Sunday, 18 November 2012

Raised Awareness

My awareness is heightened at the moment.  Having been made an offer I couldn't refuse*, I've been on a "Speed Awareness Course" run on behalf of the Thames Valley Constabulary.  It was illuminating, albeit I dare say not in the manner that the organisers expected.

(There are some safer driving tips at the bottom of this post.  Scroll down if you just want those.)

First, however, let's get the context over and done with. The miracles of modern technology detected me travelling at 42 mph on a major trunk road just before it splits into a dual carriageway (more on those, later).  The trunk road in question does however have an (ahem) slightly lower speed limit of 30 mph.  I won't beat about the bush; I had let my mind wander and was not properly concentrating on my driving at the time.  I relaxed my control of the car's speed.  The 30 limit on that road is actually justified, and I shouldn't have broken it.  My views on speed limits and speed enforcement are fairly well set out in this blog, but they should not be taken to mean that I think all speed limits are wrong or that excessive speed is anything other than irresponsible.

The letter from the rozzers did make me stop and think.  Actually, the flash from the nasty grey box was enough to make me stop and think.  So, while my driving on roads where I know it is clearly safe to make progress is just as legal as it always has been, I have been trying to focus better when driving and not think about other issues.

Now, with that dealt with, on to the Speed Awareness course.

As an aside, we can immediately note that I am a singularly lucky individual.  Why?  Because in a 30 limit, 42 mph is the upper limit for eligibility to attend a speed awareness course.  Had I been travelling at 43 instead, I could have expected points and a fine instead.  Douglas Adams was obviously quite prescient...

Our tutor for the day was a practising driver training instructor who clearly knew his stuff.  He was an effective tutor, too; he was faced with an extremely hostile and unwilling audience but managed to engage us and maintain a two-way flow of discourse.  Due credit should be given to him.

The ground rules included strict confidentiality; this extended to no use of phones or other recording devices, a shame as I had considered quietly recording the session in case it might be of interest.  The reasoning is (I think) valid, that others present might not appreciate their near-conviction being publicised.  However, it is quite convenient for the organisers to be able to prevent any reporting of the course content.

The economics are interesting.  There were about 25 drivers there, all of whom had paid £95, i.e. a total income of £2,375.  Take off a hundred pounds or so for hire of the room for the afternoon, and a bit to pay the two staff present, multiply by three courses per day, two days a week, times x venues, and there is a tidy income which goes back to the police force who so kindly invited us to attend.  Also note that (as they were at pains to explain) speeding fine income goes to central government, not to police forces, and the willingness of police forces to offer speed awareness courses is suddenly made clear.

The course was basically made up of two elements; question and answer sessions designed to remind us of elements of the Highway Code that we should not have forgotten, and expositions of past accidents to discuss and learn from their causative factors.  The former was certainly an eye-opener for me; the sheer level of ignorance displayed by virtually all the other drivers was staggering; asked (for example) what was the speed limit on a single-carriageway road in the countryside with no signage to indicate a specific limit, one girl answered "30?".  Maybe the problem was in the question; half the class could not identify the difference between a single carriageway and a dual carriageway.  Most did not know that a system of road lighting automatically indicates a 30 limit unless road signs state otherwise.  I don't want to boast, but there wasn't a single question I couldn't answer correctly.  I left the course feeling much better about my driving knowledge, content that I was in the top few of the 25 or so on the course.  If the aim of the course was to make me realise that my driving knowledge needed to be improved, it failed.

Which leaves the accident analysis.  Now, bear in mind that we were all present because we had breached a speed limit by a limited margin, and that there is a widespread feeling that only speed limits are enforced with any vigour - other driving offences being largely ignored until after the event.  You would expect, then, that the accidents would all exhibit the kind of consequences that flow from minor excursions over the limit, no?

