For reasons too boring to explain, I did a lap of the M25 on Monday, every mile of which took place in rain of biblical proportions. In that time I saw six single car accidents. One was a knackered old Cavalier and another an even older Mazda MX-5. But the remaining four, from a Range Rover to a Porsche 911 were all in their youth and had one other thing in common: four-wheel drive.
Coincidence? I think not. I was driving a modern rear-wheel drive car and after a few flashes of the traction control light, I was left under no illusions as to the available grip levels. If I’d had four-wheel drive, I doubt I’d have had a clue. That’s one problem. The second is the morons who so often drive all-wheel-drive cars, convinced an extra pair of drive shafts somehow grants them immunity from nature. The third are car manufacturers who implicitly or otherwise market all-wheel drive as a safety system. It is not.
Before my M25 experience I asked a senior Volvo engineer what, as a representative of perhaps the most safety oriented car brand, he thought of four-wheel drive as a safety feature. His reply was interesting, particularly as Volvo sells cars both with and without four-wheel drive:
‘In extreme conditions, so long as you are a skilled and sensible driver there is no question that four-wheel drive improves safety. When I go driving on snow and ice in northern Sweden, I wouldn’t be without it. But if you don’t use it properly and don’t realise its limitations, it can be less safe.’
Don’t misunderstand me: four wheel drive can be great if you’re towing or live down a muddy lane. But if you buy a four-wheel-drive car thinking you’ll be less likely to have an accident as a result, think again. If not treated with care and understanding, one of the more notable things four-wheel drive will do for you is raise the speed at which you finally fly off the road. It’s a phenomenon that quite a few people will have discovered on Monday. And done so the hard way.