Volkswagen SA launched its brand new advanced driving course it calls ‘Night School’ in October last year. As the name suggests, this course happens mostly at night and is geared towards educating drivers on the best practices of night-time driving.
At the media launch, a member of the Road Traffic Management Corporation shared a scary statistic – over 50% of South Africa’s fatal road accidents in 2022 happened at night. VW’s Night School hopes to reduce that number by underscoring several important aspects that all drivers should know.
Earlier this week, VW invited Stuff to try out the full course in person at the Zwartkops Raceway in Centurion, Pretoria where VW’s Advanced Driving division is based. We went along to see what the full course entails and to judge if it was worth the R3,500 asking price.
We left six hours later, after some adrenaline-inducing on-track exercises which followed an information-packed set of discussions and lectures (and a tasty dinner), armed with knowledge that could one day save our lives and feeling considerably more confident in our driving skills – not just at night, but in general.
Class is in session
First on the agenda was a discussion about why it is important to know your vehicle. You never know when that information might prove useful – like identifying that new grinding noise that started after you hit a pothole. But in some cases, it could mean the difference between life and death.
This section covered things like knowing how your car locks itself so that you notice when it doesn’t happen properly. This could save you from returning to see your parking spot empty because someone jammed your key fob as you were walking away.
We were also instructed on the dos-and-don’ts of a hijack situation. This ranged from how to perform actions like opening your door and undoing your seatbelt in a clear and nonconfrontational way so you don’t spook the chap with the gun and catch some lead along the way.
Most of the info in this discussion made a lot of sense if you stopped to think about it but most people aren’t likely to do that in the heat of the moment. Now that we’ve heard someone explain the theory behind it and watched them perform the actions, we feel confident that our chances of surviving a terrible ordeal like that have increased.
From there, we moved to the presentation area for a lecture that explained the dangers we face when driving at night and how seemingly small changes, like doing 65km/h instead of 60km/h can make a massive difference.
Don’t let that put you off. This wasn’t an old man standing in the front of the class explaining how we will all die on the road if we didn’t do what he said. Matthew Merton, the course’s chief instructor and VW’s Advanced Driving operations manager, kept the session light and interactive while still conveying the important info.
After a tasty dinner – which is included in the course – we stayed with the vehicle and went over how to do a proper vehicle inspection. That covered all the important stuff that’s necessary to check before leaving, and how to identify if something wasn’t as it should be.
Merton also touched on a driver’s seating position and how sitting incorrectly – whether that be raked back so you’re looking out the rear window or bolt-upright and nearly on top of the steering wheel – could make things much worse for you if you’re ever in an accident.
Following that, we went back to class for one last lecture. This one focused on skidding; what it is, the different types of skids, what causes them, how to prevent it from happening, and what to do when it does inevitably happen.
This also included more info on the different safety systems most modern cars come with, like ABS (antilock braking system) and ESC (electronic stability control). Here’s where the real value of this course became apparent.
Most people have heard of ABS before and might even know a little about what it does. That’s great but having an expert explain it to you before you go out onto the track and experience it first-hand is far more valuable than skimming through the Wikipedia page.
If you’ve never been in a situation where you’ve felt ABS or ESC kick in, it can be extremely jarring and might cause some people to panic, possibly making things worse by doing the wrong thing or not doing the right thing in time. That’s where the on-track exercises come in.
What to do when you’re going sideways
For the on-track portion of the course, the group was split into pairs with each given their own track instructor and test vehicle. The course only uses VW vehicles, obviously, but the entire range is available so you can drive something similar to what you are used to.
The three on-track exercises highlighted the aforementioned safety features in a controlled environment intending to build muscle memory for the actions needed in an emergency.
Driving in and out of a line of cones showed off ESC in action, with the rear left and right tyres working to keep the car from skidding around. Then, the emergency lane changes with and without breaking showed how both ABS and ESC work to keep the vehicle on the road and facing the right direction.
VW Advanced Driving Night School verdict
VW’s Advanced Driving Night School is open and ready to improve your driving skills but it isn’t without its drawbacks. For now, the full course is only available at Zwartkops in Centurion which makes things rather inconvenient if you don’t live within driving distance. Luckily, if you don’t live nearby or can’t afford to enrol, VW has made the theoretical section of the course available online for free.
It also costs R3,500 which is less than some of the other courses out there but still a good chunk of change for most folks. Having done the course (and passing), we can say you do get your money’s worth and it is money well spent if you’ve never done an advanced driving course before.
Additionally, like other advanced driving courses, you receive a certificate upon completion which you can take to your vehicle insurance company to (hopefully) reduce your insurance premiums. If they don’t accept it, maybe think about switching.
However, we noted on VW’s Driving Academy website that there is another full-day safety course that also costs R3,500 but spans eight hours versus Night School’s six hours. If you don’t have the aim of improving your driving at night and are after a more generalised course, that might feature more info seeing as it takes two and a half hours longer – or maybe they just talk a little bit slower.
Either way, we reckon it’s a good idea for everyone to enrol even if that’s just for the free online course. Having better-educated drivers on our roads surely can’t hurt – imagine arriving at your destination not seething with road rage. We live in hope.