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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(November 2007)

Let us hail the arrival of the 2007 Highway Code! For a start, itís 50% thicker than the previous edition, so it contains 50% more information, yes? Well, not quite. There are fewer lines per page, and fewer words per line. Also, three pages advertise other publications from the Driving Standards Agency, and four blank sides are provided on which you can write your own rules of the road, shopping lists and so on.

Clearly some of the extra space has been devoted to increasing the Ďreadabilityí of the Code. But in the winter issue of Advanced Driving itís pointed out that the continuing growth and complexity of the contents inevitably make them harder to read and remember. The original Highway Code in 1931 presented all necessary guidance to all road users in just 12 pages (plus pictures of policemen waving you on, or not)! Thereís no denying, though, that old advice has been updated and important new advice inserted in the latest edition. Whatever I may write below, I do appreciate its value to everyone.

I said in my July column that the word accident would vanish from the text, and so it has ó now, if you are unlucky, you will meet with an incident instead. Another change is that you are advised to avoid making U-turns at mini-roundabouts (previously you only had to beware of others doing so), something I suggested here last November.

Alas, not one of my other observations on the Highway Code over the last few years has been noticed (or acted upon, at least)! There is no acknowledgment that the central blob on some mini-roundabouts is physically unavoidable, however small your vehicle. I canít find more than the mildest warning to drivers, or to pedestrians on the footpath, that for one lot to be passing the other, inches apart and at speed, and separated only by a kerb, is an extreme hazard.

Under ĎDriving in hazardous weather conditionsí the book says (as before): DO NOT drive in icy or snowy weather unless your journey is essential. But isnít thick fog equally hazardous? And why is there no rule saying: you MUST NOT fall asleep while driving (or words to that effect)? What lapse could be more dangerous?

Many drivers, I guess, looked first in their new Code for changes to the Typical Stopping Distances, which have never been updated since they first appeared in 1946. It had been announced in parliament that the figures would be reviewed this time. But surprise, surprise: no change!

I said last November that even on the evidence of timing my own (rather cautious?) braking, all the Braking Distances could be reduced by 20%. I also argued, however, that the Thinking Distances were less than half what they ought to be. Overall, this meant that all the Stopping Distances should be increased by around ten metres. But I was ignored...

Another thing: itís important, surely, to be aware that your safe braking distance at any given speed will be significantly increased on bends and when you are going downhill. But is there any mention of this in the Highway Code? None at all. Nor is there an explanation of why you see the word SLOW painted on the road nearly as often as you pass catís-eyes (or so it seems). If I obeyed this instruction each time I drove over it, I would end up stationary.

Letís focus now on Rule 175 (or Rule 151 in the old Code): ĎJunctions controlled by traffic lightsí. Here the instructions given to us are plain wrong, in spite of apparently being backed up by all the legislation thatís listed beneath them: Road Traffic Act 1988, sect 36, and Traffic Signs Regulations & General Directions, regs 10 & 36 (though really itís just this reg 36 that we need pay attention to, Iíve discovered).

The first sentence in Rule 175 says: You MUST stop behind the white ĎStopí line ... unless the light is green. Well, firstly you are not obliged to stop ó if you want to, you can slow down and crawl towards the line until you get the green light. Secondly, itís obvious that sometimes you will be too close to the lights when green changes to amber, and you will have to drive on because in this situation all the laws of physics canít stop you in time.

As for the second sentence, it reads: If the amber light appears, you may go on only if you have already crossed the stop line, or are so close to it that to stop might cause a collision. In other words, itís no excuse at all that I was simply too close to the line to be able to stop behind it, officer. Yet (repeating myself from the last paragraph) a driver will be in this situation nearly every time the lights change! Apparently the laws of physics are not incorporated in RTA 1988 sect 36 etc.

I wrote about this absurdity in February, after someone had brought it to my attention. Then recently I sent it in to Advanced Driving as a question, hoping they would print an answer. The result was an emailed reply from Peter Rodger, Chief Examiner of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, no less.

He kindly pointed me to the TSRGD reg 36 I mentioned above which says (if I may be allowed to paraphrase it): Red means do not cross the line, and amber = red, except when you canít stop safely behind the line, in which case amber = green. Thank you! Thereís not a hint of what the Code states: You MUST stop... or ...only if you have already crossed the stop line... or ...might cause a collision. Rule 175 is nonsense, officer.

I donít have many other quibbles with the Highway Code. Its Ďnannyingí advice no doubt annoys many readers, but it would probably be criticized if this was omitted. I suppose the authorities will never print the rule that many drivers follow at three-way mini-roundabouts to achieve efficient flow: If all vehicles are bearing right, then give way not to the right but to the left, in turn and with care.

Being a sensitive soul, I do worry about the stern warning in Rule 112: Never sound your horn aggressively. Now I can play the piano fairly well, in any manner the music asks for: forte, piano, impetuoso, amoroso, nobile, dolce and so on. But it takes me a great deal of practice, whenever I change to a new car, to get its horn to play delicato even occasionally. Generally I canít stop it sounding furioso.

Peter Soul

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