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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(February 2007)

Sometimes at this point in the month I face a dilemma: whether to explore a new topic (thereís always one simmering in my head) or update some previous discussions instead. Letís make this column an update.

Last July I mentioned that some junctions have been deprived of a column of traffic-lights opposite to where you stop at the line, making it more awkward to see the lights change when youíre at the front of the queue. Afterwards I came across a tale (maybe historical) from Beirut: at any junction on red, the driver in front would creep forward to get a good start, relying on hooting from behind to tell him the lights were changing. But then sometimes the drivers behind would deliberately hoot early, just for the fun of watching the car accelerate into the cross-traffic...

Also in July, I reported that road signs marking the end of a 20 mph zone have a tendency for the number 20 (in light grey) to fade in the sun. On some signs it has gone completely. Itís incredible that a colour with this property has been used out-of-doors. OK, drivers ought not to be confused by the result, but such signs might lose their legality in some way. Later I emailed my local councils and the Department for Transport, asking if they were aware of the problem.

The DfT failed to reply ó twice. Perhaps a little local difficulty like this is beneath them, even if (as I assume) the whole nation could be affected. Reading Borough Council replied thanking me and saying they would replace the pair of signs I had pointed out to them. Wokingham District Council (soon to be a BC) said they were already trying to establish why their signs had faded. Meanwhile, I noticed, they had painted out the whole of the lower half of some signs. I think all these signs should be returned to the manufacturer as not fit for purpose.

After reading about my eyesight problems in October, someone said that at primary school he too had thought it normal to be unable to read the board. He managed to pass an eye-test by learning the lines of small letters while queuing up, so his own amazement at how the world really looked (ie, through specs) was delayed a while!

As for my glaucoma: after I informed the DVLA about it, they sent me to have my eyesight tested from all directions like Iím used to, except that this time it was with both eyes open together ó evidently they donít mind which eye is going to spy a road hazard as long as one of them does. The result, Iím glad to say, was a 100% pass (and you canít easily cheat in these tests), so I now have official permission to continue driving. Phew! My insurers were only slightly less generous. I told them about the glaucoma in reply to a renewal notice and so they sent me a revised one: the renewal premium had been increased by 33p.

Last month I surveyed various ways in which you interact with other drivers. Something I didnít mention was the simple hand-wave you give when someone lets you go first. But suppose itís the other way round and youíve let another car go first ó do you then find yourself lifting your hand in a friendly reply to the wave? I used to, every time, until I realized recently that the drivers arenít generally looking at me but instead are concentrating on the gap that Iím allowing them through. So now I donít often bother to wave back.

In November I argued that the Braking Distances in the current Highway Code should be reduced, but the Thinking Distances need to be increased (by a larger amount, I ought to say). It was encouraging to see the Winter issue of Advanced Driving recommending the same, even if rather half-heartedly.

Also in November I looked through the Highway Code for oddities and omissions, hoping that some at least might be addressed in the new edition (due out in a month or two). Hereís another item for the list, under the heading of mini-roundabouts: ďAll vehicles MUST pass round the central marking except large vehicles which are physically incapable of doing so.Ē Yet we all know mini-roundabouts with a centre blob that you canít possibly avoid however short your car is. But has there ever been a prosecution for this offence?

Back in June 2004 I discussed the meaning of an amber traffic light. What I didnít notice in the Highway Code (either then or last November) was that when green changes to amber you may proceed only if you have already crossed the line or if stopping might cause an accident ó thereís no permission to press on simply because youíre too close to the line to stop behind it, even though this is what everyone does every time the lights change, of course. (And if you did stop safely beyond the line, I suppose they could get you for this too.)

It was John Pitcock of the Birmingham Group who pointed out that one to me. Perhaps I should explain that I recently contacted some Advanced Motorist Groups inviting them to glance at my website-accumulation of nearly 5 years of columns. Among replies from interested readers like John were requests from editors to reprint columns in their group newsletters. Already a few have appeared, Iíve discovered. Is that whatís meant by being syndicated? But I promise Thames Valley Group members that youíre reading this in your newsletter first!

Peter Soul

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