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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(November 2012)

Some recent motoring coverage in the media seems to me to call for intelligent comment (or however else you would like to describe it) in this column. The first thing is that it seems to have been noticed all of a sudden that certain models of car donít come with a spare wheel.

Manufacturers have offered a variety of excuses: the EU requires them to make weight savings; supplied instead are Ďrun-flatí tyres or a smaller space-saver wheel or a puncture-repair kit; a full-size spare may be available as an optional extra; most drivers are incapable of changing a wheel. If this last is true, the problem of course simply transfers to the breakdown people, who are reportedly becoming inundated with flat-tyre callouts that require more than just a quick change.

The repair kit requires you to pump latex solution in through the valve. But the solution has a limited shelf (or rather, boot) life, and can only block small punctures. And even then the professionals are likely to refuse to do a proper repair afterwards, so you will have to buy a new tyre. Anyway, hereís the intelligent comment (would you not agree?): how can driving on a flat-running or space-saver or amateur-repaired tyre possibly satisfy the regulations on vehicle roadworthiness, or for that matter the terms of your insurance policy, even for a single journey? So far Iíve not seen this asked anywhere, let alone answered.

Uppermost in my mind, though, is How Safe Are Britainís Roads?, a two-part series on BBC2. As I write this, I've only watched the first part (the second is tonight). It commenced with shots of the two presenters introducing the programme Ė doing so, as you might predict, by talking energetically to camera while they were each driving at some speed in a built-up area.

I was so annoyed by this that I fired off a message to Radio Times pointing out that the shots provided a ďnot veryĒ answer to the question in the title. Iím pleased to say it was printed (having been edited to read even more punchily)! But isnít there a Health & Safety Department at the BBC for applying risk-assessment procedures to such filming? And if there is, and it does so, what are the results?

The series appears to have been triggered by the fact that for the first time since 2003 the death toll on Britainís roads rose last year. This first programme was mostly an entertaining mixture of looking at drivers and at roads, recording the faults of each and studying the resulting accidents. Some drivers donít allow enough of a gap in front, arenít aware of the traffic around them, and fail to obey the rules of the road. They also disregard the condition and pressure of their tyres, thus extending their minimum stopping distance considerably. As for the roads, the message was much the same as I reported in my February column (again after a TV series): certain main routes are just littered with hazardous features, but there seems to be no money or real desire to deal with them.

We were told about the extra safety offered by modern vehicle technologies and, surprisingly, by Ďnaked-streetí areas where pedestrians and traffic mingle freely (and nervously). But letís get back to actual driving: one of the presenters bravely took criticism from an ex-police advanced-driving instructor. Among the advice given (this on prime-time TV, hurrah!) was to drive with both hands on the wheel and not with an elbow resting on the door, and always to be able to stop in the distance you can see to be clear. Also, if you are in the habit of steering hand-over-hand, and one day your airbag goes off while youíre doing it, your arms will smash into your face (at 200 mph, he said). As I have warned here, more than once.

Sadly there was (I think) no actual mention of advanced driving except when the instructor was being introduced. And I canít help puzzling over his stated opinion that by looking and thinking ahead along the road, ďyou increase your driving safety by 90%.Ē Why this curious amount? Adding 100% to something doubles it. So are you just slightly-less-than-doubling your safety (whatever this might mean)? I would have thought the factor was much higher. Maybe he meant that your chances of an accident drop by 90%, in other words to ten times smaller. Percentage changes are a trap for the unwary, as Iíve said before. Iím not criticizing the instructor, but I feel the programme-makers shouldnít have let this comment through.

Itís now tomorrow, so to speak, and Iíve seen the second programme: another eye-opener! If youíre on the motorway and overtaking (or being overtaken by) a high-cab lorry, beware. It could be the police inside, looking across and filming what you might be doing in addition to driving Ė phoning, texting, making up, or even watching a laptop, in the case of some lorry drivers. I donít mean you, of course, but motorists around you, threatening your life...

Other disturbing factors in accidents are intoxication and tiredness. Even a small drink will slow your reactions while making you think they are faster. And when you are tired your own assessment of your (reduced) driving ability is, similarly, unlikely to be accurate.

Worse: if the body needs sleep, it may take it without warning. One group at least has some excuse for not appreciating this: undiagnosed sufferers from sleep apnea, which interrupts their night-time rest and leaves them feeling tired the next day, but not aware of being at risk of suddenly dropping off, apparently. By one estimate, nearly 140,000 HGV drivers have some degree of sleep apnea Ė in addition to many other people at the wheel.

We were also told that boy racers are a consequence of evolution, which has equipped adolescent males with enquiring and thrill-seeking brains. Unfortunately, nature didnít anticipate the arrival of souped-up cars for them as well! But then the message of this second programme seemed to be that you can take almost any grouping of people and point to the factors that tend to put them at risk on the road; what you canít easily achieve is making them want to do much about it...

Peter Soul

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