I showed up last night at an address in Ealing, West London, totally sure that, no matter what happened over the succeeding three hours, I was onto a winner. I was ready for my medicine. And it was unexpectedly palatable.
The course was conducted by a very jovial bloke called Patrick, who did a lot to diffuse the latent skepticism in a room full of people aggrieved about being caught speeding (mostly through the Limehouse tunnel, actually) and only begrudgingly grateful for the chance to avoid a lasting penalty.
Unfortunately, Patrick made a better joker than a teacher. In fact, the more I think about it, the more important this three-hour course seems – and the greater its deficiencies appear.
In a country where a licence is for life and we’ve yet to even mandate compulsory retests for pensionable drivers, it’s not often that you’ll get thirty average members of the driving population in a room, and have the opportunity to make them better. But this was one of ‘em.
You’d think, under the circumstances, you might mention one or two of the right things. The importance of maximum brake pedal pressure to a short stopping distance in a modern car with ABS, for example? Or of allowing additional stopping distance in bad weather? Of safe overtaking technique? Of checking the condition of your tyres occasionally? Or, say, of positioning your car on a rural road in order to maximize your visibility?
Patrick didn’t mention any of these things. He didn’t know that a minimum speed limit on UK motorways even existed, let alone what it might be. His three hours of advice included rather too much on how not to get caught for speeding in future, and rather too little on how not to get caught in accidents.
Here are some of Patrick’s choicest pearls:
“Don’t listen to fast music in your car; it’ll make you drive faster.”
“Leave your car in third gear in a 30 limit; it’ll be easier to hear the engine, and so you’ll instinctively know when you’re speeding.”
“Stop making up your own speed limits. It doesn’t matter where you are: if you can’t see a speed limit sign at any point, drive at 30mph until you see one. It’s safer.”
“You should never stop looking for pedestrians. I even look under trucks and buses!”
And this one was my personal favourite:
“If you’ve got to drive somewhere you’ve never driven before, try to go at least once before you really need to go – just so you’re not lost or rushing when you get there.”
Patrick did tell me one or two interesting tidbits. Most fixed speed cameras no longer flash, apparently – they work via infrared. So you won’t know if you have, or haven’t, been had. There are just over 600 fixed cameras in the London Metropolitan area, but only 150 are active at a time. And, at one point not too long ago, it only took four fairly serious accidents to happen in roughly the same place to convince the local authority to plant a camera. Which, in a busy city like London, doesn’t seem like many.
Considering how easy it is to get caught out on UK roads, I suspect last night’s course won’t be my last. I can’t do another one for three years – but after that, if necessary, I’ll sign up for more indoctrination. I only hope that next time, it’s all worth listening to.