Friday, 18 December 2015

Christmas Celebrations

Drinking can be fun. Driving can be fun.  But together?  Not fun! 

So we are heading for the party season and we all want to make merry and enjoy ourselves and I'm the last person who would want to curtail someone having a good time.  However, when we are driving we have an inescapable responsibility to look after ourselves, our passengers and all other road users regardless of what they are doing.

I could come up with lots of statistics about the dangers of drinking and driving, the general risk for young or inexperienced drivers, the effects of alcohol on the various parts of the brain and the changes in attitudes after drinking.  I could also list the various drinks and the number of units and how long it takes for it to dissipate in your system.  I could try to dissuade you by telling you what might happen if the police pull you over, breathalysed, arrested, locked up, disqualified.  I could put up videos for you to watch to try to get across the dangers of drink driving, some so gruesome that they will make you feel sick, others so heart-rending that they will make you cry and some so bland you wouldn't even notice.  But I'm not going to do any of those things.

Instead I'm just going to plead with you to make this commitment.  "I will not drink at all if I am driving or if I am going to be driving in the next 12 hours.  If I am going to be driving then I will not have a drink for 12 hours before even if that means not drinking the previous evening."  This is the only way to be sure.  Even one drink will affect your ability to drive the car at the standard you normally do so it is simply not worth it.     

Many of my pupils have said to me that they don't drink and that is fine but sometimes at Christmas things change and people might have one or two.  If you do, remember the commitment you made above and don't drive.  Finally, if you are offered a lift by a friend or acquaintance and they have been drinking, don't accept, encourage them not to drive and get a taxi...  it's simply not worth it.

Wherever you are, take care on the roads during this festive season.

I wish you all the very best of Merry Christmases and a Happy, Fruitful and Prosperous New Year. 

Emma Ashley

Monday, 8 June 2015

How big is a gap?

When teaching dual carriageways, one of the questions I ask pupils concerns the distance between our car and the vehicle in front.  The question is simple "What distance should you be from the vehicle ahead?"  Some respond very quickly, some after a little more thought.  Regardless of the time taken, most get it wrong!  Some people suggest 2 car lengths, some 10 car lengths, some suggest 2 chevrons (difficult if they're aren't any), some even try 'about this far' as an answer.  No-one ever tries to recall the stopping distance according to the Highway Code - just as well because that is wrong too.  Occasionally one will get the answer right.  Before I give that answer, what do you think it should be? 

Enough time to think.  Strangely the answer doesn't relate to car lengths, stopping distances or any measure of distance at all.  It is actually measured in time.  The correct distance, assuming dry, good quality roads, is 2 seconds.  By simply counting after the vehicle ahead goes past a fixed point e.g., a sign until you go past the same sign.

Just to give some idea of how far it is, here is a picture of a 2 second gap at 50 miles per hour. 

That looks pretty reasonable doesn't it?  If he stops suddenly, I will be able to stop in time.  Comfortable!

This, on the other hand, is a picture of a 2 car length gap...

If he brakes, I've had it!  The two car lengths is probably just about enough time for me to realise that he's braking and I'm going to hit him. 

Every day, I see many, many people leaving this gap, 2 car lengths, between them and the vehicle in front.  It is at epidemic proportions on the A2 and even scares and accidents don't seem to make people wary enough to back off. 

So, perhaps it is time to look at your following distance, maybe with fresh eyes and understanding, so that you maintain a decent, safe distance from the car ahead.

Note: These photos were taken in a controlled environment by a front seat passenger following extensive planning and agreement on the process between the drivers of both cars.  No laws were broken and safety was never compromised.  We know that with the deterioration of the weather on this occasion the 2 second distance was not sufficient and in fact we should have been further back.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Clunk click, every trip!

Back in 2013 Dean Gaffney, of Eastenders fame, was involved in a car crash which resulted in him having a lengthy scar on his forehead.  In the rounds of interviews afterwards he admitted that he hadn't been wearing a seatbelt and that he was very lucky just to come away with a scar and nothing worse.  He said that he had been 'naughty' in not wearing his seatbelt. 

One of the problems with the emphasis on wearing seatbelts is that the predominant view is that it is a legal requirement and that's why we should do it.  What many people don't remember is why the law is there and why it is important to belt up.  Not wearing a seatbelt isn't just breaking the law, it is risking your life.

Back in the 1970's there was an extensive advertising campaign to encourage drivers and passengers to wear their seatbelts.  The campaign was fronted by Jimmy Savile and the slogan 'Clunk click, every trip' became known in households up and down the land.  Whilst the presenter may now be discredited, the message isn't and is as relevant today as it was then. Cars are much safer these days than they were back in the 1970's but the physics is the same and if you go from 40mph to 0mph in a nano-second it is going to hurt you.  The air bag may prevent some of the injuries but injuries mean nothing if you are dead.

