Speed Awareness

20mph speed limit sign.

The unremarkable 1930s architecture of the Scotch Corner Hotel looked particularly grim that cold wet February Monday, doing little to lift the spirits of the 27 law breakers, desperadoes and charlatans who shuffled their way through reception towards a bland function room to await their fate: re-education by Speed Awareness Course.

A prompt 8am start was stated to be mandatory and active participation obligatory during the four hours to follow, and upon arrival driving licenses were examined, seats strategically selected, and polite conversation engaged in between the miscreants.

They were all there. White van men, reps on a mission, a couple of old ladies, a pair of anxious girls, a farmer, some young and not so young professionals, and me. The usual suspects.

A surprising number had been caught by average speed cameras exceeding the temporary 50mph limit through the long running A1 (M) road works between Wetherby and Leaming Bar. How did that happen? Aren’t there enough warning signs and big enough cameras? The others had been caught in built-up areas exceeding the 30mph limit. I was the only one apprehended for exceeding the 70mph motorway speed limit, and probably alone in being aboard a Fiat Panda.

At this point, some context.

The National Speed Awareness Scheme encourages drivers to alter their attitude towards excessive or inappropriate speed. Offered as an alternative to a fine and penalty points for relatively minor transgressions, speed awareness courses aim to help drivers understand why some drive above the speed limit, and the potential consequences of speeding.

The friendly cove who conducted proceedings looked nothing like a copper, which was probably because he wasn’t one (he later admitted to working for AA DriveTech). He told us we were not bad people, that our speed had not been judged to be dangerous, and that it fell within the threshold of qualification for attendance at a course such as this.

At which point it all became too much for one of our number who, suddenly racked with remorse brought about by such magnanimity, declared that, having exceeded the aforementioned A1 limit, he had not exceeded 50mph anywhere since, and never again would do so. This provoked a very clear message from our convener. To drive at one speed irrespective of circumstances was as bad as speeding, and special mention was made of the motorway “middle lane owners club”.

Moving on, we were now tested on general highway knowledge, being required to answer multichoice questions by means of a bleeper that recorded an answer but not the respondent’s identity, thus protecting both dignity and ignorance in equal measure. These included the prevailing speed limit on different roads,and it was remarkable how many thought the limit on a non-motorway duel carriageway was 60mph; which roads were statistically the safest and which the most hazardous; and the average life expectancy of someone stopped on a motorway hard shoulder.

That out of the way, it was impressed upon us that a pedestrian;s chances of survival if hit by a vehicle were significantly greater at 30mph, or less, than at 35mph, and even were the pedestrian at fault for stepping into the road, accident investigators could calculate the speed of the driver and apportion blame accordingly. Ways of identifying what the speed limit actually is in changing circumstances were also explained.

We then examined accident scenarios based upon documented events, ranging from the driver hit from the rear when waiting to turn right just after a blind brow and suffering horrific injuries from a flying toolbox to the infamous 1991 M4 pile-up in fog involving 51 vehicles, and resulting in ten fatalities and 25 serious injuries.

In the case of the former, we were asked where the toolbox should have been safely carried in the car in question. I suggested the front passenger footwell. The correct answer was apparently behind rear seats secured by seatbelts. I still think I was right, but thought it unwise to argue the point.

The build-up to one of the worst ever motorway crashes in the UK was analysed in forensic detail, and it made compelling listening. It started with a van driver falling asleep and hitting the central barrier. A number of vehicles then took avoiding action and piled into one another including an articulated lorry that jack-knifed across all three eastbound lanes. The incident culminated in a van carrying a combustible payload exploding, which caused the fuel tanks of others to also ignite. The road was closed for four days and had to be resurfaced due to intense heat damage.

A lively discussion followed, and while speed was indeed a factor in this tragic event, which incidentally first led to fog warning signs being introduced on motorways, there were other factors too, not least driver fatigue, and ways of avoiding this were also examined in depth.

During all this debate the nervous girls said nothing, and as active participation was a prerequisite to the successful completion of the course they were asked by our facilitator for their take on the observance of speedlimits. There was a lengthy pause, then a bulb switched on above the head of one of them who confessed that her car was not happy at 30mph. “It judders,” she exclaimed, “so I drive a bit faster.”

Keeping his incredulity under admirable control, the man from the AA patiently suggested to Little Miss Einstein that, were she to hold her car in a lower gear in built-up areas, 30mph or less would present less of a problem. “That will use more fuel!” she retorted. “Tell that to the grieving parents of the child you just killed,” was the official response.

From there we moved on to observation, looking at in-car shots and being asked to spot upcoming potential hazards and suggest appropriate actions. The obvious ones were easy, the junction, the school and the bus queue. But what about a change in speed limit, kids playing ball in a nearby garden and the hesitant scooter with the L plates?

Finally, we debated under what circumstances it was excusable to exceed the speed limit. Safe overtaking was advanced by one, a medical emergency by another. But neither found favour with our instructor. His message was simple: speeding is unacceptable.

So is the speed awareness course a force for good? Most certainly, and the constructive and non-judgemental manner in which the one I attended was conducted was refreshing. Perhaps unlike my fellow offenders, I love driving and take any opportunity offered to improve. The four hours passed quickly and I learned many things.

I will most certainly observe 30, 40 and 50mph speed limits more assiduously, not only because they are the ones most strictly enforced, but also because they are generally positioned on the most hazardous roads. However, I still have difficulty coming to terms with 80mph on a clear motorway, the safest of our roads, being excessive, even in a Panda, and something that is perfectly legal in most other European countries.

Oh, and as you asked, the most useful thing that I learned is to keep the steering wheel straight when waiting to make a right turn. For being tail-ended with right lock applied spells a one way trip into oncoming traffic, just like the poor guy with the toolbox.