previous / next column
A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
Among the news releases from the IAM in last month’s [Thames Valley Group] newsletter, did you notice some startling statistics? An information request to Highways England (HE, though until recently the Highways Agency, HA) had revealed that in 2014 there were more than 440,000 lane-closures on motorways and primary A-roads – closures all sanctioned by HE (I mean HA), presumably.
Vehicle breakdowns were by far the biggest cause, numerically, at 41% of the total. The second-largest item in the list was planned roadworks, but at only 14%. And therefore the IAM castigated people who didn’t maintain their cars properly, thus putting lives at risk.
Quite right too. But let’s think about it: roadworks on major roads might be completed overnight, but equally they may continue and disrupt traffic for months. I doubt if the 14% figure reflects that! You only have to consider the extra time that you spend in queues or diversions on account of the road being dug up, compared with delays due to broken-down vehicles, to suspect a flaw in Highways England’s presentation of the data.
And for many drivers, of course, time is money: what an appalling waste it is of both, when traffic gets held up. Are there really no (further) steps that HE can take to minimize disruption caused by roadworks? Why can’t all or most main-road repairs be carried out at night, for instance? The extra cost could very well be smaller than the gain to the economy from causing less daytime queuing.
You may rightly guess that I dislike any sort of waste! As an example, on the road as I approach a roundabout or other ‘obstruction’, always in my mind is the petrol I can save by lifting my foot early, hence having to brake less – in other words, converting less fuel finally into totally wasted heat.
Do I overdo this? Possibly. But I like to think (a) that it counterbalances other drivers who race up and then brake hard at the last minute, and (b) that I can make up for any time lost, by afterwards accelerating away briskly, which is I believe the most efficient way, fuel-wise, of getting back up to speed. (Incidentally, it’s also a way of clarifying the intentions of a driver behind who you sense may be a tail-gater: if you succeed in putting a gap between you, and you’re now up at the speed limit, then he/she will have to exceed the limit by some margin in order to close the gap again.)
Anyway, everyone has to strike their own balance between wasting something, and inconveniencing themselves by not wasting it! Though once you’ve got into the habit of economizing, the ‘inconvenience’ soon seems unimportant. Here at home we keep jugs beside the taps, downstairs and upstairs, for collecting the hot-tap run-off while the water is warming up; it then gets used later for rinsing. To us it’s absurd to be pouring mains water, which costs money to produce, straight down the drain. (Some might even take the view that toilet-flushing with quantities of purified mains water is wasteful of it...)
Outside, we have pairs of water-butts front and rear of the house, to collect rain from the roof. You might be familiar with the connector that goes into a downpipe, at just the right height to divert water across to a butt without overfilling it. With the rear downpipe, though, my problem was that I could only insert the connector at first-floor level. How to stem the flow down to the butts after they had filled up?
Suddenly the solution came to me: I installed a ballcock-float in the (second) butt and attached a vertical beanpole to it, reaching up to a loop in my long plastic tubing coming off the connector in the downpipe. It works a treat: when both butts are full, the loop is lifted above the level of the connector, and water stops being diverted down the tubing.
From the front of our house, the driveway slopes down towards the road. This means that I can park a car down below the level of the butts, and then wash it from them using a long hose with brush attached. The ‘natural’ water seems to leave a nice sheen! But this reminds me that the other week we looked out to see my Golf covered in what appeared to be splattered white paint. We had previously noticed parts of the road similarly defaced, and so we feared that an epidemic of antisocial behaviour was beginning.
When I went out to inspect the ‘paint’, I was relieved to find that it wiped off easily, as if it had started out as simply flour and water. But it was still a mystery why someone would bother to intrude up the driveway and throw it. Then a few days later, Mrs S happened to see a heron flying low overhead... and watched as it deposited a huge shower of white mess on the ground!
We had hardly thought that a single bird could be the culprit. And even though there’s a lake opposite with a heron or two on it, we’ve never experienced this trouble on or near the road before. Is it that fish-ponds in neighbours’ gardens have suddenly become an attraction for these impressive birds?
Going back to last month’s group newsletter, one item of news from the IAM was most encouraging: its Mature Drivers Assessment scheme enables senior motorists to have a drive with an IAM assessor – and out of 558 participants, “36% took the assessment because their reaction times were decreasing”. Well! As far as I know, it’s never before been recognized that some people become more alert and quicker to react, as they get older. Maybe the reason is that after they retire they are able to catch up on their sleep, and are therefore wider awake when driving. Alternatively, though, it could have been just an IAM misprint: “decreasing”, instead of “worsening”...
previous / next column