As an ex-police officer I have seen a few of the effects of accidents where car occupants have not been wearing their seatbelts.  How anyone deals with that on an ongoing basis is beyond me.  How anyone can sit in a car without belting up is also beyond me. I'm not good looking, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have two eyes, a nose that is straight and no scars on my face.  Why would I want to risk that? Why would you?

As Eeyore once said "They're funny things, Accidents. You never have them till you're having them."  When you get in the car and don't belt up, how do you know you are not going to have an accident?  It may only be a trip just round the corner but you still don't know and when the accident is happening it is too late.  Then you are at the mercy of momentum, physics and fate.

It takes a few seconds.  It could save your life.  Don't risk it.  Clunk click, every trip!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Anarchy on the Roads

Last August I went out on a Friday night to conduct a lesson.  It was the last time I will ever do it.  It seemed to me that every other car was driven by a boy racer and the standard of driving by those that weren’t young men with an overload of testosterone were just as bad.  The final straw came when I had to dual control my pupil on Bowaters roundabout due to a laughing maniac in a Lexus who decided cutting us up was funny!  In a separate incident a couple of months later I was driving through Welling in the early hours of the morning.  Waiting at a set of traffic lights turning right into Welling High Street, I started to move forward when the lights changed to green.  3 cars approaching from the left decided that their high speed race was more important than stopping at a red light – at least the first 2 did, screaming through at speeds in excess of 50mph.  The 3rd car did stop only to jump the red light once we had completed our turn, overtaking us and tearing after his mates.

Now the biggest issue with both of these incidents isn’t the recklessness of the driving, although that is of concern.  It is that this kind of behaviour is becoming more common because there is no attempt at policing it whatsoever.  Every day I see multiple occurrences of wanton law-breaking on the roads, everything from using mobile phones to jumping red lights, from illegal parking to dangerous driving.  Within government there seems to be a belief that simply introducing a law is sufficient to stop people doing things which may be dangerous.  Rules without enforcement or without realistic threat of enforcement are rules which are not going to be adhered to, certainly not by those who can’t even spell ‘law’ let alone abide by it.  When was the last time you saw the police stop someone?  They know law-breaking goes on but they do not have either the resources or the inclination to do anything about it.  Unfortunately, if we, as citizens, take evidence of careless or dangerous driving to them, they still won’t do anything.

The vast majority of drivers on the roads are reasonable most of the time.  We also know that anyone can make a mistake.  Answering the mobile phone when driving is not a mistake; it is a downright blatant breaking of the law.  It is highly dangerous and if you haven’t had an accident while doing it then that is more by luck than skill.  Why is it that the best drivers don’t talk on the mobile while they are driving?  Because they know it is dangerous, in any situation.  Speeding can be a mistake and the speed awareness courses are a good remedy for people who make that mistake.  However, some speeding is not a mistake being instead a blatant breaking of the law – we can all tell the difference.  Slowing down for a speed camera and then speeding up again is deliberate, not a mistake.

Why should I, as a law-abiding driver, bother to adhere to the rules?  The likelihood of being caught is small and the punishment irrelevant.  If a young driver was to not get insured on his car and get caught, he would get a £300 fine and 6 points.  If he got insurance in the first place it could cost £2000.  So it is cheaper to drive without insurance!  Okay, he may get 6 points but is he really going to care?  So why do I bother?  For two reasons: First it is my livelihood at stake.  Secondly, I have a sense of civic responsibility which means that I am going to abide by the law if I can.  Unfortunately this attitude is in shorter supply today than in the past.  Perhaps it is an age thing?

Now some will say that I am excessively concerned about what examples of law-breaking are important and which are not.  My concern is that breaking the law ‘by a little bit’ is simply a precursor to breaking the law ‘by a lot’ and it is still breaking the law!  When does failing to stop at an amber light turn into jumping a red light?  Half a second later?  At what speed in excess of the limit does it become a problem?  If someone does 35mph in a 30 limit, is that really any different to doing 38 or 40?  Yes, the consequences may be more serious but does that make the law-breaking any less serious?  The consequences of law-breaking may be an issue of degree.  The punishment may be an issue of degree.  Law-breaking itself is absolute - you are either breaking the law or you are not!  If you, even as a predominantly law-abiding citizen, do it, then stop.  If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem so stick to your principles and drive the way you should, completely within the law, to the best of your ability.

So, with the police having almost completely abdicated responsibility for enforcing road law, how are we going to stop this relentless push into driving without limits?  In my opinion, every road user has a responsibility in this area.  Society as a whole needs to take a stand against wanton law-breaking on the roads.  Why do most people wear seatbelts when driving?  Because the campaign back in the 1970’s got into society’s consciousness and as a result society demanded that seatbelts became the norm.

