Jeremy Clarkson

JC

Clarkson on: driving

I could come round to your house now and take away your children for medical experiments. I could goose your wife, burn your worldly goods, eat your photograph albums and get a horse to urinate on your head. I could spend a week humiliating you and hurting you and tearing your life into pieces, and yet, when I’d finished, you’d still be able to drive a car.

 

Driving a car is not a hard thing to do. Old people can drive when they are blind and unable to move any part of their body apart from their eyes. Which barely work anyway. People in remote jungle villages can drive. Stupid people can drive. Everyone can drive.

 

Over the years, I have driven at vast speeds with special television floodlights on the bonnet. I assume that I must have driven over the limit (on private roads, obviously), and I know I’ve driven while consumed with grief, rage, guilt and all the other emotions in between. And I’ve always arrived at my destination without a scratch.

 

By the time you read this, it’s possible I’ll have demonstrated on the television that it’s possible to drive while sewing a button onto a shirt. James, hopefully, will have shown you can drive while cocooned in a sleeping bag.

 

So why do we allow those of a thin-lipped disposition to keep on stating, as a fact, that it is ‘impossible’ to drive a car while talking on a mobile telephone? Because it just isn’t. We’re also told it is dangerous to drive while eating an apple or a sandwich. Some are now calling for motorists who have an accident while talking to their children in the back to be sent to jail for life. Because talking to the children and driving is exactly the same as injecting oncoming drivers with strychnine. They’re going to die.

 

We’re told that to be a good, safe and courteous driver, we must concentrate completely and absolutely on our driving at all times, and that we must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the radio, other people in the car or whatever emotional state we happen to be in at the time.

 

Well, that’s rubbish. Some studies say that it’s impossible to concentrate on anything for more than 20 minutes, and, although I once concentrated on Kristin Scott Thomas for two whole days, I can sort of agree with this.

 

How are you supposed to remain alert, coiled and ready for action at a moment’s notice when you are plodding up the M4 and traffic’s light? How are you supposed to concentrate on driving when you’ve just popped out for a pint of milk? Or when you are on your way home from a difficult day at work?

 

The truth is, you can’t. Once you’ve been driving for a year or two and you have learned how the road system works – beware of Peugeots, assume the bus will pull out and so on – then it becomes instinctive, like breathing.

 

At the height of his powers, Michael Schumacher found driving so easy that, even when he was breaking lap record after lap record and dealing with backmarkers, he still had enough spare brain capacity to activate his radio and explain to his manager that he would like to leave the circuit early that night, so could the jet be made ready.

 

Only when he was faced with a threat, or an opportunity, did he stop worrying about whether he could get home in time for supper, and concentrate on the job in hand.

 

And that gives me an idea…

 

The trouble is that, while we can drive perfectly well while doing something else, we are probably not as ready-for-action as we should be if we are suddenly presented with an emergency. The woman recently caught giving herself pleasure while driving down the motorway might argue that she was coping with both activities perfectly well.

 

But what if she’d had a blowout, or a Peugeot had suddenly come into her lane? She’d have been stumped if, at the time, she was lost in a world of Mr Darcy and thoughts of bearskin rugs and melted chocolate.

 

At present, the green, the weak and the hopeless say that speed limits should be lowered to compensate for the fact that we’re not thinking about what we are doing when we are behind the wheel. But I wonder if this is correct.

 

Because, if we are made to travel at 30kmph, then the tendency for our minds – and our hands – to wander becomes even more likely.

 

It seems to me that the best solution is to impose a minimum speed limit of, say, 200kmph. Because if you are travelling through suburbia at this speed, it is extremely unlikely that you would retreat into a daydreamy world of work, phone calls and Colin Firth coming out of a lake with a wet shirt.

 

We see this in motor racing quite often, and most notably at Monaco when Ayrton Senna was engaged in a headlong charge to humiliate Alain Prost. When he was at the raggedy edge he was fine, but as soon as his team came on the radio and asked him to slow down a bit, he drove straight into a barrier and was out of the race.

 

Way, way down the motor racing ladder, and then down a bit more, we arrive at Richard Hammond and our attempts to win the Britcar 24 Hour Race at Silverstone a few years ago. In a sprint race, you concentrate on the job in hand. But when the event lasts for 24 hours and you just have to pound round, preserving your tyres and keeping out of the way of faster cars, you start to drift. And, pretty soon, you’re in an Armco.

 

I have more evidence. Statistically, the most dangerous roads are those in town where the speed limit is 50. The safest roads are motorways, which have a limit of 80.

 

It’s not just cars, either. Commuter trains are always bumping into stuff as they shuffle from station to station, whereas the French TGVs and the Japanese bullet trains never have a hiccup as they blast along at 320kmph.

 

It’s easy to see why this is so. If I ask you to stand still when you are in the middle of a football pitch, you will have no problem at all. But if I ask you to stand still while on a plank over the Grand Canyon, you will think very, very hard about all the aspects of what you’re doing.

 

The green, the weak and the hopeless must accept the fact that the faster you go, the more you have to think and, thus, the safer you are.

 

Speed focuses the mind. It cuts through the fog of drab everyday living and keeps us on our toes. Speed keeps us focused. Speed works. Speed saves lives. Speed is good. And we should have more of it, not less.

 

The simple fact is this. We are told to concentrate more. But we can only do that if we are allowed to go considerably faster.

 

Jeremy Clarkson, Column