Other People's Driving

Other people’s driving always makes good copy in a motoring column. Witness the eloquent David Finlay (www.carkeys.co.uk) ‘Motorway Madness’ 17 July. The idea aired recently that police could levy on the spot fines recalled a driving incident 21 years ago that I used in my Fast Lane magazine column. Magistrates are quite right to resist providing the plods with such authority. The courteous, cultured and intelligent Peter Dron edited Fast Lane and was kind enough to run my column every week for four years. He took the view that editors should not interfere with what a columnist wrote. The authorities are still dithering over what to do with the A303 close to where this incident took place, unable to make up its mind what to do with the bit passing Stonehenge. I wonder how long the chap in the Sapphire survived. The 21 years that have passed have also seen speed cameras come and very nearly go. And my son is now 42.

Fast Lane, April 1988

True story. I am driving a Porsche Turbo, not mine, Porsche’s, along the A303. It is a fine morning, the road is damp, then sun’s well up, it is closing 9am and I am thinking, ‘hello my son’s 21 today’. So I remember the date. It is February 2, and I am driving from deepest Wiltshire to Egham.

Do not ask why, that is not part of the story.

At about 0830, a man in a hairy tweed suit has put on a hairy hat, adjusted his glasses, said goodby to his wife and got into his blue Ford Sapphire, new last year, clean as a whistle. He comes from womewhere near Market Lavington, or Tilshead on Salisbury Plain (where they’re up in arms about the army building a German village, to practise fending off the invading hordes expected at any time from the east). He is on his way to his office in Salisbury, and he willreach the A303 in about half an hour at a village called Winterbourne Stoke. There have been two fatal accidents there since I came to the district, it is an unhappy little place. He is thinking it’s a nice sunny day, a bit windy perhaps, as he collects his morning paper and gives a lift to a friend.

I drive from the junction with the A36 Salisbury-Bath road. The A303 is a well surfaced dual carriageway, block, glistening and beckoning. This Porsche accelerates with satisfying swiftness, zero to 60mph in 5.7 seconds. It is one of the fastest point to point cars I have ever driven, nimbler than a 928, yet, at 160mph, nearly as fast. It will exceed twice the legal speed limit with ease. I drift past the odd car and truck – crawling, unhurried, their drivers day dreaming. Winterbourne Stoke, surprisingly enough, is not yet bypassed by this trunk route, now splendid dual carriageway for much of its length.

You drop down into Winterbourne, whee the whitewashed houses stand out clear in the crisp morning light. You can’t overtake, there’s a double white line curving left handed, then right, as the road narrows to standard two-way. The big disc brakes squeal just a little – wonderful brakes with the four-piston fixed calliper of the 928S and ventilated discs. The 944 slows obediently behind a large white covered lorry. A refrigerated van I guess.

The B3083 joins from the left. The A303 bends to the right through the village. There are good sight lines. The truck is doing about 40 – there is a speed limit. I am about four cars’ lengths astern so I can see in sharp detail.

The Sapphire noses out from the side road, the driver looks, I can see his round face and silly hat – and on he comes. The truck driver can no more believe it than I can. His brake lights go on. There is smoke from his locked wheels, which he seems to sense. The brake lights go off. I am going to see a painful accident. I think of the traffic I have just overtaken. They’ll say, “I bet it was the Porsche’s fault; serves him right,” when they see the wreckage. Ungracious, but that’s how people are.

The Sapphire is now well into the truck’s path. But the truckie, to his credit, is equal to the situation. Here is a one-man ABS system. The brake lights go on again – and off – and on – and he steers round the Sapphire with inches to spare. It is like the Ford TV commercial for anti-lock brakes.

I don’t expect he will ever read this. Fast Lane doesn’t sell much to truckies. I wish I’d noted down his number, or the name on the side, so that I could write and tell his boss what a good driver he’s got. I felt like pointing out to the Sapphire driver that his life had just been saved.

I needn’t have bothered. Truckie stopped and without so much as pause to wipe his brow opened his door, got down, and told hairy tweedy himself.

Question. Who is the hooligan? Wind the video back a couple of minutes. Here is old tweedy, going about his presumably lawful occasions, strapped into his Sapphire on a quiet country road, passing the time of day with his chum. Ambling to work, talking about last night’s TV. Paying not a blind bit of notice to death stalking him from his starboard side on the A303.

Here am I, in my splendid Porsche, disappearing over the brow of the hill in a cloud of spray with finger-wagging and cluck-clucking from anybody who happens to see me, and a wigging from the local bench had I – heaven forfend – been exceeding the statorury speed limit.

Which of us was being dangerous?

The difference I suppose might lie in acknowledging that driving cars is dangerous. Tweedy at 5mph seemed to think he was bomb proof, while I know perfectly well that I could have an accident as easily as anybody – but try not to.

I am no campaigner for lifting the 70 limit. I am not deeply unhappy about the present state of affairs. Imposing it in the first place was crass, a panic measure by the miserable Tom Fraser, a Minister of Transport besides whom the witless Bottomley seems inventive and dynamic. But now nobody pays much attention to the limit. Unless you sweep past them at 130, not even the police. They’ve got more to do. Chief Constables would like photographic speed-monitoring equipment, which would be a touch uncomfortable, but since I don’t break the limit by much on motorways as a rule, it wouldn’t concern me.

Besides, it is just as well there are some powers that authority has in reserve for the wholly incompetent. I would prefer if they were able to impose a stricter IAM-style driving test – that would weed-out a few. Failing that, throw some penalty points around and get them off the road that way.

The awesrome thought is that there are Hairy Tweeds who don’t just poke the nose of their shiny new Sapphires out on to the A303 at 5mph. They are out there, on the M3 every day, doing 70 or more. God help us.