For years, I’ve argued that most drivers in Britain are pretty good. The figures back up this theory, as we have one of the lowest death and injury rates in the world. But, just recently, it’s started to go wrong.
Obviously, we are not as bad as the Greeks, who still, after a hundred years of practice, are never quite sure which side of the road they should be using; or the Italians, who have exactly the same highway code as us. Except the stopping distances are all quoted in centimetres.
Then you have the Portuguese, for whom driving is about as dangerous as injecting strychnine directly into your liver. If you set off to the shops to buy a loaf of bread, there is a 100 per cent chance that you will come home dead.
I still maintain, however, that the Americans are the worst drivers in the world, due mainly to their belligerence. You can be in the middle lane of a busy motorway, and no one will let you into the inside lane, even though it’s perfectly obvious you wish to leave at the next exit. You indicate, you plead, you beg and then when the slip road is upon you, you are forced to make the move. And it always provokes a torrent of hand gestures, horn blowing and – as often as not – light machine-gun fire.
That sort of thing is happening in Britain now. And to make matters worse, no one seems to have even a rudimentary grasp of motorway etiquette. If someone is doing 70, they think they are entitled to sit in what they call the ‘fast lane’ for the entire journey. You can flash and honk and pull faces, but they won’t budge. They simply have no clue that they’re doing anything wrong.
Off the motorway, overtaking is now seen as a crime that sits in the league tables somewhere between genocide and rape. If you wish to trundle along at 40, I have no problem with that. So why should you have a problem if I want to come past? It’s absolutely no skin off your nose, so why flash your lights and shake your fist?
The problems are everywhere. Double mini roundabouts in town centres send people into catatonic shock which means they are unable to move for several hours. People apply their handbrakes while waiting at red lights, which means that by the time they’ve taken it off, they’ve missed the nanosecond when the lights were green. At petrol stations, there is a gap of exactly one hour between someone getting into their car and moving off. In car parks, people are stumped by even the biggest space. But it never used to be like this. So what’s gone wrong?
The Daily Mail would blame immigrants, of course, saying that people who learnt to drive on an ox cannot possibly hope to cope as they go about their business in a £200 Camry. But there are no immigrants where I live, and the problem is as acute. So immigration can’t be to blame.
The elderly? Well, yes. My mother is forever telling me stories about various friends of hers who spend most of their lives bumping into stuff. But we’re talking about small numbers again.
To try to get to the root of the issue, I’ve examined how the problem differs day to day, and I’ve come up with a theory. Tuesday afternoons, all is well, whereas on a Saturday, it’s acute. And on a bank holiday Monday, it’s a nightmare. This, of course, is when people engage in their hobbies.
As we know, hobbies are a pastime undertaken by James May and people who were caught playing with themselves by their mothers when they were young.
So they took up fishing. You might like to bear that in mind next time you’re walking down a riverbank. Everyone with a rod in their hand has been caught by their mum with a slightly different sort of rod in their hand…
Anyway, in the past, hobbies were simple things that required very little equipment and could be enjoyed in a shed at the bottom of your garden. And that’s fine. Whittling sticks causes no one any inconvenience at all. It’s the same story with growing parsley and other herbs.
Now, though, hobbies involve straps and ropes and helmets. People go mountaineering, and zorbing and parasailing and abseiling and hiking and surfing and tombstoning and mountain biking and canoeing and gliding and horse riding and all of these things requires tonnes of stuff.
That means trailers and roof racks, and that means you have to go more carefully and more slowly than usual. When you are on your way to work on a Tuesday, you drive very differently to when you are towing your horse to a gymkhana on a bank holiday.
Likewise, when you pop to the shops for some milk, you are an ordinary, old-fashioned British motorist. Skilful, patient and quick. But when you are going to Sutton Bank with a glider hitched up to the back of your car, you are driving what amounts to an Australian road train. This makes you a bit wary and cautious. And wary, cautious people are ditherers.
Just this morning, I popped to my local farm shop and on the five-mile journey, I was stuck behind a horse box for three and then, when I got past, got caught up in what appeared to be a bike endurance race. The road network then is no longer a system of arteries used for keeping the blood of the nation moving. It’s a toy, for people who used to look at Penthouse magazine.
There’s more too. You cannot go gliding in your back garden, or zorbing or surfing. All these things require specialist terrain, and this specialist terrain is often many hundreds of miles from where you live. So, the wary, cautious people are everywhere, on their way from suburbia to a rock face, or some sea, with a car full of valuable equipment that will break if it falls off the back seat. It’s like driving with a curry in the boot.
You can never go fast, and you become very irritated if someone causes you to brake, or turn.
We need to do something about this, and I think I have an idea. Hobbies must be taxed depending on the size of equipment needed to take part. So, people who grow watercress in ponds in their garden will pay pennies. So will jigsaw enthusiasts and card players. Fishing too would be a base-rate activity, unless you buy a 68ft boat with a fighting chair in the back, in which case you’re screwed. Horse riding, naturally, will be prohibitive. And James May should also know that going out of London to tinker with his plane will cost about £100,000 a week. If he chooses to fly it over my house, making a racket on a nice summer’s day, the penalty will be worse. I shall shoot it down.
Think of it, if you will, as a tax on w***ers. I think it will be very popular.