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Daily Archives: 25 May 2011
When I practised as a barrister, I fought approximately 800 road traffic accident trials. Consequently, there’s not much I don’t know about these cases, which we call RTAs for short. It is tempting to say that the biggest cause of RTAs is the pure bloody minded selfishness of most drivers, who appear to believe that they have a God given right to drive where they want, when they want and in the manner that they want. However, one factor rises above all others, perhaps because it is the most misunderstood.
Speed is the big problem. Far too many people believe that the official speed limit is the speed that they should be aiming to drive at. It is nothing of the kind. Usually it isn’t even the limit at all, not with our weather. It is simply the speed over which it is impermissible to drive, unless you are involved in some form of public service which has established rights to driver faster, e.g. the police and the ambulance service.
Virtually no-one seems to know their stopping distances. Time and time again, cross-examination in court goes went like this:
Me: What speed were you driving?
Driver: About 28mph
Me: What is your stopping distance at that speed?
Driver: Erm, …
Me: Perhaps you’ve temporarily forgotten the details of rule 126 of the Highway Code?
Driver: Erm, …
Me: Allow me to read it to you, “Drive at a speed that will allow you to stop well within the distance you can see to be clear. …”. Please confirm what you said earlier, that the distance from you to the bend in the road was about five car lengths?
Me: When you entered the road?
Driver: Erm, yes, that is what I said…
Me: Do you still say that?
Driver: Erm, yes, erm.
Me: Obviously, you couldn’t possibly have been travelling at 28mph when making the tight turn entering the road, could you?
Driver: No, obviously not [showing visible relief at being on firmer ground].
Me: Therefore, to reach 28mph before the bend, you must have accelerated between the bend and the corner?
Driver: Erm, yes [looking worried, realising that he has been caught out]
Me: And the distance between the junction where you entered the road and the bend was about five car lengths?
Driver: It was more like six.
Me: You can see from this chart [showing driver relevant page in Highway Code] that your stopping distance at 30mph would be about 23 metres. That’s 75 feet in old money or six car lengths. Can you see that?
Driver: Yes, I was driving slower than 30mph.
Me: At 28mph?
Driver: It was probably more like 25mph.
Me: Really? Why didn’t you say that earlier?
Driver: I was confused.
Me: Are you confused now?
Me: In your statement, it says it was raining slightly and that the road was wet. Are you confused about that?
Driver: Definitely not!
Me: That means that you should double your stopping distance, doesn’t it?
Driver: Does it?
Me: Sorry, I’m asking the questions and you’re answering them. Do you agree that in the wet your stopping distance is doubled?
Driver: [realising that he is banged to rights] I didn’t, erm, that is to say, I’m not sure.
This is an absolutely typical court room cross-examination. I’ve got notes on hundreds of trials which included a dialogue which runs exactly along these lines. Sometimes, people say that they can drive faster because they have ABS. ABS is an automatic braking system, which allows drivers to continue to turn the steering wheel when braking. It prevents the steering wheel from locking. It does not slow the car faster. I never saw a driver who claimed that in court go on to win his case. The fact is that people drive too fast. They are bombarded by advertising, television and cinema driving and a general culture that worships dangerous speed. Almost no-one knows the speed at which they should be driving. The answer is that they should drive at the speed appropriate for the circumstances. This means that if they cannot stop within the distance that they can physically see, they are driving too fast. Selfish wankers.
In memoriam of Douglas Adams, I’ll be carrying a towel with me wherever I go today. Mr Adams wrote, in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy:
“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.”