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Posts Tagged ‘driving’

I listened to a very moving radio programme recently in which a man revisited the place where he had undergone a profound life-changing experience.

The place was in Norfolk where he had been driving one winter evening and had run over a pedestrian. He’d had no chance of missing him. A sudden dark shape in the pitch darkness, right there – bang. Unavoidable, everyone agreed.

A helicopter came. The hospital did its best. Six days later, the message came that the pedestrian, a man in his 70s, had not survived.

The programme made compelling listening as I found my emotions ranging from annoyance and a twinge of intolerance to immense sympathy and compassion for everyone involved.

What a searingly brave exposure of this driver’s vulnerability. I admired him for his courage and honesty in going back to that road and the community where the victim had lived.

The awful accident brought home how swiftly a life can end. Walking home on a quiet, rural and wholly familiar route became suddenly the most dangerous place in the world for that poor man. For both the poor men, of course, for the driver has never recovered from the horror of what happened.

He’s had therapy for many of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and it took him ages to get back behind the wheel. Even now, with the support of the victim’s friends who have been nothing but encouraging and sympathetic, he finds many hitherto normal tasks and events difficult to cope with.

I thought of him this week and how randomly lives can change. All it takes is one moment . . .

I was driving across a junction controlled by traffic lights, which were in my favour. I was going slowly anyway, but as I headed for the other side I slowed down even more because I could see a woman with two small boys standing on the central traffic island.

Something, an instinct about unpredictable little boys perhaps, might have prepared me for what happened next. One of the boys ran out into the road. I slammed on my brakes.

In that split-second, the child’s face was millimetres from the passenger side of my car, his small body still propelling forward. Somehow, and I don’t know how, child and metal didn’t actually make contact. He turned and bolted back to his mother.

My thumping heart felt as though it would burst out of my chest. I lowered the window and, in my distress, for it can only have been a reaction to that, I begged the woman to hold both her children’s hands when she’s crossing a road. She had the grace to apologise, which was the right thing to do and made me feel quite a lot better.

I pulled away and I swear I could hear my heart thundering in panicky fear as I cautiously continued my journey.

What a life-changer that would have been. How could I have lived with myself if I’d hit that child, even if it hadn’t been my fault? How would his life have changed? And would the mother ever have forgiven me?

I was thankful there’d been nothing following close behind me or I would certainly have had that embedded in the back of my car. Whiplash might have been the least of my problems had that been the case.

The whole scenario was like an illustration from a road safety poster: traffic lights, a busy urban road, a too-small traffic island, an unsecured child. The only thing missing, thank goodness, was an ambulance.

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The roads are so impossible in this country! Everywhere you go there’s traffic, traffic, traffic: every motorway is jam-packed into a solid torrent of multi-coloured metal, every A-road is covered in vehicles verge-to-verge, there’s hardly a glimpse of bare tarmac to be seen on B-roads, and even on quiet byways there’s likely to be tractors and, soon, combines, bouncing along with frustrated drivers following in long processions hissing like irascible snakes.

You may know how many miles your journey is, but can only guess at how long it will take because of the great imponderable of what the traffic will be like. Queues can build up in mere seconds and cause delays that can run into hours.

Factor in the odd roadworks, a motorway closure (oh, that M3!) or, at best, snail’s-pace contraflows, plus a few diversions, and you’re looking at something that may appear on the road map to be just up the road turning into an odyssey of epic proportions.

Friends who drove to London on Saturday – a straightforward journey that they do regularly and which normally takes no longer than a couple of hours – told us of the torment they endured when they found many of the capital’s streets closed for a charity cycle ride. They were redirected this way and that, until furious and frustrated, they reached their destination six hours later.

The return journey was only a little better. Thanks to the overnight roadworks on the M3 and some remarkably bad diversion signs that sent them in circles and then back again, it still took them four hours.

Now the summer holidays are in full swing, the roads, especially in this part of the world, are even more crowded than usual. We try to hunker down for the duration, leaving the highways for others to turn into car parks. Of course we venture out sometimes, always doing our best to skirt the honeypots and the blackspots, but if we can possibly avoid a car journey we will.

That said, I had to drive to south Gloucestershire last month, a straightforward journey that didn’t involve going through any towns. Even so, it took me three hours, so that I arrived hot and fed up and dreading the drive home the next day. The lorries I’d been stuck behind made it seem as though there was some conspiracy afoot. Was someone letting them out at intervals in front of me, just to slow me down and make me late?

In fact, against all expectations, and proving how impossible it is to predict journey times, my drive back on the exact same route was a complete contrast. It took just over two hours and was absolutely stress-free. Not even that many caravans, either – but don’t let me divert on to that topic.

