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Driver’s Ed is one investment parents will want to consider

Things have changed a lot since I sat through numbing Thursday evenings in a classroom while being fed a slide show of black and white crash photos.

How do you choose a driver’s education course for your teen?

It’s a good question and an important one. Our roads are congested, driving is complicated and teens can be impatient. As a parent, you will want to invest in the best education. It is an investment, after all. Decent schools will chop at least 700 bucks out of your budget.

Do your kids have to take the course? Don’t all those years of driving with Mom or Dad count for something?

Actually, it’s all those years that probably have to be undone and it’s a multi-step process. Passing a written test gets a G1 licence into the hands of someone who reaches age 16. The year that follows must prepare them for the next step of the graduated licensing program: the G2 road test. Ministry requirements don’t insist they take part in regulated instruction; they just strongly recommend it.

Things have changed a great deal since I sat through numbing Thursday evenings in a classroom while being fed a slide show of black and white crash photos from the 1950s that have scarred me to this day. Tighter provincial legislation put into effect in 2008 has upped the number of training hours required of schools. The level of bad driving on our roads indicates it’s not the solution, but a step in the right direction.

The Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) website provides a list of accredited driving schools. Interestingly, they also provide a list of unaccredited schools. These lists are important for you and your teen: attending and graduating from a recognized training centre means they can apply for their G2 road test four months earlier than the standard one-year wait. This can also deliver a break on their auto insurance.

My eldest son attended a Young Driver’s school. His in-class instruction was predictable (a bunch of teens trapped for two straight weekends) and his in-car instructor was terrific.

When shopping for my youngest child, however, a few things had changed. The ministry-approved curriculum now requires 40 hours of instruction, which includes 10 hours spent behind a wheel. There is an online homework component that must be completed.

There’s something else I considered this time around. After interviewing Canadian car racer Ron Fellows several months back, I learned about something he highly recommends to new drivers: simulators.

Driving simulators have long been used for truck drivers, police and other professional organizations. Fellows couldn’t emphasize enough the value of their role to new drivers. A bridge between classroom instruction and in-car experience, these simulators contain an element of education that goes beyond novelty and fun.

They’re used by all DriveWise schools, which are independently owned and operated across Canada. I contacted Tim Danter at DriveWise Oakville for a sneak peek. Three large computer monitors provide a full front-seat view. The driver buckles up, starts the car, and proceeds to drive in a seemingly endless array of scenarios: urban, rural, day, night, snow, ice, black ice and glaring sun. Emergency vehicles come up in the rear-view mirror. Pedestrians chase balls into the street. School buses turn on their flashing lights. Cars run red lights in front of you.

A car jumps a curb after too much speed on a corner. The driver takes a moment to compose and nearly misses a car backing out of a driveway. A leisurely drive in the country induces a wandering focus until a pickup truck blows off a stop sign.

I saw one student driving on a simulated country road encounter a simulated deer, transfixed by the headlights. She honked; it was motionless. She honked again. Looking quizzically at the instructor, he asked, “What should you do?” She paused for a moment. “Hit it?”

I sat in the class for four days. Students are split into two rotating groups, with instruction split between driving law, rules of the road, written quizzes and short films. The simulator plays a role throughout, providing a chance to put into action all that book work.

Not surprisingly, students love working with the simulators. Watching students on the simulator quickly revealed who had been behind a wheel and who had not. Driving postures and vision — that ability to see far down the road and predict what will happen — start to develop early. In a protected computer environment, the student can begin developing this vision before they ever put a real car in drive.

While driving simulators are becoming more popular with training programs, they still are not widespread in the industry. Check for those who offer them by checking out the MTO’s accredited school listing.

What to look for in schools

Ministry of Transportation-approved schools will have a current licence posted in each classroom and they’ll be listed on the MTO website.

  They adhere to the mandated curriculum of 40 hours of training. This can be broken into 20 hours in class, 10 hours online and 10 hours in car. Simulators can be used as part of the 20 hours of class time.

  See if your student has the option of completing the course in two full weekend sessions; this is often easier to budget.

  The preferred student-to-teacher ratio is 24 to 1, though it shouldn’t exceed 40 to 1. Smaller is better.

  Ask if students are able to take their G2 road test with the instructor’s car, if needed. Check about charges for this.

  There shouldn’t be more than one other student in the car during in- car instruction.

  Beware of hidden charges. Some schools don’t include the required instruction and materials in their fees.

  Do some research to determine if simulators will benefit your child.

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