The invitation was clear. Failure to arrive on time would mean a fixed-fine and 3 points on your licence. The start time was 1.30 pm and directions were provided, so there was no excuse. If you left home late, the advice was to drive as fast as you could to make up the time. The most important thing was to be punctual. Besides, the letter went on to explain, the M69 is pretty clear and it’s safe enough to do 90, particularly if you have a German car. We were assured that there were no sneaky gantry cameras and candidates on their way to a Speed Awareness Workshop are exempt from prosecution.
The last mile, it pointed out, is on country roads – great for seeing how fast you can take the corners so you can compare your expertise with other members of the course. As you come through the village, it recommended, ignore the 30 signs, they are advisory only, and really only applicable to elderly drivers and three-wheelers. And finally, if, despite your best efforts, you are running late, drop us a text. But do keep it brief. It will be hard to hold the phone, type and navigate at the same time, and you may miss the turning.
As it happened, all but one of us arrived on time – in fact most had arrived before me. I clearly hadn’t driven fast enough. They checked my driving licenses checked to make sure I wasn’t attending for my boss, my wife or for Chris Huhne. There were about 20 of us, sat uncomfortably at long tables around three sides of a large room. I squeezed in where I was told – between two large blokes. The majority of the group were middle aged men, along with three women of a certain age. A well-presented young woman arrived just on time and sat at the end of my table. A well-dressed young man arrived inexcusably late; his “punishment” was to be directed to the seat next to the aforementioned young woman.
And so the course began. We all sat quietly, looking a little guilty and sheepish – like naughty kids in detention, being kept behind after school to be taught a lesson.
I studied the faces around the room and read the names on the cards in front of each one. They had been written for us as we arrived – I guess to avoid any tom-foolery or embarrassment for those not so familiar with workshop etiquette. I wondered how many even knew what a workshop was.
We were a very strange assortment from all walks of life. We had nothing in common, except that each face behind the name was guilty of a minor speed infringement in Warwickshire.
We were welcomed by Bill and Colin. I had been expecting men in uniform. But Bill and Colin were not the police, they worked in partnership with the police. We relaxed a little. They explained that we not a danger to society – we were the minor offenders. We had speeded, but not by very much. I almost felt disappointed. We could learn and become good boys and girls, or even role models for the rest of the world. The real criminals were not allowed on the course – they were past such redemption. No doubt they deported onto some island and forced to drive at 23mph for the rest of their lives. Guernsey probably.
My guilt had evaporated to smugness. After thirty years of near-perfect driving, and one purely accidental minor mistake had led me to be given the opportunity to gather more facts in order to reprimand and educate others. My offence? To do 57 mph on a motorway, keeping up with the traffic, late at night, and whilst my wife and daughter were talking at me. Th every definition of extenuating circumstances.
Of course, the reality was that each one here had offended many times before. Eventually the long arm of the law of averages had ensnared us. We hadn’t come here to be self-righteous and learn – we had come to avoid collecting the three points and an extra penalty on our insurance premiums. Colin, to his credit, acknowledged this upfront, parked it and drove on through the rest of the course.
Before he did, the teacher explained that we could go to the toilet when we felt the need without putting our hand up. But no mobile phones – and no taking them to the toilet either. No doubt there would be cameras. Eric – probably the oldest bloke in the room – fumbled with his phone. He wasn’t quite sure how to switch it off, so there was a pause whilst Mike helped him. Mike, as it turned out, proved to be the smart-alec in the class. There is always one, and nobody likes him.
Scarily we were asked to confess our misdemeanours in small groups. The big guy on my left – Don – had hit 34 in a 30 because he hadn’t seen the speed camera. It was clearly the fault of the people who put speed cameras where you can’t see them. Colin explained that the police do not put speed cameras in places where they will catch the most people, but in accident hot spots. Better a speed camera (or safety camera as they prefer to call them) than more flowers in cellophane wraps. Sobering thought number 1.
We learned a lot of sobering things on the course. Staying sober – and off your phone – being two of them. They showed us some videos. Those of a sensitive disposition were allowed to close their eyes. They were recreations, but the sorts of recreations you can recall in rather too much detail.
we learned about keeping our distance behind the car in front. You can control the space in front of you but you can’s control the space behind. Which sounds like a life philosophy. We add 2 minutes to a 100 mile journey if we pull back and control the space in front. And only a fool breaks the two second rule.
We learned that good drivers concentrate, observe and anticipate. Another good rule for life. That most people concentrate for only 25% of their journey. I am surprised it is so much. Modern cars mitigate against this with their sound systems, sat, navs, hands-free phones, cushy seats and noise-insulation. We can cruise without control; smugly safe in our two tonne metal, air-bagged, ABS-braking tanks. Out of touch with reality. Not so good for those soft squishy people we hit because we took our eye off the road.
Speaking of which. Five people are killed on our roads every day. We’d stop flying if there was a plane crash every 6 weeks. But we drive blithely on, over-confident in our skill and indestructibility. 90% of us believe we are better drivers than average. Meanwhile, out there in the world as a whole, someone is killed on a road every 6 seconds.
Bill told us that only 3% of collisions are on motorways. Almost two-thirds are in urban areas. If we speed in built-up areas, we play Russian roulette with other people’s lives. At 20mph – 97% of the people we hit will survive. At 30mph, 80% will survive. At 35mph (the “killing speed”) only 50% survive. At 40mph, 90% will die. So when we drift over 30mph in a town or a city, we increase the mortality rate of someone we hit by 2.5 times.
We may get away with speeding. We may get points. We may get a ban or even imprisonment. But nothing could be worse than killing someone because we were a few miles an hour over the speed limit. Its an unimaginable horror. And yet it happens daily.
There was one more insight. When we brake, half of the slowdown happens in the last 5 meters. Imagine that you are gliding down a motorway and suddenly you see a jack-knifed lorry across all three lanes, 100m ahead. If you are Frank Spencer on a skateboard, you can duck underneath. If you are driving at 70mph and brake, you will hit it at 0mph and maybe scratch your bumper. If you are driving at 100mph and brake, you will hit it at 70mph and kill yourself.
Why do we speed? Mathematically it makes no sense. We may save a few minutes on our journey, but we can waste hours in other compartments of our lives without a second thought. Our speed “drifting up” is a thin excuse. I use cruise control for 30mph areas. Or we could just keep an eye on our speedometer? When it town – one gear down.
More likely, it is the thrill of speed, or the competition to race faster than the next bloke. Such is modern life. All speed and no finesse. Competition in place of collaboration. Psychologists, sociologists, management consultants and pure common sense all tell us that we are more successful when we work together. Driving is a collaborative exercise – between other cars, cyclists, pedestrians (and maybe rikshaws and cows in India). It takes two to have an accident – one to cause it and one to fail to avoid it.
If we work together, sensibly, we all get there more quickly and more safely. This requires courtesy, tolerance, patience and a bit of leading by example. Another lesson in life.
So we all split up – never to meet again – and drove more soberly and carefully home. I felt a little self-righteous doing 69 on the M69. Other cars raced past me. One or two tail-gated. I ignored them. So far I have maintained my new calm, safer, easier driving habits. Even when I left late one morning for the office. How does it go? Better to arrive late, than arrive dead on time.