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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
An article in the last Advanced Driving magazine brought an awkward fact to our attention: cars have been putting on weight – or more to the point, width. Some previously slim models such as the Mini have widened by 18 inches over the years (though the Mini did it, untypically, in one extraordinary burst of growth around 15 years ago, in becoming the MINI).
The reasons are mostly attributable to the car-occupants, who have not only themselves broadened, but have also demanded features such as bucket seats, room for three in the back, extra storage space, more powerful front-wheel-drive engines, and doors able to accommodate speakers, electric windows and side-impact protection.
You wonder how many drivers have rolled their new car into their old garage, and then discovered that they couldn’t get out! Me, I confess that for twenty years or more my garage has been occupied by other items: if it wasn’t for them, possibly my Mk 6 Golf could be squeezed in (with me then being able to squeeze out, I mean), because the article mentioned that this model has put on only seven inches or so, across the beam, since the days of the Mk 1 in the 70s. And that’s even with incorporating the features that I’ve listed above.
Full marks to the VW design team for this, then. But (while I have them in mind) not many marks for providing my car with no flat space inside to put things down on safely. The top of the dashboard, for example, is four square feet of useless undulating surface. Do vehicle designers actually drive cars? Does their eye for a nice profile neutralize their common sense for how practical it will be? Do they simply think differently from the rest of us – or from me anyway?
“Thinking differently”: I would like to explore this general idea further, as there’s evidence of it all around. If I see a car arriving at a red light (or some other hold-up that’s visible from a good distance away) at high speed plus heavy braking, I think of the pointless waste of fuel and brake material – but the driver is clearly thinking of something else, or not thinking at all.
Then there’s the fondness that some motorists have for the gear-stick, expressed by caressing it all the time with their left hand, even on bends and corners: are they confident that the hand will never suddenly be needed on the steering-wheel? And I can’t imagine the thought-processes that allow a vehicle to be left parked absurdly and damagingly with a tyre, or even two, half-off the edge of a kerb (something I seem to notice every other day).
It’s not just on the road that I observe the effects of brains being used in a different way from mine. I run a volunteer group of adopt-a-street litter-pickers (now more than 260 strong, and covering at least 80% of our town of Earley), but we are only needed because of the many litter-droppers: what on earth is going through the mind of people when they discard an item on the pavement or verge? Do they assume it will quickly fade away to nothing?
By the way, I heard recently of some extraordinarily effective tricks for getting litter disposed of properly: painting green footprints on the ground, leading towards a litter-bin, actually induces people to follow them and do the necessary! In train carriages, if a fresh lemon aroma is fed in through the ventilation system, it somehow encourages passengers to take their coffee-cups and newspapers away (why should it be the train company’s job to clear up them up anyway?). And there’s no doubt that when a street is kept reasonably clean, less litter is dropped on it...
Here’s a different sort of puzzling behaviour: everyone knows, surely, the importance of keeping a PIN-number secret. If a crook gets to know it and then manages to steal or copy the card, your money becomes his. Yet in shops I constantly see customers punching in their number ‘openly’ so that it could easily be noted or filmed. Do they think there’s no risk at all? Me, I cover the keypad (with my wallet) every time – ready for the one time that it could matter.
But let’s get back to motoring. Some drivers evidently still believe that there are no significant dangers in using a mobile phone while on the move. But it’s almost inevitable that talking (whether via a hand-held or a hands-free phone) to someone who is not in the car will take your concentration off the road ahead. A recent study on a driving simulator established that the effect was equivalent to having drunk three shots of vodka!
And yet, astonishingly, it is possible to circumvent this (I mean the problem with the mobile, not with the vodka): if the distant party can actually see the driver or better still the road ahead, on a video-phone of some sort, their conversation instinctively becomes ‘participatory’ with the driving, just as if they were a passenger – aware of the traffic, maybe pointing out hazards, and so on. And as a result, the added risk to the driver in using the phone is much smaller.
This too was only demonstrated on a driving simulator, so it might not be valid in real driving. And it’s unlikely to be allowed as an exemption to the law against mobile-phone use, as there’s no easy way of ensuring that drivers have set up the necessary video connection. But anyway, if you would like to know more about the study, listen to the R4 programme All in the Mind, available here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04svjbn.
There was an interesting discussion too, in the programme, on why vehicles parked on motorway hard shoulders are less noticeable (to approaching drivers) than you might think. The reason is that they are pointing in exactly the same direction as the rest of the traffic, and so don’t stand out from it – regardless of the fact that they are stationary. We were told that if you are obliged to stop on the hard shoulder, the trick for protecting your car by making it more ‘visible’ is to park it at an angle (pointing into the verge, I would suggest, rather than the other way).
That’s assuming, of course, that the car hasn’t become too wide for this to be feasible!
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