Lessons learned from having been caught in the speedtrap
38mph in a 30 zone. I don’t even remember speeding. Nor could I recall the village where it happened. It must have passed in a blur.
So much for my self-righteous fury at the petrol-heads who flash past on the motorway, or overtake in built-up areas with a contemptuous snarl. Receiving that letter from the Cumbrian constabulary was a slap in the face for my complacency and conceit.
Ashamed, I opted to take this course rather than have points put on my licence. Last year, 1.2 million people in England and Wales did likewise. How effective these sessions are in the longterm has been questioned yet there is a growing clamour for Scotland to offer them as well. Now, I would add my voice to that lobby.
In the space of four hours beneath a disco glitter ball in a hotel ballroom, several illusions were broken. The first was that the course would be filled with young men reeking of pungent aftershave. Most of the 24 miscreants who gathered in a country house just over the Border could have been Saga tour customers seeking to confirm they were still mobile enough to join a cruise.
“Welcome to the naughty corner,” said a pensioner with a gravelly Scots brogue as I arrived. The place soon filled up with so many from the north it might have been a tartan army had the mood not been so subdued.
A convoy of us had obviously proceeded in an orderly fashion down the A1, observing the two-second rule to the letter (“only a fool breaks the two-second rule” is what you’re meant to chant as you regulate your distance from the vehicle in front). We were in the hands of a Northumbrian Morecambe and Wise, expert drivers with more than 60 years’ experience between them, and a fine judgment of when to lighten the mood and when to hammer home their points. By the end of the morning I felt like adding them to the Christmas card list.
Not that they were a soft touch. One of them showed his steel when a truculent attendee muttered something from the corner of his mouth about the fees they were raking in from us. The instructor controlled his anger. After covering their costs, he said, the money was spent on child road safety education. Given the dreadful statistics we had just heard about the disproportionate number of young deaths on the road, it was a hard-hitting rebuke.
Chatham House rules were applied, and mobile phones turned off before the session began, in case of invasion of privacy. Apparently on this course an Olympic gold medallist had gone unrecognised, whilst a TV celebrity had been spotted, and their image broadcast on social media within seconds. Ours, it can be safely said, was not a high-profile gathering. Nor, as sometimes happened, were there any husbands and wives discovering to their dismay that the spouse to whom they’d said a breezy goodbye earlier was sitting opposite.
In fact, the instructors seemed surprised by the number of us who had told friends or family where we were this morning. It’s more common, apparently, to keep it quiet.
How do you explain the degree of shame at being caught speeding, when so many of us obviously do it? “You’ve just been unlucky”, was the most common response I got to telling people of my slip-up.
Our society seems to view speed limits as merely a rough guide, or in some cases more of a challenge. Macho friends treat the M8 as the place to break the speed barrier, and think those who hover around 70 are elderly or embarrassing, or both.
More interesting, however, is that what I had previously thought of as low-level and essentially harmless disobedience – doing 32mph rather than 30, say – can still have a significant effect on braking distance and impact, especially if a child is involved. When those figures are multiplied it gets even scarier. If you are going at 80 instead of 70, for instance, when the car within the limit has come to a halt, you’ll still be travelling at 38 mph.
Just as unexpected was to learn that, while most of us put our foot down in the hope of reducing our journey time, to cut half an hour off a trip you would need to travel almost the length of Britain, such is the congestion on our highways.
Being caught breaking the law in this way certainly induces guilt. But there must be others like me who regularly feel mortified when sticking to the speed limit. Watching the driver behind hunched over their steering wheel and eyeballing you in the rear mirror as you drive at a sedate pace is disquieting.
Often I’ve speeded up, simply to put some distance between me and a tailgater. The advice we were given, however, was to slow down, in part to reduce the impact if the traffic troll runs into you.
There was much nodding and murmuring in surprise as the course proceeded. Our table got on well, with two repeat offenders, and four women to one man. The strongest message most of us took from the morning was the need to be more alert and improve our concentration: not admire shop displays and scenery but clear our minds of everything except reading the road.
Advancing age was the main clue to why we had been caught: our demographic is more easily distracted or slower to react. Such inattention is frightening and it is a problem that, as the population grows older, is likely to get worse. It is also a salutary reminder that appearances and stereotypes can be deceptive.
You might look like a harmless wrinkly behind the wheel but you might in fact be more dangerous than the caffeinated teenager revving at the lights.
Chastened, and better informed, we broke up to head home. The man next to me was out of his seat fast, heading for the door like a greyhound out of its trap. “Race you back to Edinburgh,” he said.
‘‘ How do you explain the degree of shame at being caught speeding, when so many of us obviously do it?