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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
Recently the Sunday Times invited its readers to suggest new motoring laws and regulations. It was an easy way of filling a page, of course, and I had seen most of the ideas before — confining lorries to the inside lanes of motorways, allowing left turns against a red light (when safe to do so), that sort of thing. But the best notion was saved for last: abolish all motoring laws and replace them with a single offence: driving like a berk.
What a splendid idea! The proposer offered a couple of examples: driving at 90 on an empty motorway in good conditions would be OK, but driving at 90 on the M62 in fog in the rush hour — guilty! Parking a large car neatly but slightly over the lines would be OK, but causing hold-ups in a multi-story by not going straight to the top where there’s always space — guilty! I’m sure you can think of other situations too where simple common sense would be much the best adjudicator of whether someone’s driving behaviour was good or bad.
I can’t resist making some suggestions of my own for improving road safety. First, I propose lowering all pavements down to road level and replacing the kerb with just a painted white line. But won’t this increase the danger to pedestrians? Not at all — a raised kerb offers no obstacle to vehicles swerving up against it. You see them climbing it to park there all the time.
As for the pedestrians themselves, the kerb must increase the chances that they will totter and even fall into the road. And yet somehow the presence of the ledge gives both them and drivers the false impression that there is no hazard at all, from vehicles passing people inches away at 30 mph or more. My argument is that when this ineffective barrier is removed, everyone will become more aware of the dangers and will proceed more cautiously.
By the way, I don’t mean to be disparaging towards pedestrians and their state of equilibrium, far from it. One problem they face is that pavements generally slope down towards the road slightly (in order to shed rain-water). Also, I know only too well how easy it is deviate from a straight line when you take your eyes off the path ahead even if only for a moment. An occasion comes to mind from a holiday we enjoyed a few years ago in Madeira, where spectacular walking routes lie alongside irrigation channels (levadas) that follow the contours of the hills. These channels are about a metre deep, I discovered...
Looking now at the middle of the road, here the white line gives drivers far too much confidence that oncoming traffic will stay on the other side of it. Vehicles are thus positively encouraged to pass each other, inches apart again, at relative speeds of up to 120 mph (on out-of-town roads). The slightest lapse of concentration or twitch of the steering wheel can bring death and disaster. Centre lines should therefore be painted out, to force drivers to think about the hazards that are inevitable with two-way traffic and make allowances for them.
If this doesn’t reduce the accident rate significantly, then I suggest that all (single carriageway) roads be made one-way, in a carefully designed network of routes. In town, most journeys would hardly be extended at all by this. Out of town you might have to drive an extra few miles — but with no oncoming traffic you would often be able to make faster progress, especially as many roads ought to qualify for an increased speed limit.
Some drivers would no doubt continue to behave irresponsibly by exceeding the limit. Even so, I propose removing all speed humps and tables, which must be doing untold damage not only to suspension systems but also (and more worryingly) to everyone’s tyres. Instead, what’s needed is a pair of linked cameras at each end of any road where there is a speeding problem. When a number-plate was recognized as having travelled from one end to the other too quickly (depending on the speed limit) a penalty would be automatic.
The occasional temporary camera half-way along a road would catch the smart aleck who might decide to do a ton most of the way and then wait a while for time to catch up with him, before passing the camera at the far end. One can even imagine speed limits abolished and intelligent cameras erected, programmed to detect driving like a berk (see above).
But all this is mere tinkering with the problem of how to raise driving standards. Learning to drive should be organized as a compulsory progression through several levels and tests (just like ordinary education), each one rewarding the student with more freedom to drive — at higher speeds, after dark, on motorways and so on — rising to the present advanced-motorist standard.
I suppose this scheme would have to be made voluntary for existing drivers (non-advanced) but if so, then I would have no hesitation in imposing on any opters-out an old idea for instantly making them safe on the roads: fix a spike to the centre of their steering wheels and confiscate their seat-belts.
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