January 10th, 2011

Motorway madness

Motorway driving; love it or hate it, chances are you won’t be able to avoid it. In theory, such open road motoring can verge on being relaxing, yet only when everyone else is behaving themselves, which inevitably they aren’t.

Personally, I always regard such mile munching as being a bit like line dancing. This is partly because only a very small minority would find it the most pleasurable version of the underlying activity, but more so because we all have to work together to avoid looking like complete and utter fools.

If we do it right, then the traffic flows swiftly and easily. Do it wrong however, and tailgating occurs, phantom traffic jams are commonplace, and hundreds of litres of fuel are wasted every single day. Which is why I find it strange that to become the holder of a glorious pink UK driving license, there is no actual motorway training required.

How often have you seen long tailbacks on the other carriageway, sucked your teeth and muttered “ooh, unlucky!” to all the folk joining the back of the epic queue?

I like to think of the drivers on the other side as an opposing team in the Good Driving Championships, and when there has been a minor shunt or phantom concertina causing a holdup, they are losing the game due to their own poor teamwork. When we all float past whistling at their misfortune, our team is winning. And I like winning. The only problem is, most of the time our team struggles to get on with each other, and in this squad nobody has even pinched one-another’s missus.

So how can we train ourselves to be better on the motorway since the law doesn’t require it? I do have one idea, and that is to buy a car equipped with cruise control.

Some say (I’m not talking about ‘The Ben’ here) that in these days of congestion, poor lane discipline and speed cameras that there is no need for such a feature on a modern vehicle, but they are wrong.

Much like discussing your thoughts on gear ratios, it is a topic to avoid in social situations, where others regularly like to blurt out responses such as ”Ooh no, if I had that I’d fall asleep at the wheel!” Again, this is incorrect.

What this marvellous control system does however is force the driver to concentrate so much more intently on their driving, yet with the physical exertion element reduced to an absolute minimum. It can highlight and help you work on your own shortcomings as well as point out the errors of those around you.

Whilst driving at an exact 70mph with your foot outstretched in comfort, the flicker of one’s eyes to the rear view mirror and back is akin to a computerised brain training game, but this time you are becoming a PHD-qualified overlord of car closing speed analysis, with your image of those in front and behind refreshing more times per second than a Commodore 64 monitor.

Get it wrong and you might pull out too early, annoying the car trying to overtake and looking rather stupid as you crawl past at what appears to be an inappropriate pace. Wait until said car has overtaken though, and you run the risk of hurtling towards the slower car and having to sanction that ever so amateur action of turning the cruise control off momentarily. This becomes the ultimate sin, and the cruising driver will do everything in their capacity to plan ahead and avoid having to upset such a steady pace (not to mention their average mpg).

Worse still, you could commit the cardinal offence that really should only be for emergencies and standstill traffic: braking. This was always drilled into me that it has no place on the motorway, and 99% of the time there really is no need, not to mention that fact that you are throwing away all that lovely energy (and brake pad material).

Other interesting steady-speed encounters include when you come across others indulging in this paragon of relaxed footwork on the same stretch of tarmac. If you have both set your stumpy stalks to a digital 70mph, all the difference really comes down to is the calibration of the cars’ speedometers. It is worryingly amusing on an empty motorway to overtake someone doing 69.984mph when you are travelling at 70.038mph. I usually feel the need to try and instigate a brief sign language conversation about how relaxed our right ankles feel at this very moment in time (very much so, in case you were wondering).

Other casual observations include the fact that 75% of drivers slow down by approximately 10mph on flyovers, motorway bridges and that yellow noisy asphalt. Also, a lack of indication becomes something you’d like to punish by rabies-infected dog attack, making your carefully timed lane changes completely redundant by pulling off at a junction with no pre-warning. These people are shown the red card from my team.

Finally, should this have not quite convinced you that cruise control is the way forwards; there is one bonus feature. Consider this: I like to occasionally sing along at the wheel whilst alone on a long motorway journey, and reckon 90% of other folk do as well. So, out of all of you wheel warblers, how many like to play a little bit of drums on the steering wheel with any spare fingers, living out your rock star dreams in the ‘Proton Satria Neo Arena’? A fair few, surely. Cruise control allows you to take this experience a whole step further. Since most non drive-by-wire cruise systems are still mechanically linked to the accelerator pedal, a normal motorway speed will automatically pull the throttle cable through approximately half of its travel. Consequently, this leaves the first half of the accelerator travel with only the lithe resistance of a small return spring, and pressing the pedal this far makes no difference whatsoever to the car or cruising speed.

That’s right, you can now not only drum along with your hands, but also actively control an imaginary bass drum with your right foot. Forget line dancing, if we can crack this motorway teamwork we’ll have formed a nation-wide percussion supergroup.

Words: James Winstanley