I think it’s the lorries that I find the most loathsome and intolerable. They are everywhere, owning the roads. Even in the narrowest lanes and tiniest, most remote villages, their drivers gormlessly follow satnavs. They’re self-important, heavy-breathing and heavy-polluting, banging and thudding into anything along the roadside that might impede them, and far too often thoughtlessly driven.

Lorry drivers used to be dependable and mannerly, truly knights of the road. Not nowadays. They’re bullies, a lot of them, and I think they, and we, would benefit if they could be tutored in road etiquette as part of the qualifications for their HGV licence. I’d offer to tutor them, too, so there. That would serve them right.

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Nothing ever seems to be left alone these days. There’s always some jobsworth checking up, poking about and compiling statistics, seeking accountability.

In some cases this is good, especially where health and safety are concerned, but in others it makes you wonder how we ever make any progress at all and if we blink we could find we’re back in the 1950s, so hamstrung are we by petty rules and regs.

The latest thing to be dragged under the microscope for a minute inspection of its inner workings that will no doubt lead to costly and unnecessary changes of no benefit at all is the network of driver speed awareness courses.

These are held around the country to benefit drivers who have been caught speeding and who would rather pay up to £100 for about six hours of being taught how to drive properly and safely than be fined and have points added to their licence.

Someone, in their wisdom, has decided this week that these courses need to be brought to book themselves. One of the main gripes is that there isn’t any evidence that they actually benefit drivers. This last fact is, unbelievably, because no one has thought to follow up course graduates and see if their driving has improved as a result of their attendance.

Allow me to give my feedback from the course I attended last summer. Not since my Latin O level exam have I entered a room knowing so little of what to expect. Fortunately, this time, I soon realised I wasn’t the only one and there wasn’t some brainbox next to me heading for an A-grade with their pen flying across the page.

There were scores of us in a hot, airless building, like so many convicts awaiting deportation. We divided ourselves into groups around tables where my new mates included lorry and van drivers and a GP as well as two teenagers with shiny new licences and sullen expressions of resentment. A disparate bunch, then, and all of us initially indignant at having been caught out by a system that failed to take account of our excellent driving skills.

We soon discovered we weren’t that excellent at all. In fact, we were reckless and dangerous, even the ones who’d been caught only marginally over the limit. A limit is a limit.

To say I learnt a lot that day would be an understatement. I learnt so much that the second I left that building I completely changed my driving habits, so long lulled into what I shamefully realised had become, over the years, a cavalier, ignorant, disregard for safety.

The course is called ‘driver awareness’ and that is absolutely what it does: it makes you aware of so much, of everything, in fact, around you inside and outside the car.

I am a 100% better driver thanks to my training. I will never exceed a speed limit again – we were given statistics and shown horrific films of the consequences – and I know how futile it is to try and stick to a 30mph limit in anything other than third gear. Try it, it works.

So there’s my feedback. The course is superb, invaluable, salutary, worth every penny of the £90 it cost me. I’m not at all resentful of having been caught speeding. Bang to rights and all that.

Knowing what I know now, I’m actually ashamed that my sloppy habits and my ignorance got me in that fix in the first place. A big, a great big, lesson learned.

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Two incidents on our journeys to and from Naples this month brought home to me the difference in the way The Young undertake travel from the way those, er, Less Young do so.

On our flight out, while Geoff alternately read, dozed and gazed out of the window, a young couple engaged me in conversation.

They were on their first visit to Italy. I learnt this because, while they demolished between them a full-size tube of Pringles crisps, they peppered me with questions.

Is it true the Italians drive on the wrong side of the road, was the first question. Yes, I said, and then froze when the girl – she was 23, I learnt later – said that they were hiring a car at Naples airport and she’d be driving into the city where they were staying for two nights.

My instinct was to shriek in alarm and say “Don’t even think about it!” because no one but a lobotomised loony with a death wish would willingly drive in Naples. It is one of the most crazy free-for-alls in the world. The joke about traffic lights being merely a suggestion is actually true in Naples. No one observes any of the rules of the road, everyone hoots the whole time, fists are shaken, tempers flare, shoulders are shrugged – and everyone, whether a driver or pedestrian, is permanently transfixed by their mobile phones so there is never any eye contact. It’s all done by feel or, more often, by bang, which is why most vehicles bear huge dents and grazes, and presumably the pedestrians too.

You need nerves of steel even to think about driving in Naples. You don’t need to be 23, on your first visit to Italy, with a boyfriend’s life as well as your own to consider, and a terrifying ignorance of how to drive on the left. “Are the pedals sort of in the same order, then?” came another question.

I invoked Geoff’s help. The most important thing, he told the girl, as she casually tipped the final crumbs of Pringles into her mouth, is to hold your nerve.

