Thursday, 8 November 2007

What Annoys Me About ... Drivers

As I have commented before I drive around 400 miles (640 Km) per week. Last weekend I covered 680 miles (1088 Km), so I experience a lot of traffic. I have driven in the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Greece so have quite a good deal of knowledge of driving conditions and behaviour in my part of the World. I have heard that in some countries driving is worse than in the UK, and Italy and Malta in particular have been pointed out to me as examples, but I have no experience of driving in those two countries so am in no position to comment. However, I would still imagine that the UK is near the bottom of the table for bad driving.

One reason why drivers in the UK are so bad is because they carry the social consciousness of British society on to the road. Those with big, expensive cars, especially SUVs, expect others to move out of their way and that they are exempt from the regulations, especially in terms of speed limits and parking restrictions. However, at all levels in the UK people feel that they have the right to bully people in a smaller or older or cheaper car with no regard for what the rules of the road are. Every British driver (and this includes many women as well as men) sees driving as somehow a test of their virility (or whatever the female equivalent is) and to be challenged on the road and lose is somehow a serious slight to their personality. This is no basis on which to drive, it is not a gladiatorial competition, it is about getting from A to B as safely as possible, but it seems very few UK drivers recognise that. For them it is about showing off their wealth and status and getting around as fast as they can.

I have already touched on a couple of types of behaviour by UK drivers that I will not revisit here, but will mention again briefly at the beginning for completeness. The first is complaining about speed cameras. So many people say they are simply fund-raising devices and extreme groups even vandalise them. Much print and many hours of radio talk is spent complaining about speed cameras. Of course if you never break the speed limit you will never be fined as a result of a speed camera, but to many UK drivers this insults their freedom to drive as fast as they like (to them it is equivalent to saying to an American that he does not have the right to have bullets for his gun because they may kill people). These people want to the right to drive dangerously and whine incessantly because they are penalised when they do.

Overlapping with the speed camera opponents are those people still using mobile phones in their cars. Hands-free kits have been available for years now and can be bought in any service station. Despite the increased fines and the greater penalties for anyone holding a mobile phone while driving, every day I see people continuing to do it. Their silly phonecall is deemed more important than the lives of the people around them. As with speeding they have the ultimate arrogance that a) they are very skilled drivers b) that laws do not apply to them c) that their petty concerns are greater than the welfare of hundreds of other people. Even skilled police drivers cannot hold mobile phones and drive well; it is not simply the obstacle to gripping the steering wheel but also the mental distraction. You see people wobbling all over the road, braking suddenly and generally causing disruption to the flow of traffic.

Now, moving on to new areas of terrible driving. Different things bubble up through the year, but one persistent one I have faced over the past few weeks is 'tailgating'. If you are not familiar with what this involves, basically it is driving so close to the vehicle in front of you that if it stops suddenly you will be unable not to crash into it. The stopping distance for a car travelling at 30 mph (48kph) in dry weather is the length of 6 average cars (75 ft or 23m) at 70 mph (112kph) - the highest speed you are legally allowed to travel on UK roads, is 24 car lengths (315 ft or 96m). These distances double in wet weather. Now, constantly I have cars behind me at less than 3 ft (i.e. 1m), which means even driving in a residential road where the speed limit is 30mph, if I stop when a child or an old person or a cat runs out, they will definitely crash into me and shunt me forwards quite a distance. You can imagine how hazardous it is on motorways. This is the reason that every day I see cars that have 'shunted', i.e. one has smashed into the rear of another. On a 30 mile (48 Km) journey each morning I typically see three of these accidents. Now, I accept that not all of these kill people, but they wreck cars and contribute to the slowness of traffic.

There are a couple of variations on tailgating. One is the behaviour of lorries (trucks) on motorways (freeways or highways). In the UK their speed is limited to 60 mph (96kph). If you are in front of a lorry and your speed falls to 59mph they will be less than 3 feet behind you, flashing their lights and hooting you to get out of their way, even when you have nowhere to go as there are vehicles blocking the way in front of you. They make no consideration for the fact that you may have moved into the inside lane because you want to turn off, they expect you to charge up to the junction. Having a 30-tonne plus lorry bearing down on you is hardly likely to lead to confident driving. The other thing is the racing between lorries. If one finds that because he is unloaded he can get 1-2mph faster than the one in front he pulls into the middle lane and slowly edges past that other lorry. It is an agonisingly slow race. Of course the lorry on the inside lane never yields any space and sometimes the overtaking lorry has to drop back. All of this is going on for some foolish pride of lorry drivers, but it causes chaos for other road users. It drops the speed of the middle lane suddenly from 70mph to 60mph when the lorry moves out and these large vehicles sweeping constantly back and forth between two lanes sends turbulence and disruption to the other road users that the lorry drivers seem simply to despise. Coach drivers who can go up to 70mph (and usually go much faster despite their passengers) are even worse.

