car in front and be ready to react very quickly,” he says. “Many younger drivers, and even older drivers, don’t understand stopping distances at different speeds or on different surfaces.”

Further education

Based on our half-day with the Driving Skills for Life program, we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to the parents of any new driver looking for something that goes beyond the basic driver training. Other courses are available to new drivers, too – for example from your local CAA affiliate – and Drimmie sees merit in any program that contributes to keeping young drivers safe by educating them in real-world situations and driving techniques.

Ford Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) program | Photo: Graham Heeps 

Areas of inexperience for young drivers

(as identified by the Ford DSFL program)

1) Hazard Recognition

  • The point of no return
  • How to scan for trouble
  • Minimizing distractions
  • Safety zones
  • Minimum vision lead time
  • Approaching and turning left at an intersection

2) Vehicle Handling

  • Tire-road contact patches
  • How acceleration, deceleration, braking and turns affect vehicle balance
  • Adjusting to a vehicle’s size and weight
  • How to recover from skids in front- and rear-wheel-drive vehicles

3) Speed Management

  • Driving at a speed that doesn’t endanger or impede others
  • Using proper signals and covering the brake
  • Conventional braking systems versus ABS systems
  • Emergency braking techniques

4) Space Management

  • Maintaining space around, ahead of and behind your vehicle
  • Learning how to adjust speed
  • Maintaining a safe distance between vehicles
  • How to avoid being rear-ended and avoiding a head-on crash