Gavin Green: why better drivers mean safer roads

Published: 23 November 2010

Over the past few months, there have been calls, from various worthy organisations, to reduce the drink drive limit, the speed limit and to crack down on drug-addicted drivers, all in the good name of improving road safety. The ideas are well intentioned and some may even be meritorious. But the more disparate ideas are submitted – and naturally, they include impassioned calls to make cars safer – so we avoid the key issue in enhancing road safety. Namely, to improve the standard of driving.

UK drivers are not good enough – although they may be the world’s best

As anyone who has spent a few years driving on UK roads will know, there is much room for improvement. And, as anyone who has driven in America, Australia or mainland Europe – let alone India or China – will also know, the UK probably enjoys the highest driving standard in the world. Which, as yet another twat cuts you up on the M4, is indeed shocking.

Two recent events have highlighted what a pack of driving dunces we have become. The first was the Toyota ‘unintended acceleration’ scare in North America, which still rumbles on. Most ‘victims’, clearly, had not the slightest idea what to do in such an emergency – namely, to select neutral or turn off their engines. (Worryingly, when I asked a number of close UK friends what they would do in a similar situation, at least half confessed ignorance.)

Cars are too easy to drive

Cars, I conclude, have become too easy to drive. No skill is nowadays necessary to navigate the M-ways and by-ways by motor vehicle, and this is especially true in the US, pioneer of auto gearboxes, power steering, in-car entertainment, phone-a-friend-while-driving and XL-sized vehicles.

Lazy driving is widespread, with concomitant lack of concentration. We drive now with a similarly low level of attentiveness that we walk the pavements. Equally, an ignorance of the basic workings of a motor car is worryingly widespread.

EVs may make it worse

The second recent event – witness new EVs from Nissan, Mitsubishi, Renault, Peugeot and others – is the electrification of the motor car. This is a trend I encourage, because it means less stink and less noise. The flipside is that electric vehicles are even easier, and more appliance-like, than internal combustion engine cars. No clutch, no stepped transmission, no transmission choice. Just go or stop. A daydreamers delight!

I suspect there will be little encouragement from car makers or legislators to make cars more difficult to drive. (Although an insistence that all cars must have no-synchro gearboxes would soon sort the pros from the prats!)

Rather, the best way to make roads safer is to make the driving test harder, to insist on regular retesting (every 10 years?), and to stop the global cultural assumption of the divine right to hold a driving licence. (This would also have the happy side effect of cutting congestion and pollution, for there would be far fewer drivers on the road.)

But it would be a brave politician who suggests that.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience

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