Sadly, no.  There were three examples.  The only one that included a speeding offence was an example of grossly irresponsible speeding - 48ish on a narrow, poor-visibility, winding road through a village with no pavements and multiple visible and invisible hazards.  The driver concerned would not have been invited to attend a course, even if a teenager had not stepped out in front of him and been severely injured when the driver was unable to stop the car in the distance he could see to be clear.  So a speed camera would not have helped here - the driver would not have been invited to a speed awareness course to learn a better attitude, merely sent some points and a fine.

The second example was a case of excessive speed for the circumstances, but not speeding.  A driver crested the brow of a hill and crashed into the rear of a car waiting to turn right.  As with the first example, it was a sad event and an avoidable one, but not one that involved speeding or which a speed camera would have helped.  Had there been a camera in place, it would not have even fired.

The third example was the M4 crash in 1991, in which cars travelling at 70mph or so in thick fog became involved in a multiple pile-up after a van driver fell asleep at the wheel and came to a halt in lane 3 against the central barrier.  Again, no speeding involved, just grossly irresponsible and careless driving.  The kind of careless driving that speed cameras cannot catch and which police officers do not try to catch.

Overall, the course showed that some speed limits were necessary and justified and that some instances of speeding were dangerous and unwise.  In that regard, it succeeded.  However, the controversy around speed limits is that many (other) speed limits** are not reasonable or necessary and that many marginal breaches of these limits are not as bad as they are painted.  There is a logical fallacy in proving that some speed limits are good, and then concluding that (a) all speed limits are good and (b) all breaches of all speed limits are bad.

So, whereas before I attended the course I thought speed cameras were the wrong way to improve road safety, I'm now convinced of it.  If you're not convinced, think about the fact that in the last few years, speeding convictions have risen from about 200,000 annually to about 2 million annually, whereas casualty figures have remained static.

And now for the safer driving tips, of which there were a few sprinkled through the course.

First, on the motorway, take care on the hard shoulder.  If you have to stop, get out of the car and walk up the verge to stand behind the car (i.e. so that you can see the back of the car).  The average time before a car on the hard shoulder is involved in a collision is 26 minutes.  When that collision comes, if it is with a lorry then the remains of your car can be thrown to first-floor height.  Keep out of it, keep away from it, stay behind it.

Second, secure all luggage carefully.  The driver who crested the hill and rear-ended the driver waiting to turn right was killed in the accident.  An engineer, he had his toolbox in the boot of the car; in the accident it flew forward, punching its way through the rear seat and hitting him on the back of the head.

When waiting to turn right, keep the steering wheel pointing forwards - don't turn it in anticipation of making the turn.  Then, if you should see someone in your mirrors who is unable to stop, you can pull forwards to avoid or lessen the impact.  Keep the steering lock in place, and an attempt to pull forward will move you into the path of the oncoming traffic who are preventing you from turning.

If you're having difficulty keeping to a 30 limit, change down a gear.  3rd gear in most cars will naturally limit you to about 30, whereas in 4th you will likely creep up to 40 or so.  In powerful cars, I've found that 2nd is more effective.

In fog, SLOW DOWN.  If you can't understand that one, go to your nearest police station and hand in your driving licence.  Seriously.

Above all, keep asking yourself if you could stop in the distance you can see to be clear.  Maybe, one day when the road behind is completely empty, try it.

(*attend the course "voluntarily" or we will prosecute you)

(**not including the one where I was caught)


  1. I had to attend a course a few years ago (it cost sixty quid then).
    It sounds exactly the same as the one you attended and my reaction was v. similar.
    I was pretty cynical going but I admit did learn something.
    During the example (of the car going through the country village too quickly), the driver in question had done the same route every morning for many many years, except this one time he killed a child. That fact pulled you up a bit.

  2. Yes.

    It's the usual psychology of rules and regs. If the authorities focus on speed limits, people will assume that as long as they are sticking to the limit they are safe - which of course is obviously bullshit.

    Just as a zebra crossing requires a bit of give and take between driver and pedestrian, a pelican crossing encourages the pedestrian and driver not to look properly if the lights are in their favour.