Take the very prevalent example of mobile phone use.  If you currently do it, stop!  If you wait until you are in traffic or at traffic lights, then stop because that is still illegal.  When you get in the car, put your phone on silent and out of reach so that you are not tempted.  If you need to use it, pull up somewhere safe and legal and then use it.  If you are a passenger and the driver decides to use their phone, get them to pull over so you can get out.  Don’t get back in until they put their phone out of reach.  If you ring someone and you know they are driving, when they answer ask if they are hands-free.  If not, then ring off.  Take every opportunity to tell people what you think of those who use their mobile when driving.  Lead by example.  If we make this activity distasteful enough and those that do it idiots of a special class then maybe, just maybe, they will think twice the next time.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Learner Drivers - Friend or Foe

Learner Drivers – Friend or Foe?

Have you noticed that there seem to be lots of learners on the roads these days?  Is your reaction one of “Oh no, not another learner!” followed by a determined effort to get past, or do you allow them time and space to make mistakes?  We all lead busy lives.  We often need to get from A to B as quickly as possible and a learner getting in the way can be our worst nightmare... They drive unbelievably slowly, don’t seem to know what a green light means and then they go and stall!  Grrrrrr!

Have you ever taken a moment to consider it from the learner’s or the instructor’s perspective?  We were all learners once and we all make mistakes when driving.  We all needed somewhere to start, a quiet road maybe with very little traffic – somewhat difficult these days.  Or perhaps a car park late in the evening when no-one is there – possible but probably private land and therefore illegal.  What happens when the learner has the ability to start and stop the car, change gear and handle simple junctions?  Facing traffic for the first time can be hugely daunting even for the most competent learners and for some the first instinct will be to panic.  Then we have to tackle roundabouts at which point some learners wonder if they will ever be able to drive.

Most driving schools use dual control cars so that we can intervene if necessary and most instructors will use them at some point during lessons.  However, if the learner decides to swerve to the left into parked cars because they never realised buses were so big when they are coming towards you, we have to have lightning reactions to make sure that everybody’s cars remain intact.  The situation that is the most frightening, however, is when the learner decides that stopping as quickly as possible is the safest course of action and hits the brakes very, very hard!  We have no control in that situation and with modern cars, they stop almost instantly.  That’s why we put signs on the car not only saying that there is a learner driving but also that sudden braking is highly likely.  Our learners can stop very quickly, with virtually no warning and when you don’t expect it.  Consequently it is a great surprise to us that following vehicles sit so close.  Apart from the pressure you are putting on a learner driver, who may be in traffic for the first time, you are potentially putting yourself in danger because the learner may not react as you expect them to.  Even stationary in traffic there is a chance that the learner may roll back when attempting to pull away.  Why would you want to be so close that they may roll into you?

Another issue we understand is the irritation when instructors persist in doing manoeuvres right outside your house!  Once or maybe twice a day is fine, but when the twentieth learner car is there, you’re probably thinking of ringing the estate agent.  Unfortunately there are certain areas which lend themselves to specific manoeuvres.  You cannot do a turn in the road (3-point turn for anyone over the age of 35) in a narrow road with cars parked both sides.  You cannot do a reverse around the corner on busy roads or where there are vehicles parked (illegally) within 10 metres of a junction.  We are limited in our choices.  Most good instructors will try to avoid overusing specific areas but sometimes it is necessary.  We try to keep disruption to a minimum so we would crave your indulgence and ask you to be tolerant.  If you do come across a learner in the middle of a manoeuvre, keeping your distance and waiting patiently has such a positive effect on both learner and instructor and it really does make a difference.

Surprisingly perhaps, there is another side to this learner issue.  As instructors we really appreciate drivers who give us a little more time and space but please don’t go too far in being helpful.  Giving way to a learner when the learner has no right of way can be really helpful, particularly at a busy junction, but not always.  If you wouldn’t give way to a non-learner, please don’t give way to the learner.  We understand and appreciate your desire to help but the learner needs to understand the rules of the road as well as how to control the car.  Granting inappropriate right of way can be very misleading and does the learner no favours in the long run.  If you do give way, please be patient.  It is amazing how often the pupil will then stall because they are so keen to respond to your kindness.  Just because we don’t respond immediately, it doesn’t mean we don’t want to!

Finally, as instructors we want our learners to become responsible, aware, courteous and above all safe drivers.  We do our best to teach them well and instil in them good habits and the right way to drive.  They learn from us but they also learn from each and every one of you when they see you driving.  Unfortunately learners cannot necessarily distinguish the good from the bad.  Just as it is our responsibility to teach them well, it is every driver’s responsibility to demonstrate good driving at all times so that learners understand the correct, safe way to conduct themselves on the roads.  All we ask is that you drive considerately, patiently and safely so that our learners have the best chance of becoming the best driver they can be.  Thank you.