Do not move: the way forward

5 September 2011

As I made myself comfortable in the hospital waiting room, my eye was caught by a notice directly in front of me: “Please do not move.” For a moment I thought I was on the road again, and all the dreams of Brake, the anti-motorist organisation, had come true.

Had I slipped into an alternative dimension? Or would “Do not move” be replacing 20mph signs in the near future, and all speed limits in the fulness of time?

Funny things, speed limits. They are the same whatever car you drive, whatever the time of day, whatever the road surface and whatever the weather conditions. They are the same if you are an expert driver or completely hopeless (and the driving test does little to weed out the hopeless, because it lets you keep trying until you scrape through).

Speed limits are the same whatever the capacity of your engine, however fast you can accelerate and however efficiently you can brake. They are the same however good your eyesight and however good or bad your reaction time, however well you concentrate, and however much you like talking to your passengers, changing the CD or adjusting the heater.

In other words, they take no account at all of the essential quality of driving. They just set an arbitrary speed beyond which you must not go – and this speed is not even decided by experts. They create an offence which is not subject to any kind of judgement as to the danger involved, because it is decided by a machine – and a machine whose accuracy you cannot rely on.

Why are some people determined to pin so many accidents on to speed? Partly because it’s so simple: you don’t have to think about it. And Einstein did say: “You should make everything as simple as possible.” However, he did add the vital three words “but not simpler”. Where speed limits are concerned, we have made things too simple. As a result we are criminalising good drivers, and making barely competent drivers think they are good.
But hasn’t it been shown that speed cameras stop accidents? No, the statistics are variable, in that while one area will show a fall in accidents if you choose the right time periods to focus on, another will seem to indicate – from a similarly arbitrary selection – that the cameras actually increase accidents.

How could that be? By taking drivers’ eyes away from the road. When I am checking my speedometer I am not looking at the road, and when I am looking out for cameras, other hazards – yes, I do mean other hazards – have a slightly lower priority, whether I mean them to or not.

Some will point to a continuing fall in serious accidents since cameras were introduced. But this decline was well under way before the introduction of cameras, and in fact slowed down in the years after cameras appeared.

Of course, like everything else, it comes down to money. Speed cameras bring in money, and they are often placed quite cynically to ensure the money is maximised – on a downhill, straight stretch of road after miles of tortuous bends, for instance. A former police driver friend received points and a fine in just such a situation because he slightly exceeded the limit when overtaking; if he had slowed down when spotting the camera (a natural reaction), he might now be dead.

Some people do drive dangerously fast, and they need to be stopped. That is what traffic police are for. But we have failed to distinguish between dangerously fast and over the limit. The fact is that most speed limits are too low. If the limits were right, the argument against cameras would be weak. But they are not right. Sometimes, they are nowhere near right.

When I started driving, in the 1960s, police advice was to drive as quickly as you safely could: they called it progressive driving. I believe this is good advice. Slow driving dulls the senses and slows reaction times. We are producing a mass of people who can follow rules but can’t drive well – who appear incapable of overtaking and who do not concentrate on the road. Worrying, at a time when so many accidents are caused by fatigue, boredom and lack of attention.

Highways authorities and road safety “experts” want us to go slowly. I want to go faster. Not ridiculously fast, but safely fast. Fast enough to be helpful to other road users.

I think there are excellent reasons for doing this. But the wrong people are in power. And as a much wiser writer said, “they would not be in power if they were not the wrong people”. So I guess there is no hope. “Please do not move” is the way forward. If you see what I mean.