Speed trials

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I took a Speed Awareness Course this morning. Reactions varied when I told people where I was going. Lots of people had done them previously – I learned today that 1 in 27 drivers in the country have done the course, or something similar – and most had comments to make about how boring it was, how ‘varied’ the attendees were and, generally, what a waste of time it had been.

I went in expecting a trial, after all we were here partly as punishment for having been caught breaking the speed limit, and a lecture, after all we were stupid/careless/irresponsible/reckless enough to be speeders. The retribution never came. We were told from the outset that we were not here because we were criminals and that the offer of the course had been made to us because we had been caught breaking the speed limit by only a few miles per hour. In my case, I was driving at 36mph in a 30mph stretch of dual carriageway at 5.30am, when mine was the only car around. The course is designed not to scold or reprimand, but to encourage and support, to incentivise us all not to break the speed limit, and to give us techniques to use to help us stay legal.

I found the four hours deeply affecting. Yes, we heard a fair share of horror stories, and why not? When a car hits a small child at more than 30mph, what do we expect other than horror? We spent a short period in groups plotting out the impact that a car hitting a pedestrian could have on the victim, their family and friends, the driver and their family. We proved that it doesn’t take much imagination to spin the tales out, and they are unpleasant in the extreme.

But, having accepted that hitting a pedestrian or cyclist, or just crashing solo, could be devastating in many uncontrollable ways, and also that whether you as a driver ever did so was essentially also just a matter of blind luck, we were also given memorable, practical advice on how to stay within the speed limit and thus minimise the chances of finding ourselves in that most horrific circumstance.

Here are some things I took away with me:

  • It takes a well-rested, alert SAS member who has been told that he is taking part in an emergency stopping exercise 0.7seconds to hit the brake when someone runs out in front of him. In that time a car at 40 mph will have travelled 41 feet. It won’t stop for a further 80 feet.
  • Stopping distance and residual speed. If a lorry jack-knifes in front of you on the motorway and you are the exact stopping 70mph distance away from it, then if you’re driving at 70, you’ll stop a few feet short of it. If you’re doing 100mph, you’ll still be travelling at 70mph when you hit it. And then you’ll be dead and so will everyone else in your car.
  • Keeping track of how the speed limit is changing as you drive through mixed environments is not straightforward. Signs are fine but they aren’t always there and in their absence you need to know about what makes a dual carriageway, what constitutes a system of street lighting, and how the speed limit might vary depending on what sort of thing you’re driving. At the moment I’m a lot better at working this stuff out than I was 24 hours ago.
  • A super-simple way to stay within the speed limit is to match your gears to the number. If it’s 10mph, stay in 1st. 20mph in 2nd, 30mph in 3rd etc. Makes it tougher to push over the limit.
  • New drivers these days are taught to change gears in blocks, i.e. from 1st to 3rd. Not sure why that’s safer, but apparently it saves on fuel.
  • For a car stopped on the hard shoulder of the motorway the average time before another car hits it is, wait for it, 11 minutes.

Here are some things I decided to try to do differently as a result of attending:

  • Think about those residual speed figures. The tutor kept on repeating “This is physics. You cannot beat it.” And he’s right. I drive around thinking I’ll be okay if someone steps out in front of me. I’m pretty sharp, I think (spoiler alert: i’m not), so I’ll probably be able to stop, or swerve, or something. That’s stupid, and in complete denial of the facts. The only thing I can actually do to control the chances of me killing someone, including my family, is drive slower.
  • Put a visual reminder in my windshield to make me think about this stuff whenever I climb in behind the wheel.
  • Look at using the speed limiter on my car. One of the toughest things to do is recognise the frequent changes in speed limit and adapt to them. I have a little toggle on my steering wheel that sets an upper speed limit and allows me to adjust it up and down by 5mph at a time with just one touch. Why not use it all the time?
  • Think about making a big money deal with my wife, like a significantly life-changing amount. So, say, we each agree that the next person to get caught speeding has to give the other £1000. Or charity.
  • Take more breaks on long drives.
  • Put my phone in the glove box when I set off, unless i’m using it for sat nav. I can pre-programme a list of podcasts really easily, so I really don’t need to be looking at it at all.
  • Try the gear matching thing.

And then, after four hours, I left the course and drove to work, trying to stick to the speed limit. And driving this way felt like a completely different activity from ‘driving’ as I ordinarily do it. Here’s how:

  • Firstly, if you diligently stick to the speed limit, you realise immediately, IMMEDIATELY, that everyone speeds all the time. If you don’t believe me, just try it, especially in a 20mph or 30mph zone.
  • You spot it first because it just feels weird not to put your foot down and surge forward, not to be hitting corners like you’re in a (low wattage) racing game, not to be attempting to get wherever you’re going as quickly as you can get away with. As an aside, one of the points the tutors made well, but which some of the attendees just could not accept, was that it doesn’t really matter how quickly you go, you won’t get there any quicker. Unless you’re into repeated overtaking then you’ll still get there just after the car in front of you, and there’s not much you can do to make them go quicker. Motorways and multi-lane highways are probably an exception here.
  • It’s not just that there are stretches that feel slow, everything feels slow. And that’s weird, and disconcerting, but not, ultimately, such a bad thing. In fact, driving at or below the speed limit opens up the whole experience. It’s almost like slow food, it feels like a reclaiming of an activity. It’s relaxing, not stressful all of a sudden.
  • The simple fact that everyone speeds all the time means that, for the non-speeding driver, two things change instantly. Firstly, yes, there’s a queue of traffic behind you. You need to be ready and willing to deal with that. The tutor this morning tried this line: “They may be annoyed with you now, but on time in a hundred you’ll be their best mate when they follow you round a corner and there’s a mobile camera waiting.” That doesn’t really give me what I need, but fortunately I do a really good line in piousness and I also, I don’t mind people thinking I’m a dick so long as they know I’m right. Suddenly, being the slow driver at the front of the queue sounds like something I might actually enjoy.
  • The second, surprising, thing that changes, and this is obvious once you’ve experienced it, is that you have a totally clear, open road ahead of you. It’s incredible. No brake lights to look out for one or two or three vehicles ahead. No danger of the car in front doing something erratic or just annoying you somehow, no need to read their dumb-ass bumper stickers, because they’ve gone because everyone speeds all the time. Again, driving becomes a weirdly relaxed experience.
  • You realise just how many of the roads through any urban area have 20mph limits. They are that way because there are lots of, as our tutor described them, ‘squishy people’ around there. People like me or you or your parents or your kids or your best friends. And those people have asked for a 20mph limit to stop cars killing them. When you actually drive through these zones at 19 or 20mph, rather than a lazy is-this-good-enough 27 or 28mph you actually think you might be able to stop if one of those squishy people ran out into the road.

So, there you have it. I’m going to try hard to stick to this new way of driving. If these speed awareness courses were free to attend, then I would be recommending you all to take the time to sit through one. Luckily, most of the material is, ultimately, stuff we all already know. So why not save yourself 4 hours and £80 and just go out today or tomorrow and try really hard to stick within the speed limits as they change across your journey. You’ll find out, as I did, that it’s better in all the really important ways.

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