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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(May 2008)

Here is a question to which Iím hoping the answer is No: am I the only interfering busy-body on the roads? Let me explain. As Iíve suggested before, maybe itís because Iím a physicist, but when I see something Ďout of orderí and particularly if it is causing a traffic hazard I have a powerful urge to get it put right or made safe, or at least to give some sort of warning.

The problem might be static (potholes, traffic lights, street-lamps), or something loose on the road (animals, people, objects), or a fault on another vehicle (lights, tyres, bits falling off). If I donít do something about it, I say to myself, will anyone else?

I guess people do notify their local authority of such things as potholes, blocked gullies, broken glass on the road, and failed traffic lights and street-lamps ó otherwise councils wouldnít all have gone to the trouble that they have, in setting up report forms for these problems (and others) on their websites. But Iíve lost count of the number of such things, across several counties, that have been fixed only after I reported them. The councils themselves are supposed to do regular surveys of their roads, of course, but I donít get the impression itís their top priority...

Sometimes a traffic hazard is sudden and serious. Last month I arrived at the level crossing at Ford in West Sussex to discover that although the lights were flashing red, the gates were still up! Vehicles were edging across, and I did the same. This was almost sheep mentality and very unwise, I realized afterwards (though I first looked L, R, L, R and L again), because there would have been no real warning of a fast approaching train, nor of the gates suddenly coming down. What I should have done is stop short and use the yellow phone. Instead, I drove on to Littlehampton and left a message at the station. To my great relief, there was no news afterwards of any accident.

As for actual animals on the road, these are rarely sheep, sometimes cats and dogs, but more usually horses, which have every right to be there (if with riders). But they are still a hazard. The puzzle, as Iíve said before, is that the place where youíre least likely to encounter them seems to be just after a horse-and-rider warning sign. Lately, though, Iíve realized that these signs mainly indicate exits from stables and bridle-paths (just as a bicycle in a triangle sign marks the end of a cycle lane). But the fact is that you are much more likely to meet a horse or, worse, a group of them on the open road, than near a sign.

When horses come into view, what should you do? Slow right down in order to pass them, obviously. But then as you accelerate again, oughtnít you consider warning oncoming traffic about them? The same question applies to any sort of obstruction that you have just passed. If itís plain that approaching drivers can see the problem then donít give any signal, I suggest ó it will only be a distraction. But after you have gone round the next bend, surely itís your duty to indicate to drivers that thereís trouble just out of sight.

Iíd say this requires at least three quick flashes. Giving just one or two looks more like signalling hello (or else: ďI reached for something and my sleeve caught the lighting stalkĒ). I remember giving about five flashes once, after I passed horses on the other side of the road and then immediately rounded an uphill bend to face a rapidly approaching coach and a tail-back of cars!

Another time it was a lesser hazard (and fewer legs): I had passed an old lady striding along in the opposite gutter, just short of a narrow, blind right-hand bend. But you need to weigh up the situation. Best not to flash if you are trailing another vehicle, because it will look as if thatís what you are signalling to. And if youíve travelled more than about a quarter of a mile beyond the obstruction thereís no point, because the oncoming driver will give up looking out for trouble before reaching it.

The third sort of problem that I mentioned is things out of order on other vehicles. If someone has forgotten to light up at twilight, I blip my headlights off rather than dazzle the driver with a full-beam flash warning. I ignore the stern advice given in the Advanced Driving magazine once, that unless you are on a street-lit road this act will put you (however briefly) in breach of the Lighting Regulations yourself!

Then another source of mild horror in me is a burnt-out bulb on a vehicle. After all, the other one of the pair could go soon (and Iíve noticed cars in this state too). Any driver who has a dark headlight must be aware of it, but clearly many do not often check their rear lights and brake lights for failures. Whenever possible I tell them of the problem, and invariably they are grateful (as I would be, in reverse).

From mild horror to the stuff of nightmares. On dozens of occasions over the years, I have seen a soft or a distorted tyre on the vehicle ahead. Would someone else take action to warn the driver if I didnít, and if not, what might be the consequences? So Iíve chased vehicles (at a safe distance) through town and through country flashing my lights and (when closer) sounding my horn and gesticulating, but trying to indicate danger rather than that I am dangerous, and eventually inducing the driver to halt.

Once I managed to get alongside a car and warn the occupant about an almost flat rear tyre, just in time to stop her taking the slip road on to the M4. But sometimes there has been simply no opportunity to get the message across to drivers that they are at great risk of tyre failure, before theyíve disappeared into the distance. Hence my nightmares ó and hence my question at the start...

Peter Soul

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