Another variation on tailgating goes back to the social status issue. Many drivers seem to feel that small cars should not be on the road (lorry drivers seem to have the same view of all car drivers). They hoot and flash at them, trying to get them to pull off the road, even when there are other clear lanes to pass on. If you yield the car zooms past and you catch up with it at the next junction anyway. Presumably it is offensive to them to see a small car in front of them and they wish they had some special route just for them (I believe this is one reason why the Conservative Party in the UK want the top speed limit increased to 80mph. Even the Citroen 2CV with an engine capacity of 602cc can make 70mph but most cars under 1 litre [i.e. 1000cc or more usually 998cc] capacity find it difficult to reach 80mph meaning that they would be reconciled to being terrorised by the lorries in the slow and middle lanes). There are drivers who take this further and I have encountered a couple. One will move around back and forth across the road to block your progress and go in front of you and brake suddenly. Another will simply follow you, sitting tight behind you no matter where you go, even if you pull over or speed up or slow down, as if you are in some trashy horror movie. Why these people want to do this I have no idea, clearly they have nothing better to do with their lives.

Other behaviour that is both dangerous and annoying on the road, are people who change lanes, go round roundabouts, turn into side roads, etc. all without signalling. Every car now has clear, easily operated indicators, but some people seem to have an inability to use them. Again they slow up the traffic and increase the danger to others for the sake of them moving their hand a few centimetres. Why people like moving back and forth across all lanes of the motorway I do not know. Then they see their junction and move right from the fast lane to the exit slip road without signalling at all. Again, clearly they simply think the road is just for them.

A similar problem is with people 'undertaking'. By this I am referring not to funeral directors (they at least have the grace to drive slowly) but to people who pass your car on the inside and then pop up in front of you. Like those who wander across all the lanes, they are seeking the quickest route anywhere. By definition they are speeding. The main hazard is that they come back into a middle lane at the same time as someone is coming across from the fast lane and so crash three cars at once. If they have the power and the speed, why can they not simply expend the effort to overtake properly, no-one has any gripe with that. A variation on this comes at junctions when they creep up, say the lane to go left or straight on then jump out right in front of you as you try to turn right. Clearly even a few seconds lost on their journey is more of a concern than their or anyone else's life. The same impatience happens when two roads are merging. In the UK in such situations cars are supposed to merge with one from the main road followed by one from the joining road then one from the main road and so on. However, of course, rather than waiting their turn people push as far forward as they can and shove in as many of them as they can. Again such behaviour not only is hazardous but also actually slows up the whole flow of traffic for everyone, the people carrying out the action too. I must say I have experienced this in Germany as well as the UK, though less often. Another variation is people doing this creeping up when you are queuing to join a ferry or go over a toll bridge or something similar. Why do they think they are exempt from queuing when everyone else has to do it?

In contrast to many of the problems above that stem from arrogance and even self-righteousness, there is one form of bad driving which comes from hesitancy. Maybe this if forgivable given all the overly-assertive dangerous drivers around, but it does add to the difficulties of driving around safely. This is the issue of people who 'hover'. This is notable on motorways where people sit just behind you in the faster lane to you which is a difficult location as it is often in a 'blind spot' for car mirrors. The front of their car is just level with the rear of yours so you cannot move across into their lane and yet if you slow down to get in behind them, they slow too. You end up paying more attention to where they are for fear of them knocking against you, than the rest of the users on the road. Either they should fall back to give you enough space to get in or accelerate and get past you. The same happens with feeder roads, very common on both motorways and dual carriageways. I pass many of these on a daily basis and I know it is often difficult to join the main road from them, so I slow up in advance of the junction and signal for the people to come on, but do they? No. They move forward a little but do not go, then they might go and of course by then I am closer to them and have to slow more, endangering myself from whoever is tailgating me. It also happens in reverse when you are joining from a feeder. Lorries will simply not let you in and you have to hang at the entrance until they all pass, but some cars again will not accelerate past you nor slow enough to let you in and you get pushed to the end of the slip road in a very dangerous situation. Of course I simply put it down to incompetence and a lack of understanding of how the British road system works, but maybe it is malice and they just enjoy toying with you.

I am sure there are probably a hundred more things I witness in terms of bad behaviour on the roads, but these are the most common and probably provoke the most accidents. Other ones that come to mind is people driving around with full beam headlights constantly at night time seemingly unaware that they are dazzling everyone around them, they do this even on well lit and busy roads. People who drive the wrong way into service stations and then expect you to get out of the way when you have come in the correct way and have queued patiently to use a pump. Now that people drive big SUVs they seem to think that the rule that any vehicle pulling a caravan travels no faster than 50mph (80kph) has been scrapped and they charge along at 70mph+ with the caravan flapping side-to-side hazardously. People who do not understand that when approaching a junction what was previously the fast lane, say on a dual carriageway, is now the lane to turn right, so you can go into it and slow down and should not be forced to travel at 70mph right up to the junction just because they think it is still the fast lane.

Generally the quality of driving in the UK is appalling. This stems primarily from arrogance. Most drivers travel around in a bubble and think they are free to drive how they wish with absolutely no interest on anyone else they are sharing the road with, and often with an intention to somehow humiliate many of the people around them. Over 3,500 people are killed each year on Britain's roads; over 290,000 people are severely injured. Of these incidents only around 5% are caused by drunk drivers, which means that 95% of the accidents are committed by someone who is sober but driving in the idiotic ways I see on a daily basis. As the UK's roads become ever busier we need people to wake up and realise when they get in their car they are not starting a computer game or going into battle, they are simply driving and not alone, but with thousands of people around them. The arrogance needs to decrease sharply and a recognition that you are moving with a dangerous weapon in a confined and ever shifting space, needs to come to the fore.

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