Rally School Ireland: Motorsport insights applied to road safety

A driving school in Monaghan imparts high-level skills to preserve life on Irish roads

The right hand edge of the roof has just passed through 45-degrees to the vertical, and is now rolling over and dipping towards the ground. The straps of my seatbelts are digging into my shoulder and belt-line with unexpected vehemence, while my cardiovascular system has just lost the plot, unsure of which way is actually up.

I'm not to sure myself, as the BMW in which I'm sitting has now turned turtle entirely and I'm dangling, upside-down, in my seat. It's at this point that a friendly voice inquires: "Would you like to get out now?"

Rally School Ireland started as something fun. A field just outside Scotstown, Co Monaghan, was converted into a compact track, originally part-gravel, part-tarmac but nowadays entirely macadamed. Some appropriate rally cars – starting with MkII Escorts and some Imprezas – were bought and liveried up, and Rally School founder David Smyth started instructing those who cared to learn the wily ways of Scandinavian Flicks and handbrake turns.

The school has expanded over the years, taking on extra cars, from classic rallying weapons to modern-day supercars and drifting cars, but its primary mission remains the same – to give people a taste of full-on motorsport, from the inside.


To that mission, a new one has now been added. Keeping people alive when they’re driving on the road.

Rally School Ireland, known by its initials RSI, has long been running courses in defensive driving, and winter driving techniques. Now the safety aspect has been expanded, so much so that there's a second version of the acronym – Road Safety Ireland.

Now, we’re upstairs. Except we’re not. We’re sitting in a small hatchback, being driven with just a touch too much vim and way too much bravado by a young male driver sitting to my right. In the back seat are two female companions. They are chatting, showing each other s photos on their phones as we barrel along a country lane and then . . . oh God . . . tractor . . . trailer . . . blackness.

Again, thankfully, this is not real. Just as the tumbling BMW earlier was an engine-less car mounted to a special rig that can be rolled and turned back at will, I’ve not actually been in a crash just now. But for a few seconds, I feel as if I have.

Now, as the virtual reality headset clamped to my eyes allows me to look around, I see blood, injuries, carnage. I look up into the eyes of a paramedic, as she rolls up my tattered sleeve and says she’s going to give me something for the pain. To her right, a fire crew begins cutting the roof off the car, while to her left and behind, an ambulance crew makes a vain attempt to resuscitate one of my companions, ejected violently during the accident.


Of course, all I have to do is reach my real, uninjured hands up and remove the headset, and I’m back in the real world, in the lecture room at RSI, but the immersive VR video, made by Leicestershire emergency services in the UK, is horribly mesmerising. If it sounds like being landed in one of those shocking road safety TV adverts . . . well, that’s exactly what it’s like.

“We’ve designed this road safety course with input from local transition year students,” Smyth says. “We want to create a practical learning environment, not just have us talking to you endlessly, but to have you doing it, seeing it, being part of it.”

It seems to be effective. With concerns that those tough-watch TV ads are now being ignored by younger drivers, the VR element seems perfectly calibrated to their brains. Smyth confirms that it’s at the very least anecdotally effective.

“You can tell at what point they see the accident happening” he explains. “At first, they’re all just enjoying the VR and looking around, and having fun with it. And then they just go still. And they start looking around very, very slowly. Taking it all in. We had a teacher in here with a group and he told me that, on the way home it’s the only time he’s seen every single one of them buckle up their seatbelts in the bus.”

The tumbling BMW is matched by a roll-over Subaru Impreza – a 1990s one, decked out in Bertie Fisher ToughMac colours, as tribute to the fact that the Fisher Foundation has been involved in setting up the course. The rally car itself is there to help teach professional drivers escape techniques if they ever end up on their roofs.

The BMW is there to do the same for regular drivers and passengers. There’s more in the lecture theatre, from reaction speed testers, to goggles that convey the effects of alcohol, drugs or even lack of sleep. The simulated impairment found at the legal drink-drive limit is terrifying. Scarier still are statistics on speed. If you drive into a line-up of 10 people at 50km/h, you’ll kill two of them. Drive into them at 60km/h and you’ll kill eight.

Sliding and skidding There is a practical nature to the course.

Citroen is supporting RSI's initiative, so we head out in a C3 Aircross SUV with some very special tyres fitted. The left front and right rear tyres are standard. The other two are not – they're rock-hard plastic tyres, used by professional drifters and police training courses around the world, and they allow RSI to simulate icy or oily conditions. They're so lacking in grip, in fact, that the front-wheel drive C3 Aircross can easily be provoked into a wild rally-car-style drift at will. It's enormous fun, of course, but again with a serious side.

Most people don’t ever get into a skid or a slide, and for many who do, their first skid is their first crash. Smyth reckons that the more you can expose people to the dynamics of sliding and skidding, the more they’ll recognise what’s happening when it does happen, and the more they’ll be able to do about it to save themselves.

Officially, the Road Safety Ireland course is being launched today. Whatever about officialdom, I can but urge you to go and experience the course for yourself.