In a recent issue of News-week, Paul Theroux describes driving down a back road on Cape Cod one summer evening, when, looking in his rear-view mirror, he saw a flashing blue light. He pulled over and, as the policeman approached, he undid his seatbelt and reached across to get the car registration from the glove compartment.
‘”Put your hands on the steering wheel!” screamed the cop. “Forty in a 30-mile-an-hour zone! And you’re not wearing a seatbelt!”‘ As Mr Theroux started to explain that he’d just taken it off so he could reach the registration, the cop shouted louder. ‘Did you hear what I said? You’re speeding! You’re not wearing a seat-belt! And you’re giving me lip!’
It sounds like a scene straight from The Wire: commands, intimidation and a state trooper armed for urban warfare, belly padded with bulletproof vest and two decades of Dunkin’ Donuts, but I read the article with interest. A few weeks earlier, driving on a Suffolk back road, a policeman stepped out of nowhere and motioned for me to turn into a lane hidden by trees.
‘Do you realise you were going 42 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone?’ he demanded. I admitted that
I did not. I saw no circular ‘30′ signs. No houses, no street lights. Until he said it, I had no idea I was in Wickham Market. True, I’d been driving faster than usual because a white van had been tailgating me for miles.
Although my experience was less unnerving than Mr Theroux’s, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The DVLA computer in Swansea was unable to verify my driving licence. When asked to provide ‘photographic’ proof, all I could find was a month-old copy of Country Life in which Spectator extols a law requiring drivers to carry their licence whenever behind the wheel. The officer asserted it was not valid ID, but when I suggested that a middle-aged woman in a Volvo estate loaded with dog beds and Waitrose bags was unlikely to drive without a licence, he replied: ‘The law is based on facts, Madam, not common sense.’ I was lucky. Eventually, Swansea found me and at no point did the officer demand I keep my hands on the steering wheel because he suspected I had a .38 in the glove compartment.
Two days later, I drove to the Suffolk Constabulary in Bury to ‘present’ my driving licence (my new and clean photographic version, which arrived the day after my crime), where I was offered a Speed Awareness Course (£83) run by AA Drive-Tech, in lieu of three points. To say the course was life-changing may be too dramatic, but it feels true. When you learn that 10% of pedestrians will
die if you hit them when driving at 20 miles per hour, but at 30 miles per hour, 50% will die and at 40 miles per hour, 90% will die, you slow down.
I didn’t know that warning signs with a yellow background (relatively new) indicate that a fatal accident-or one with grave injuries-has occurred on that stretch of the road, but it concentrates the mind. For country dwellers, the revelations are potentially life-saving. Most road accidents take place in urban areas (71%), but most fatalities occur on rural roads (60%). That’s because the ambulance takes longer to get to you. Medics call it the Golden Hour: if you’re treated within an hour, you have a far greater chance of survival. But don’t telephone 999 as you sit in your car with a broken leg-it can take 17 minutes for those call centres to locate you by your signal. Dial 112, an emergency number that finds your signal immediately (tape it to your phone now).
I have the zeal of a born-again driver, convinced that all drivers should take the course every 10 years. There’s no test, but only one out of 37 attendees reoffends. Still, I have to confess that when a white van is 2ft behind me, I do wish I had a .38 in the glove compartment.
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