Matters of moment, January 1991

On the Spot

We believe that in spite of the enormous flow of traffic composed of vehicles of widely varying size and speed, from the unlit bicycle to the biggest of trucks, which use our outdated road system day in and day out, and all night, the accident rate has, in general, shown a welcome decline. Yet fresh legislation is pending, for infliction on road users. At least we have been forewarned, rather as Saddam Hussein was being kept aware of what weapons were being brought up with which to repel him and when these would be in place!

Clearly, road accidents must be reduced still further by all means possible, for injury and loss of life are an enormous sadness, whether in peacetime or in war. All we ask is a fair deal for the motorist. Little can be done against radar speed traps, as Royals as well as commoners know. Quite why speed is again a scapegoat, just when Police Chiefs and others were advocating higher limits on Motorways to reduce bunching and congestion, is a mystery. It seems odd, despite the great increase in traffic volume, that for years the old 20 mph speed limit was virtually ignored, giving freedom on the ‘open road’ and when the 30 mph limit was introduced, it was imposed only in ‘built-up areas’, yet since the building at fabulous expense of fine Motorways to speed up transport, we have been encumbered with speed restrictions which seem likely to be lowered still further.

Another worry is how ‘dangerous driving’, which replaces ‘reckless driving’, for which very heavy new penalties are to be imposed, will be judged by the police and those informers who report to them. The problem here is that driving skill varies between different persons to such an extent that it is almost impossible to assess the ability, the safety factor, of another driver. Apart from personal experience, the car being used, the state of the road, and of the weather, these and so many other factors come into the equation.

DSJ has reminded us, in his book The Racing Driver (Batsford, 1958), of the ‘tenths’ system evolved by Godfrey Imhoff and Holland Birkett for describing personal driving prowess. We later had great fun using it to determine the difference between drivers ranging from the timid maiden aunt and inexperienced District Nurse in her first car, to top GP aces. Space would preclude publishing the full table, amusing as this was, assuming a copy exists; but, roughly, it assessed a wide range of skills, or the lack of them. For example, that nurse might normally proceed at what to her would be 4/10ths but to us and most of our readers would represent 2/10ths. She might speed up to 5/10ths and frighten herself on the way to an urgent case! To us normal daily motoring is done at 5/10ths, increased to 6/10ths over familiar roads, and to 7/10ths when driving for enjoyment on a fine day. Above that we will be at 8/10ths but to a racing driver this will constitute his 5/10ths and in a race he will have the ability to maintain 8/10ths, or if a top F1 driver, go to 9/10ths or even 10/10ths, on a qualifying lap, for example.

This should be a pointer, remembering that the above assessments take into account the type of car being driven and how driver ability differs. Will this be taken into consideration when a charge of dangerous driving is being contemplated? Greatly increased penalties for jumping a traffic light (as distinct from blatantly crossing on the red) and for momentarily crossing a forbidden white line may become the norm. We hope the motoring organisations are fighting as hard as did would be Prime Ministers for our interests and fair play. Different political parties regard the motor car in different ways and if driving is your main enjoyment you might ask your MP what his views are.

The IAM examination is a tough test of motoring skills, yet we know of a candidate whose examiner asked if he would like to pull in while he was doing 30 mph in a town, because a fierce hailstorm had commenced. Having come through two such storms at twice the speed, on his way to take the test, the driver under scrutiny elected to continue — another example of how even very experienced people can view driving competence quite differently! Not every Panda driver has had your experience and while authority views smooth tyres and defective handbrakes as highly dangerous, it gives no bonus for 4WD, anti-lock brakes, or the good handling of high performance cars. You can light a cigarette, use a car ‘phone, park every night outside your house without paying any extra tax, even on narrow congested roads. But exceed an antiquated limit by a few mph, or overtake smartly, and it may cost you a heavy fine and in future even your licence. You have been warned! You may soon be on the spot. Nevertheless, Motor Sport wishes its readers a Happy Christmas and a summons-free New Year.