Driving Safely

I remember someone reproaching me for not saying anything to a friend about his awful driving; my rejoinder was that I thought it would cause aggravation without having any beneficial effect at all. I think I was right; I hope it wasn’t just rationalization of my disinclination to argue with my friend. I also hope that this article isn’t just going to cause aggravation: I hope it will actually make someone think; at least one person somewhere.

Once, when I was a young and inexperienced driver, I skidded. I was lucky: I didn’t hit anything, and nobody hit me. But my reaction wasn’t, ‘Phew! That was lucky! But it wouldn’t have been my fault if there’d been an accident’; my reaction was ‘Phew! That was lucky! What did I do wrong?’

I duly analysed what I had done wrong, and the only conclusion I could come to was that I’d been driving too fast for the conditions. The local speed limit was fifty, and I’d been doing fifty. But the road was wet.

Since then, in over half a million miles driving, I haven’t skidded again. When the road is wet, I slow down.

I am appalled that otherwise intelligent people take the attitude that you cannot make allowances for possibilities like standing water on the road. Of course one drives on calculated risks. All human activity is risky to some extent, and we all have to die sometime. What appals me is the high level of risk people take on the road, when they are so acutely safety conscious about some other things. The cost of slowing down when the road is wet is turning a twenty minute journey into a thirty minute journey; or a five hour journey into a seven hour journey. Is our time so valuable? I’ve seen ‘Better late in this world than early in the next’ in a few rear windscreens. I think it’s a good motto.

Yes, if the road is so wet that I can’t tell if there’s standing water until I’m almost in it, I slow down to about thirty so that I can see it in time to slow down even more before I hit it. I value my life, and I really don’t care if I’m late – anyway, if I’m driving I give myself plenty of time.

I don’t usually slam my brakes on suddenly, because I know that there might well be an idiot behind me who’s going to run into me if I do. I don’t say idiot lightly; I really mean it. Exactly that has happened to me once; I had to slam my brakes on because someone pushed a pram out right in front of me. The insurance companies and the police took the attitude (rightly I’m sure) that the fault was entirely that of the person who ran into the back of my car. Nonetheless, I thought about what I could have done differently: I want to avoid all accidents, not just the ones I might be blamed for.

There was something I could have done. The reason I didn’t see the pram until it was right in front of me was that it appeared from behind a crowd of people on the pavement. It happened to be a pram; it could have been a running child, a drunk, or a person ‘with severe learning difficulties’ (or whatever the current euphemism is). I had seen the crowd of people, of course; as soon as I saw them, I should have slowed down so that I could have stopped more gently – or indeed, so that I could have stopped at all had I been closer at the moment the pram appeared; in which case the idiot might still have hit me, but at least we’d both have been going more slowly and the risk of injury would have been less.

Likewise, if I’m passing parked cars and there isn’t room to give them a wide berth, I now assume that a child might dash out between them, so I slow right down. Yes, fifteen miles an hour or less. I slow down gently well before I arrive, in case of the idiot behind. Of course children shouldn’t dash out between parked cars, because not everyone drives like I do; equally, drivers should allow for children dashing out between cars because not every child behaves as sensibly as they should either. It takes a bad driver and a bad pedestrian to cause that kind of accident; but I have more sympathy with the bad pedestrian than with the bad driver, because it is the driver who is in charge of the lethal weapon. You can reasonably exclude the very young and the mentally impaired from driving; you can’t fairly exclude them from walking.

I don’t pass cyclists close, and give them an increasing berth as my speed increases, because they might swerve to avoid something I can’t see, or they might simply wobble, have a puncture, or anything. If that means I travel at cyclist speed for a few hundred yards, so be it. I can stand that; my conscience couldn’t stand hitting a cyclist, whoever was to blame.

The end result of course is that I usually take slightly longer over most journeys than other people do, and I probably irritate a few impatient souls. They irritate me, too, flying past me at seventy miles an hour (or more) on a wet motorway that’s barely safe at fifty. My irritation is more justifiable than theirs: they could cost me my life; I cost them a few seconds of their time, or a couple of minutes at most. I don’t go along with the idea that my irritating them makes their driving worse and thereby increases the risk of their causing an accident; their impatience is the problem, and I don’t make any significant difference to that.

