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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(July 2007)

As well as thinking about driving, physics, maths and related things, I enjoy musing on the meanings of words. English is rich in its vocabulary. Hereís an example: what are the differences in meaning between danger, peril, threat, hazard, risk? In dictionaries they equate to each other, more or less, making up a set of synonyms (one of many that exist in English, and very useful to writers they are too, allowing us to repeat words less often). But each word also has its own shades of extra meaning, such as: danger = precariousness, peril = immediate danger, threat = an indication of danger, hazard = a source of danger, risk = the chances of danger. (I may test you on some of these later!)

If you ignore dangers on the road when they come into view, whatís the likely result? An accident. Now thereís a word to conjure with ó literally so, as far as the Highway Code is concerned, because I hear that when the new edition appears soon, accident will have done a vanishing trick, being replaced by collision, crash or incident.

The idea behind this, apparently, is to persuade not only drivers but also the police that deaths and injuries on the road are mostly not Ďaccidentalí but usually the fault of someone. The offending word is also being eliminated from documents issued by the Department for Transport. People opposing the change of wording say that it will encourage a blame culture and take attention away from preventing accidents in the first place.

I think Iíll keep out of this argument! Anyway, definitions of words are the last thing on my mind when Iím driving. What do I think about instead? One part of my brain is noticing that the car seems to be driving and steering itself, in complete safety (see my March 2005 column) as is most of the traffic around me. I can almost hear myself saying: ďNever had an accident, so I suppose I never will (touch wood).Ē

But another part of my brain, the physicist part, is being more realistic. It reminds me that if for example I double my speed from 30 mph to 60, the car acquires four times the kinetic energy (see April 2006), all to be dissipated by the brakes as heat in the event of a sudden stop ... or to be absorbed by something else if itís a collision. Iím also aware (as you will have guessed from several past columns) that peopleís lives depend on the grip of my tyres on the road.

And then part of every driverís brain should be looking for hazards ahead! The question is, how best to assess them? Hereís a scenario: approaching you is a cyclist, no traffic beyond, nothing to worry about. Then you notice youths off the road to the left, playing football ó and the ball is slowly rolling on to the road. You canít stop in time, though you can avoid the ball by moving to the middle of the road. But should you do this? Weigh it up: if you stay on the left youíre likely to hit the ball, but very unlikely to cause damage if you do, hence the risk is low. If you move to the middle you may not be likely to startle the cyclist, but youíre very likely to cause injury if you do, hence the risk is high.

In the workplace, this sort of thinking is called Risk Assessment: multiplying the likelihood of a hazard by its severity, to calculate the real risk involved (hazard = a source of danger, risk = the chances of danger, remember?). On the road, youíre not expected to do the maths: just try to take the right action instinctively!

Sorry to continue on a serious note, but I want now to highlight a story I read recently from a lady whose husband was in a coma for three years, after being hit by a car. On top of her other difficulties she found that before she could do anything to sort out her husbandís finances, she was obliged to apply to the Court of Protection to act as his ĎReceiverí.

She said she then discovered that the Court takes its job of protection seriously, exerting total and intimidating control over the Receiverís actions even if he/she is the spouse of the person. Also, fees are charged which in her case added up to £3000-plus over the three years. Her message was clear: avoid the Court of Protection at all costs ó or rather, at the low cost of setting up an Enduring Power of Attorney now.

As some of you will know, an EPA is a simple legal document that you sign to authorize someone to run your finances in the future, in case you canít for any reason (eg, mental impairment or sudden illness). Itís rather like an insurance policy, except that it will cost you less than you are probably paying every year for any other insurance.

You need to take legal advice over the details, as an Enduring Power of Attorney gives the person(s) you name the authority to deal later with all or any part (as you wish) of your property and money. And of course you must fully trust them to do this. Any solicitor will advise you about EPAs.

I might mention that Iíve acted as attorney for three relatives at different times, with no great problems ó but with great relief now that I did not have to do the job the hard way, like that lady! Also, if you are thinking about one for yourself then there is some urgency: although an EPA is valid for life, you must set it up before the end of September 2007. After that the regulations change and you will have to settle for the new (and considerably more costly and complex) Lasting Power of Attorney.

So the advice Iíve seen from several solicitors is to arrange an EPA cheaply now while you still can, leaving yourself the option of an LPA later rather than being forced to face it. This makes good sense to me ... but excuse me while I just check my dictionaries for the difference in meaning between lasting and enduring.

Peter Soul

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