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Advanced driving: Audi Women's Driving Experience Day

Defensive driving techniques, whether you are new to driving or a seasoned hand, are always a good idea.

I used to love the sensation of going fast. Rollercoasters and race tracks, the Grossglockner High Alpine Road on the back of a motorcycle. It was all such as fabulous thrill – until I had kids that is.

One minute, you are hurtling down the straight on the Portimao Circuit, and the next your tummy can barely handle 80km/h around a corner on the way home from Woolies.

We jumped at an invitation from Audi to attend their Women's Driving Experience Day. We jumped at an invitation from Audi to attend their Women's Driving Experience Day.

Becoming a parent changes more than just your physical ability to handle racing speeds, as it did in my case, it also changes your perspective on driving.

Whether it is a conscious decision or not, having precious cargo in the back seat is a reason to exercise a bit more caution, to be more patient and even more generous of spirit on the roads.

Unfortunately, it doesn't change the behaviour of that reckless P-plater weaving in and out of traffic at speed, making crazy decisions that put other motorists at risk.

Defensive driving techniques, whether you are new to driving or a seasoned hand, are always a good idea which is why we jumped at an invitation from Audi to attend their Women's Driving Experience Day at the Mt Cotton racetrack.

While the opportunity to drive their top performance models around a track all day was the perfect lure, the promise of enhancing individual driving skills and exploring the capability of active and passive safety systems rounded off the package nicely.

Audi's driving experience days are open to present and future customers, actually, anyone really, who wants to be a better driver and have fun learning to do it.

We were driving the Audi RS5 Coupe. We were driving the Audi RS5 Coupe.

Led by successful racer and motoring commentator Steve Pizzati, the team consists of the cream of Australian motorsport including Luke Youlden, Nathan Pretty, Daniel Garnett, Melinda Price and Chris Pither. The women-only drive days, now in their second year, have been a phenomenal success.

"Some women tend to learn better and have a better overall experience on female-only days," says Pizzati, "mostly because they feel it less overwhelming. We are able to arm them with skills to allow them to feel safer on the roads and hopefully they have fun along the way.

"And they are taught by race drivers who in addition to being highly skilled are all passionate about driver safety, driver education, about improving people's skills on the road.

"They also get to do it at race tracks like this so they can learn skills at a faster speed. If you can do something at 150km/h, you will feel confident doing it at 110km/h, but of course they can do it at 60km/h if that's what they prefer."

The skills on the half-day experience (a full-day version is available as well) included learning how to work with the car's advanced driver assistance systems, how to change lanes quickly to avoid an accident, how to effectively execute emergency stops in different weather and road conditions, make better use of the road and how to recover from inattention. Fast laps around the circuit were also the order of the day.

Rapid improvements in technology in the past decade, and the last five years in particular, have resulted in exponential advancements in your vehicle's ability to not only enhance the driving experience but to also help keep you safer on the road than ever before.

As a parent, features like autonomous emergency braking (AEB), reverse camera and sensors and blind-spot assist offer a comforting security blanket. But how many of us have learnt to use the technology and adjusted our driving styles accordingly to really take advantage of improvements?

Take the Adaptive Cruise Control, for example, which uses special laser sensors to measure the distance to the vehicle ahead and then automatically control the set speed and maintain a constant distance to the vehicle ahead.

Okay, so just between you and me, I am not generally a fan of cruise control. It requires giving up a little bit of control which I am not very good with and while I do use the feature during car tests I rarely do so willingly.

 Around tight corners didn't exactly spark joy but when in Mt Cotton… Around tight corners didn't exactly spark joy but when in Mt Cotton…

Having to use Adaptive Cruise Control on an Audi RS5 Coupe, locked on to the race car driver in front, around tight corners didn't exactly spark joy but when in Mt Cotton…

Once I damped down my demons, it was easier to appreciate the complexity of the system at work as well as the improvements made in the technology, too. Now, the radar spans a wider arc which means it can better account for cars that slip in front of you unexpectedly and detect open spaces in adjacent lanes if the car in front is turning.

"We will look back at this 10-year period as the transition from fully manual driving to the fully autonomous driving that is ahead, said Pizzati.

"This training is important because the tech is out there and if you don't understand what its capabilities are and more importantly what its limitations are, then you will lean on it at the wrong time and that won't turn out well. The few incidents with drivers in Teslas are proof of that.

"These systems are great but they are not completely doing everything for you so you need to learn how to work together with the car to get the best out of it so we can be safer and keep our families safe. That is what these days are about."

Probably the most valuable lesson of the day for me, and I would hazard a guess for most parents, is how to take evasive action to prevent an accident or limit the damage.

This is particularly relevant in situations where you become distracted, like when you are in traffic and the kids in the back need something for example, or when you are sneakily checking your phone (I hope you are not doing this), and you look up and car in front of you has stopped but you a still motoring along.

Fast laps around the circuit were also the order of the day. Fast laps around the circuit were also the order of the day.

The idea is to learn how to stop quickly and move into an open space on either side in the same motion.

"If there was one tip I would give any driver about defensive driving is, ‘Look Up'," said Pizzati. "I know that sounds unbelievably simple but at the heart of most problems is the fact that people are looking at the tail lights or bumper of the car in front. So, they use it as a cue to move or stop like rote learning, so if something goes wrong, your brain looks to the car in front of you for the cue to react.

"Looking up, over the roof of cars gives you the bigger picture, you see the problem earlier, so if something does go wrong you have more time to react and you would have spotted escape paths. Stop looking down, you should never know the number plate of the car in front of you."

While many of us that are just trying to get our little people from day care or school to their activities and back home again, there are hundreds of thousands of Australian parents currently getting to grips with teaching their kids to drive.

Why we subscribe to a system of letting parents, who may be poor drivers themselves, handing out bad driving advice to the next generation when driving is a skill that should be imparted by trained professionals, is probably a gripe for another time. But at the very least, says Pizzati, enroll your teen in a defensive driving course as soon as possible.

"Days like these are valuable for everybody but particularly for young drivers as you don't have 20 years of bad habits to break," he said.

"Apart from the fact that the tuition you get when learning to drive is inadequate, rudimentary at best, there is no retesting or retraining when you renew you licence every 10 years.

Technology changes, road laws change and even thinking about driving changes, better ways to do things, that means whatever you did as a 17-year-old getting a licence will serve you for the next 70 years behind the wheel, which is not a good thing for anyone.

The team covers all the essentials including emergency braking with obstacle avoidance. The team covers all the essentials including emergency braking with obstacle avoidance.

"Remember teenagers are used to being students, they take instruction and absorb the things we teach them without overthinking it. Whether they do a day with us or with other professionals doesn't matter, it is just vital that parents arm them with these skills."

Audi is not the only manufacturer offering drive experience days, but they sure make it fun and the women's only day definitely had a more relaxed, supportive vibe.

The team covers all the essentials from the correct driver seating set-up to slide control and oversteer practice, cornering practice and emergency braking with obstacle avoidance.

And of course there is the opportunity of unrestricted track lapping – which is a super thrill even with your tummy in your mouth!

See Audi Womens Driving Experience for more information.

Have we made you think twice about a defensive driving course? Tell us what you think in the comments below.