When I learned to drive I was told to learn to ‘read the road’. What no-one thought to mention, then or since, is the only slightly less important skill of learning to read your fellow road users. This, it seems, is knowledge acquired only though the passage of time.
The basics are easy to grasp, especially on the motorway where there is most to be learned. You don’t need to pay much attention to someone’s precise positioning on the road when you can see him weaving through the traffic behind you. But what about those around him?
Is the car directly behind you going to rise above such behaviour and actively ignore the idiot, meekly acquiesce and back off to create space between you for the idiot to occupy? Or is he going to close the gap, endangering those around him so that the idiot should not profit from his bad behaviour and therefore be incentivised further?
When you are one of those innocents, unwillingly drawn into this long range battle of other people’s minds, this stuff matters. Especially when people realise that there is a fourth way, concluding that because there is actually no way of beating such behaviour they might as well do the same themselves.
So who’s paying attention, who’s half asleep and who’s not waited long enough for the excesses of last night to wear off? I’m always nervous of those who drive with overt, rigorous accuracy, sticking with military precision to the exact speed limit and always diving into the inside lane even if only for a few seconds: this is what people do when they’re still drunk and are trying too hard to convince any lurking unmarked police car that they’re sober.
Who else should you be wary of? Anyone so hunched over the wheel that his or her arms cannot enjoy full articulation is not in proper control of the car. Those who use their fog lamps in heavy rain should never have passed a driving test, and those who leave them on long after the fog has cleared can’t even read their own dashboards. And is anyone else as scared as me of people driving vast SUVs too fast in terrible conditions because they think their car confers some kind of opt-out from the laws of physics?
And what of the passive aggressive types: those who position themselves just a fraction too close behind you and ever so slightly towards the outside in heavy traffic? You are all in a column of some hundreds of cars, all doing the same speed, but his subtle but clear message is that his time is more important than yours and you should clear a path for him. Even though it would never occur to him to get out of the way of the car stuck behind him.
But I worry most about those who appear to have developed a fondness for your car. True, this is a rare phenomenon, but it’s out there and made more likely if said car is interesting or even just brightly coloured. At first you think you’re travelling together because you’ve both chosen the same cruising speed. In the ebb and flow of normal traffic such convoys rarely last long.
Yet 10 miles down the road he’s still there, a persistent presence behind you, mirroring your every move. So you gently accelerate by 5mph. And so does he. So you equally gently lower your speed by 10mph and he’s still there, precisely the same distance behind you. The good news is you can put your paranoia away: you’re not being stalked. The bad news is you’re being used as cruise control.
I am sure this is rarely a conscious tactic of your pursuant, merely a consequence of a driver whose mind is so far away from the rather dangerous business of controlling a tonne of metal missile at 70mph that they have slipped into an almost dreamlike state. Instead of focussing on the constant, complex flow of diverse information flying at them from the road, signs and other road users as they should, they’re letting you do it for them.
That way, so long as you don’t crash, neither will they. Or so whatever passes for a potentially terminally flawed thought process must go. These people frighten me enough to exit and re-enter the motorway at the next junction just to get rid of them.
Learning the language of others on the road is among the most difficult of all – after 30 years trying I’d rank myself as more conversant than fluent – but if it saves you from disaster just once in a lifetime on the road, every second spent will have been more than worthwhile.