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After a hiatus, it’s finally back – the 2014 Malaysian edition of Ford’s Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) campaign kicked off last weekend, December 13 and 14, at the Malaysian Agro Exposition Park Serdang (MAEPS). Based on the same syllabus as the programme in the United States, the defensive driving course saw 80 licensed drivers – including yours truly – learning various tips in half a day.

Driving Skills For Life was set up to educate drivers on practical skills necessary for safe driving, with the aim of helping to bring down the number of fatalities and injuries caused by traffic accidents.

A statistic the press release threw up illustrates the dangers of being out on the road – according to a 2013 World Health Organisation (WHO) report, 1.2 million people a year die in traffic accidents while another 50 million are injured, a figure that will rise dramatically by the year 2020 if no appropriate action is taken.

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Closer to home, the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety (MIROS) said that on average, 18 people die on our roads every day, and estimates that the figure will rise to 29 by 2020. Given these statistics, you can understand the need to equip drivers with a skill set greater than what driving schools regularly teach.

“Road safety is a very serious issue, and also one that is highly relevant to our business,” said Ford’s managing director, Malaysia and Asia Pacific Emerging Markets, David Westerman. “Ford believes that road safety is part of our corporate responsibility, and we’re proud to launch Driving Skills for Life in Malaysia to help raise awareness of safe driving practices and techniques, and help make Malaysia’s roads safer.”

The course started off with a theory lesson – taught by our very own Harvinder Singh – that ran through the basic tenets of safe driving, such as the importance of all occupants fastening safety belts, staying within the speed limit, avoiding distractions while driving and keeping a safe distance from other vehicles on the road.

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Next up, we were split into three groups, and it was time to take the wheel. Unlike most other driving courses, owners were able to use their own cars – yes, even a Ranger – for all but one of the exercises. Since I wasn’t a Ford owner, however, I was given one of the cars made available for the media, in this case a Focus ST.

Before the tyres could even get a chance to spin, however, we were taught how to sit in a proper driving position, which is absolutely crucial if you want complete control over your car. Ideally, you’d want to sit close enough to the steering wheel that you can place your wrists on the top of it with your arms outstretched, as well as being able to depress the brake pedal fully. This will get you in a better position to react should an emergency situation occur.

The first test for my group was an ABS braking demonstration, meant to show the effectiveness of the system in letting you steer the car while braking. The exercise simulated an emergency lane-change manoeuvre, done by flicking the steering left and right while fully braking before coming to a complete stop.

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I have experienced the capabilities of ABS first hand before, but each time I have had to do it, I come out amazed at being able to retain control of the car while stomping hard on the brake pedal. This was no different, particularly at the speeds the Focus ST was capable of pulling at such a short stretch – I wouldn’t want to think of what would have happened if the system was not installed.

After that, we moved on to a compact, twisty slalom course, where drivers were educated on the importance of correct hand positioning on the steering (at nine- and three o’clock positions), which enables quicker, more direct inputs. Participants also discovered the benefits of driving smoothly, a faster, more controllable approach than being aggressive and erratic (as I was guilty of doing on one of the runs).

The really fun bit came last – learning to control understeer as well as oversteer situations with the ESP turned off, as well as how the car behaves with the systems enabled. Here was where owners were asked not to use their own cars – they were each ushered into a demonstration car instead – due to the demands the exercise placed on the tyres (in fact, they had to change the tyres on the demo car twice during that day). That proved no hardship though, as the vehicle provided turned out to be the brand-new Fiesta ST.

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We were asked to drive into a tight, sandy (and therefore rather slippery) left-hand corner and pin the throttle – do this and the front end will invariably wash wide, quickly dealt with by releasing the accelerator and letting the car come back in line (and getting the rear end to swing around, in the case of this feisty hot hatch). Next, a higher entry speed was directed – this time the handbrake was pulled, sending the car into a massive drift. An armful of countersteer in the direction of the slide sorted that one out.

A last run with the systems turned back on showed a complete change of character in the car – no matter how hard the handbrake was yanked, or how stupidly the throttle was treated, the Fiesta bucked and wriggled, but kept true to the intended direction. You can really feel the ESP working hard to hang on to the reigns of the car, and appreciate how much of a potential lifesaver it could be further down the road.

At the end of the day, I felt that I had become a better, more skilful driver, a view surely held by everyone else who attended the Driving Skills for Life programme. Missed your opportunity this round? Don’t fret, as Ford and local distributor Sime Darby Auto Connexion (SDAC) are planning to hold more of such events next year, and there’s even the suggestion of more advanced courses, so keep your eyes peeled!