Today I will step up to the soapbox with Jeremy Clarkson, Henry Ford, Nicolae Romeo, and Ilya Ehrenburg.
Since I lost my job I have missed the balance of opinion I used to get from working in a team. In making me redundant my colleagues passed a judgement that I will carry for the rest of my days, after 27 years in service I am not wanted. The best part of my job was training people and last week, almost a year to the day I was called to a grubby office at a London HQ building to be abused by my manager, I was in the unusual situation of accepting a training option as an alternative to punishment.
I have to begin by trying to get across why this is such a big deal, my emotional association with driving is pretty average but I feel I have a connection with the car that is perhaps common, defies logic and tends to elevate the value of the car as a part of my social and personal identity. I am still stunned by the power of objects to resonate significance out of all proportion to their value. It’s a human thing: perhaps an instinct derived from the search for a better tool. I suspect all of us have contact with objects which move us in ways beyond their simple purpose. We are all caught up in the desire for identity and connection and many of us connect objects with powers of permanence and influence be it actual or imaginary. The car for me is such an object; it’s not just simple transport, it resonates with its history. Of course my car is a very average machine but it is part of a category of potent objects wth assocaitions of desire, status, beauty and power.
Last week I attended a compulsory training course on Speed Awareness. After 33 years at the wheel I tripped a camera at 38mph and, since 2002, there has been a government drive to improve road safety by use of the 1st of the 3 ‘E’s (Education, Engineering and Enforcement) so I was offered a place on a course instead of penalty points on my licence.
Despite misgivings about the implied guilt for what to me at the time seemed to be a simple human failing I was keen to see some behaviour modification training in action and I was not disappointed!
The provision of driver education as a tool in reducing road casualties is effective. Whoever is responsible for this initiative deserves congratulation: the simple transfer from punishment to education has achieved remarkable results. This is where government policy gets personal.
It is appalling to know the UK kills more children on the roads, in proportion, than any other western country, we have long ago rationalised the adult road death toll (2,222 in 2009) rate as the ‘price’ we pay for our mobility but, the child deaths and serious injuries (lifelong paralysis, permanent brain damage, these injuries result in permanent disability in most cases) are shocking. After some uncomfortable banter about ‘our reasons for speeding’ this was the first fact to sink in at the training session. Relatively small increases in the speed of impact have a big effect on what we hit: we were shown the impact stats for small increments in speed, then the survival rates for each speed, it’s not good. It dawned on me that we are a target group: the minor infringements of a 30mph limit in an urban area are a key factor in child deaths on the roads.
We all have our personal justifications for speeding but we were now going to be taken through some tough realities of the consequences of, in the language of the instructor; ‘inappropriate’ use of speed’. You can begin to see the association of speeding as antisocial here; ‘inappropriate’ is modern usage for ‘naughty’; are we being bracketed with sexual harassers and child abusers here?
This is very uncomfortable; when I teach I know I’m bringing something good to the class, this looks like we are going to be hectored in the hope we will slow down and stop killing kids….how can it work?
3 techniques unfold:
‘Guess the facts’ which revealed our lack detailed knowledge by multiple choice, clearly we know less than we think about the risk to life in using inappropriate speed.
‘Shocking case studies’ the details of 2 local fatal accidents, yes they were children. Each of us have our own private hell as the details are spelled out to us. The lifelong damage done, the awful details of a head shaped hole in the windscreen, the familiarity of a mundane place forever associated with the loss of a loved one: nobody is immune from this pain.
‘Improving driving’ by understanding hazard perception, being aware of how much concentration we really need to maintain safe forward motion on the road and improving our knowledge of the highway code (yes it’s that dull but did you know they define an urban environment with an implied 30mph speed limit by the presence of more than 3 lampposts froming a contiguous lighting system?)
We conclude with filling in a form with our commitment to be speed aware drivers, I leave mine blank: its all in my head now. 25% of all accidents recorded are attributable to inapropriate use of speed.
So how do I feel about my relationship with transport, society and its symbols of power now? The simple answer is that I have gone back to that sunny day in 1977 when my examiner turned to me from the passenger seat of the car and simply said “thank you Mr Blake the rest is up to you”…I’m still learning!
I began this with the intention of exploring what the car means to me, I didn’t really get there, but I’m convinced our lives are shaped around it in ways which are at once terrifying and comforting. ‘Car culture’ is a term which has been used to describe our society and the apparent freedom to travel it gives us is a freedom we don’t really know how to pay for. Being ‘speed aware’ drivers has reduced the death toll but our carbon dependency may come at a higher price than road deaths.