Soon after, sated with crisps and their heads full of our pleadings to be careful and not be intimidated by anything on the road, especially a lorry attached to their bumper and hooting wildly, love’s young dream slipped into a carefree sleep. Geoff and I, of course, worried about them the whole time we were in Naples.

On the return flight I settled myself into my seat with my usual battery of comforts to hand: iPad, selection of books, bottle of water and iPhone for snapping photos of Geoff asleep with his mouth wide open – I’m so childish.

The seat to my right was taken by a young man who had only a book with him. After a little judicious focusing I could see it was about starting your own business.

The book totally absorbed him throughout the flight. He really deserves to succeed if he has that amount of concentration, I thought, and no Pringles to distract him, either, much to my relief.

Later, when I’d noticed that the young entrepreneur was already striding away from the carousel with his smart piece of luggage while Geoff and I were still walking into each other trying to locate our un-smart one, I realised what a wide chasm exists between us and them – ‘them’ being the young, confident, world-at-their-feet travellers. We might have been there, done that, picked up the knowledge, but they’re discovering and learning and emphatically doing their own thing. I suppose we were like that once, though it’s hard to believe.

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WITH our lamentable record for getting lost virtually every time we venture a handful of miles from home, Geoff and I were perturbed to learn that our destination for a birthday party last Saturday was so remote that even sat-nav would be useless.

There was nothing for it but to put our faith in the written directions supplied by our hosts and hope that, dressed to kill in our finery, we would achieve the double miracle of arriving looking serene and still speaking to each other.

We’d been to our friends’ house once before, years ago, in daylight, and after being lost for only half-an-hour, which is good by our standards. This time, though, on a Halloween night with the distraction of witches flying overhead and spooky bats, spiders and pumpkins in every other doorway, we were determined to do much better.

We took torches and, rather pointlessly, since we find them unfathomable, road maps covering Britain and most of Europe, and set off from the brightly lit town where we were staying into a strange wilderness of limpid lanes with barely legible signposts and scarcely believable village names on the most remote and underpopulated area of the Devon/Somerset border.

Now I’m your original country bumpkin but this did make me wonder if people really lived in places like this, people who weren’t 50 percent troglodyte, at the very least.

My childhood home, a troglodyte’s rest if ever there was one (we even had tadpoles in our drinking water), was at the end of a maze of lanes, miles from anything resembling a main road. I learnt to drive there and became adept at reversing 200 yards into slight indentations in the banks and hedgerows to let oncoming traffic squeeze pass. Those lanes, or the memory of them, are like multi-lane motorways compared with what we were now negotiating.

Geoff, behind the wheel, made his feelings clear for the 14th time about the wisdom of accepting the party invitation. Not only was this tortuous journey involved but a night in a bargain basement hotel as well – assuming we ever found our way back to it.

I focused my torch on the sheet of directions: ‘At the next two sets of crossroads go straight across then follow the hill down to the floor of the valley before turning left at . . .’

‘Hang on,’ Geoff shouts, ‘let’s not over-reach ourselves. We need to identify the first crossroads before we take on board any more detail.’

He’s right. We follow the lane around a sharp left corner and . . . whoops, this is someone’s drive we’re going up. I can see lights and an open fire through a ground-floor window. How comfortable and welcoming it looks. Reluctantly, we reverse out and rejoin the lane which had thrown us temporarily off course. We wiggle for more miles, negotiate two wickedly dangerous crossroads, and drop down the steep valley, ears a-popping.

We turn left at the postbox in the wall – this is going so well – continue for two more long, snaking, miles, go past a tumbledown house on our left and . . .  ‘Stop!’ I shriek. ‘Look! Turn left, it’s their house. We’re here!’

The relief is immense. We’ve made it. We’re not last, not even late. We haven’t had to push the car out of a ditch. This is some kind of Halloween miracle.

Much later, another couple arrive, scattering apologies for their lateness and explaining how badly lost they’d been. Geoff and I raise our eyebrows and exchange a smug look that says ‘Really, some people.’

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WE went away for an overnighter at the weekend. Geoff and I headed north (or ‘oop north’ as my friend Janie, who lives in Leeds, allows me to say) for 200 miles in heavy traffic and under thick cloud. It did not bode well but we improved the outlook by making two stops on the way.

The first was at the M5 Gloucester Services. We avoid motorway services unless the car is desperate for petrol, but this one is as different from the standard muzak-infused junk-food hell as you could imagine. It’s heartening to see how a totally different ethos can create a traveller’s joy just by embracing simplicity and decency and eschewing the grossly naff.

The staff smile and tell me it’s a lovely place to work. I can believe that. We ate (deliciously) beside a landscaped lake and watched a dragonfly showing off, and then we walked around and noted the many clever, thoughtful features, the absence of noise, the space and the light and, outside, the grass roof and the whole organic ‘out of the ground’ nature of the place.

