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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(October 2007)

First, I ought to go into reverse regarding a sweeping statement in my April column. I wrote that while there is every hope of installing cleaner technology in cars in the future, thereís almost no prospect of making aircraft less polluting. Since then, would you believe, Iíve seen several reports saying that more efficient aircraft engines are coming ó together with lighter materials from which to build the rest of the aeroplane! Also, someone pointed out to me that the new greener vehicles (and all the cars we own now, for that matter) can only achieve their full energy-saving potential if drivers learn to drive more Ďgreenlyí too.

Last month I came across a statistic that astonished me not just for its size, but also because it had been worked out at all: in 2005, the total distance covered by all motorized traffic in Great Britain was, wait for it, 499.4 billion kilometres. This is equivalent to more than fifty round trips to the distant planet Neptune!

But how was the total arrived at? All I know is that it came from the National Road Traffic Survey. I assume selected drivers were stopped and asked where their journey started and where it would finish. Statisticians are clever people, but I donít really believe they can jump from such questioning to a result that is accurate to one part in 5000, which is whatís implied by printing ď499.4Ē.

Anyway, letís convert it into miles and call it very roughly 300 billion. Now hereís another statistic Iíve found: again in Great Britain in 2005, not far short of 500,000 vehicles met with accidents. Almost as many drivers must have been involved (if we allow for a few parked cars). See where Iím going? Dividing the miles by the drivers tells us that the average driver experiences just one accident in at least 600,000 miles.

Thereís the paradox: road accidents happen all the time ó killing more than 3000 people a year and seriously injuring ten times as many ó but you have to drive two-and-a-half times the distance to the Moon (if you would like another astronomical comparison) before you are likely to suffer any sort of accident yourself.

So is it surprising if most people think they are perfectly safe at the wheel? Is it any wonder that so many drive too fast, or tailgate you, or donít bother to study the road ahead, or even now pick up their mobile while on the move? What motivation is there for drivers to take positive steps to improve their driving ... until they do have an accident (if then)?

Itís easy to see the problem that the Institute of Advanced Motorists faces, in trying to spread the word: the average driver would never credit (without being told) all the different hazards he or she is really up against, because the chances of an accident from them, let alone from any individual one, are so small. The great aim of advanced driving is to make the hazards better understood, and the risks smaller still.

As an example, letís try to apply this aim to the control of steering. What are the main hazards that need to be guarded against? I think they are: (1) not being able to turn the wheel in the direction you need to, in an emergency situation, as a result of where your hands happen to be, (2) breaking a thumb if the steering wheel itself rotates suddenly (because of a pothole perhaps), and (3) having your arm across the wheel if the airbag should blow ó because the bag will surely fracture the arm which will then also do damage to your face. And itís no good telling yourself that if trouble appears, you will have time to get ready for it. You wonít.

Avoiding these dangers seems simple to me. I mostly keep my hands approximately level with each other on the wheel, letting them go no lower than the twenty-to-four position. So when one hand is pulling or pushing to steer, the other is sliding down or up (ready to take over). Thumbs are safer pointing round the wheel, rather than gripping it. If youíre changing gear or scratching your ear with one hand, the other needs to be near its Ďnormalí ten-to-two position and stationary (so try to avoid such actions while manoeuvring).

Hand-over-hand steering exposes you to hazards (except at very low speeds). Pull-push action is safer. Resting an elbow on the door-frame is a bad habit as it restricts your movements. A good habit is to use just a finger-tip for operating the indicators or wipers, so that these too donít get in the way of the vital job of steering safely. You could say that advanced and (letís hope) accident-free driving demands little more than learning one new habit, then another ... and remembering later to check they are still there. Anyone can do it!

All the while Iíve been writing this piece, thereís been a question at the back of my mind relating to air travel again (but nothing to do with pollution this time). Many drivers have taken trouble to pick up the extra skills of advanced driving and so have cut their chances of being involved in a road accident. But how many air travellers know that there are steps they too can take, not to avoid an air accident (thatís the pilotís job) but to boost their chances of surviving one if it happened to them?

Recently I got around to watching a BBC2 Horizon programme I recorded last year, in which aviation experts gave vital and sometimes surprising advice about how best to escape, in the highly unlikely event of a crash-landing. Many viewers will have switched off because of the pictures that were also shown! And I can understand that some people will not even want to think about the subject. But for anyone else who may like to know more, I have now transcribed all the advice on to this website ó so take a look, by clicking here.

Peter Soul

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