The slower traffic is moving, the more traffic a given road can carry. That may be counter-intuitive, but it’s true, at least above about fifteen miles an hour. The reason is that carrying capacity is proportional to the speed of the traffic divided by the distance between the vehicles. Except with the most exceptionally bad drivers, the separation increases more than in proportion to the speed.

I can forgive people making mistakes when they find themselves in circumstances they haven’t thought about beforehand – I have to, it happens to me. I don’t forgive them refusing to learn from their mistakes, or denying that they are mistakes. I do spend a little time analysing things that happen on the road (or anywhere else), whenever I see an accident or a near miss. It’s worth it. It means there are fewer occasions when I find myself in circumstances I haven’t thought about beforehand. It doesn’t mean I have to spend the whole time worrying about possible accidents; it just informs the way I drive, and changes my habits. The only thing I have to keep on telling myself, that never seems to become habitual, is don’t be impatient.

Inevitably one finds oneself in unforeseen circumstances sometimes. In the driving context, the highway code (and the Department of Transport manual, Driving) are a useful fund of prior experience. They’re not fuddy-duddy out-of-date irrelevances. It’s a sad thing that they are so widely ignored or even derided. Likewise, speed limits are sensible, not a nuisance. Sometimes perhaps they’re too high; certainly they’re too high for bad weather.

I don’t agree with those people who think that causing death by dangerous driving should carry a heavier sentence than dangerous driving. No doubt it should carry a heavy sentence. But why should someone get a heavier sentence just because they are unlucky? If one drives dangerously, it is a matter of luck whether one causes death or not. The gravity of the sentence should reflect the size of the risk taken, not the actual outcome. In general, the sentences should be much heavier than they are. I include speeding as dangerous driving, because that is what it is. Is risking killing someone really so much less serious than theft?

There was a case not very long ago where a lorry driver, in the fog, didn’t see the flashing lights at a level crossing until it was too late to stop. His vehicle stopped on the crossing, after crashing through the barriers. The train hit the trailer unit, damaging both train and lorry severely, but by the merest good fortune not hurting anyone seriously. The lorry driver was prosecuted and convicted, but his lawyer made a plea in mitigation that he wasn’t driving too fast, only about thirty miles an hour, and most of the fault was the fog’s. The plea was accepted and sentence was consequently light. I believe this to have been a gross miscarriage of justice: thirty miles an hour was much too fast if the fog was so thick that he couldn’t stop in time for a level crossing. The lights at a level crossing are bright and flashing: he would have had no chance of seeing a pedestrian, a bicycle, or even a stationary car, at a similar distance. He was lucky he hadn’t caused several fatal accidents before he even reached the crossing.

If you can’t see whether there’s stationary traffic fifty yards ahead, then assume there is. Slow down. You don’t have to slam the brakes on: fifty yards earlier, you couldn’t see whether there was stationary traffic a hundred yards ahead; you’ve had plenty of warning. Fog doesn’t jump out in front of you, even when it’s patchy.

Exactly the same goes for bends in the road. They don’t jump out in front of you, either.

I really do believe that you should always drive no faster than such a speed that you can stop, without having to do an emergency stop and allowing for road conditions, within the distance you can see to be clear. Emergency stops are for the occasions when someone unexpectedly appears within the distance that you could previously see to be clear, not for perfectly visible corners or fog.

On narrow roads you should consider only half the distance you can see to be clear, because of people coming in the other direction needing the other half. In fact of course, they may well be going faster than they should, so you should consider even less than half; but the end of that argument would be that you have to go backwards. I’m prepared to settle for a compromise: if they are going a bit too fast, we may both have to do an emergency stop rather than merely a normal stop; and that if they’re going a lot too fast, we’ll both do an emergency stop and collide at as low a speed as possible.

Of course I’m not Mr Perfect. I don’t always practice what I preach. I get absentminded and forget temporarily about circumstances I have foreseen; I become impatient and ignore my better judgment. If you draw my attention to it at the time I’ll probably bite your head off. I’m sorry. Tell me again what I did wrong and I’ll try to remember not to do it again. I’ll listen to you if you’ll listen to me. Maybe I will even if you won’t.