Nearer our destination we stopped to feed our aesthetic needs a little more at a National Trust property, Little Moreton Hall. After stop-start driving up the M6 it was a feast for the soul, with its wonky black-and-white medieval beauty being all quintessentially English and eccentric in the midst of a limpid moat.

When we finally reached our hotel it seemed we had had a full day already although the evening was yet young. We took a long walk to check out our new surroundings, noticing what a hit the town had taken in recent years but how there were signs it was bobbing back up to prosperity again.

This fact was evident later, when the streets came alive with young people intent on having a good time. Geoff and I found ourselves among them, feeling dowdy and far too sensibly dressed, when we went out to eat.

I’d done hours of research before leaving home to identify a suitable restaurant, based on location and the quality of its online reviews. The perfect one was not far from the hotel, and while out on our walk we’d popped in and booked the last available table. I glowed with triumph. What a perfect ending this would be to our day.

It’s a bit Spanish, I explained to Geoff, and the reviews mention how you share your tapas and how lovely the atmosphere is. It doesn’t look all that Spanish to me, he remarked, casting his eye down the menu.

Well, perhaps it’s an oop north version of Spanish, I said, jollying him along. True, there was a starter you could share, but there was nothing that could be pronounced with a lisp and therefore properly Spanish.

We shrugged and made our choices and then just lapped up the novelty of this odd northern take on a Spanish eatery.

While dissecting my distinctly un-Spanish stuffed aubergine I asked Geoff why he thought there was a huge number ‘64’ pasted on the street-side window. “It’s the name of the place,” he said. “Didn’t you notice on the menu it was called The 64 Bar & Grill?”

Oh whoops. We were in the wrong restaurant! This was the one that we’d booked, but it was not where my research had planned for us to be.

Geoff and I raised our glasses to serendipity. What No 64 lacked in tapas it made up for in atmosphere, and our friendly, chatty waiter made us happy, too. His name was Fernando. He was Spanish.

 

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IN the past 10 days I’ve driven more miles than in the previous two months. Four round trips of 200-plus miles each have seen me criss-cross the country, encountering everything from traffic standstills to miles of inviting open road.

Along the way, I’ve witnessed enough bad driving to give me pause for thought about ever venturing out again, and at other times some delightfully British good manners of the sort that restore one’s faith in other road users.

In between those two extremes has been the usual complement of incompetents, ditherers and morons who shouldn’t be allowed behind a wheel.

In general, though, spending so much time on the road hasn’t been too bad at all and I’m beginning to wonder if perpetual wheeled motion suits me and I should have been a long-distance lorry driver – or perhaps a bus driver that doesn’t have to endure that tedious business of stopping every now and again.

The day before my road odysseys started I picked off the doormat an official-looking letter addressed to me. I inspected the envelope to see who it could be from.

Clunk! My heart sank when I saw it was from the Police in the neighbouring county. Oh no! I’m not a criminal! Don’t be angry with me!

I forced myself to read on and discovered that I’d been clocked by a Community Speed Watch team going at more than 30mph in a speed-limited area.

Don’t you dare do this again or you really are for the high jump, the message was, in summary. You’ll be added to a list of ‘persistent speeders’ closely monitored by the police. OK, point taken and lesson learned. Obedience was dinned into me as a child and this aberration was a black mark on my very soul.

This meant that each of my recent long journeys was conducted entirely within the law – probably much to the boiling fury of anyone behind me. Tough. Not once did I go over a limit as I stayed hyper-alert for every sign.

Having had my knuckles rapped in such a timely fashion I was not going to ignore the message now. It was immensely frustrating at times and I did get a bit huffy about some of the limits which seemed to make no sense at all. If I were cynical I might suggest they are there to generate an income, but let’s not upset the law and its guardians, especially as they have my number now.

My smugness as an exemplary driver made me more aware of the bad habits of others around me. Since when, I wonder, did anyone think it was safe to drive with one arm propped casually up on the door, 50% of control surrendered?

Countless mobile phone users – some speaking into them, others casually texting – terrified me, and I was unimpressed by the driver I saw with headphones on, grooving it to his music.

One of the really scary sights was a saloon car carrying a woman passenger and a loose, retriever-sized dog, which was bouncing up and down on the driver’s lap and enthusiastically licking his face. How he didn’t veer off the road I will never know.

No amount of dedicated scrutiny by the Community Speed Watch teams or the traffic police can hope to keep us safe from fools like that, but when those of us who briefly err are taught a salutary lesson, then we can perhaps redress the balance a little so there are more goodies than baddies on our roads.

 

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