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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(November 2008)

Let me first revisit my July column, in which I complained about the effect on me of unusually shaped vehicle lights. They grab my attention in a way that distracts and annoys me. The reason that I gave was that our brains evolved to respond to all sorts of shapes and patterns (I suppose this was beneficial to us even in the simple life!).

Anyway, Iíve since remembered a couple of other lighting oddities that distract my attention. One that I see very occasionally is flood-lighting beneath a car (this is becoming a popular piece of customizing in the US, I believe), making it seem almost to be levitating. I wouldnít want this to appear in my field of view at a critical moment on the road in the dark.

The other item that catches my eye ... well, hereís a question: ordinary indicators and brake-lights flash on and off instantaneously, donít they? Actually, no. The filaments take a short while to heat up and cool down. If you compare them to the newer light-emitting diode (LED) lamps on some buses and a few cars, and often in temporary traffic-lights, you will surely see the difference: these do switch instantanously.

A distraction? Well, LED lamps in action always seem to attract my attention more than they need to, so they are a distraction to me! And especially so with certain models of car (donít ask me which) that have LED brake-lights but ordinary filament winkers, or maybe the other way round ó itís as if the manufacturer set out to upgrade the vehicle but only had time to do half the job before the relaunch.

[See my February 2009 column for further discussion of LED lighting.]

In September I described an example of Ďover-regulationí by the French (their seemingly microscopic adjustments of the speed limit to the local condition of the road). Then in October I discussed the brain. These two topics connected in my head later when I came across an amusing illustration of how French thought-processes differ from ours. Most citoyens carry a card stating their blood group, and certainly they are obliged to obtain one before undergoing an operation.

For this purpose, you have to give two samples of blood, either on different days or (if in the one visit) to different medics who must not be present in the room at the same time. What I would like to know is: may they talk to each other outside? Can they share a lift home at the end of the day? And how often is it anyway that the two samples turn out to belong to different blood groups?

Now to retell a serious tale: those of you who were at the Thames Valley Group meeting in October like I was (or who were out somewhere else at the time) will have missed a Radio 4 programme entitled Anatomy of a Car Crash ó unless you caught up with it later on the internet, like I did.

It was the story of an act of careless overtaking, told by the 22-year-old lady who performed it; her parents; the brother and sister-in-law of a man who died soon after the accident (all three of them were in the oncoming car); the paramedic who attended and treated both men; and the police officer who arrested the lady (she was in fact put in a cell for five hours while the scene was assessed and evidence collected) and who described having to prepare charges against her later for causing death by dangerous driving...

Rightly, she pleaded guilty. She escaped a prison sentence (rightly also, as she never set out to kill?) suffering instead a fine, a term of community work, a five-year driving ban, and the knowledge for ever that she had killed someone. Her parents had been torn between giving full support to her and being realistic about the possible legal outcome.

The paramedic had to face not just the death of one victim, but also the discovery that the seriously injured brother was an off-duty policeman he had worked with often and indeed had known since they were 16. This man in turn discovered the reality of the aftermath of being in a road accident himself, having dealt with many while in uniform. And he and his wife suffered an unbearable bereavement.

Listening to this story was shattering enough, but it ended with the officer in charge pointing out that similar tales can be told 3000 times a year ó 30,000 if you include non-fatal serious crashes.

Drivers below the age of 25 cause a disproportionate number of accidents and should therefore be the first target of efforts to improve safety on the roads. However, being human we are all guilty: of lapses of attention, of not noticing signs of deterioration in our own driving, and of not appreciating what a figure of 3000 (or 30,000) really means. Because if we could take in such carnage, surely we would all stand out in the middle of the highway (metaphorically) and shout: Stop! Or at least: Do something, you drivers, and people in authority, to reduce the risk of being on the roads.

But do you see the difficulty? The risk is so tiny already! If you remember, I calculated last year that the average driver experiences just one accident of any significance, in at least 600,000 miles of driving. And quite possibly, that crash when it happens is not obviously his or her fault. So where is the incentive to take steps (assuming the average driver even knows how to take them) to improve your driving, when all the time you feel quite safe at 70 mph or more, cocooned in your steel car and surrounded by traffic travelling at much the same speed as you?

Personally, in an attempt not only to keep this feeling of safety at bay but also to stop my standard of driving from slipping, I apply at least three different correctives to myself: firstly, I try to picture the speed and the kinetic energy (remembering this goes up in proportion to the square of the speed) that would need to be absorbed if my car came to a sudden stop. Secondly, I take any opportunity to stand above or beside a motorway and observe the speed of the traffic for real. And lastly, I donít discourage Mrs S at all from making comments on my driving, and pointing out what I might not have seen in the distance ahead!

Peter Soul

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