James May

James May L driver illustration

No turning back

It’s a strange thing to admit from someone who works for Top Gear, but lately I’ve found myself in the back seat quite a bit.

There are several reasons for this. One is that I’ve been making another TV programme on a fairly tight budget, so I spend quite a bit of time hitching a lift in the production crew’s minibus rather than running up a bill in my own car. Another is that I’ve been obliged to attend what are often referred to as ‘functions’ – a term I reserve for my bowels – which means a man comes to collect me in an executive hire car. Finally, I’ve had a few drinks, so I’ve been employing men who have just entered the UK with nothing more than a knotted hanky full of meagre possessions and an old Hyundai.

And a part of me has rather enjoyed it. There are things you can tell about a car from the back that you don’t notice from the driving seat: the ride, for example. Slumped in the back, expending only just enough effort to keep my head upright, my sensory receptors can be devoted to assessing ride quality in a way they can’t when driving, and I can tell you that the ride in an old LS400 isn’t quite as good as we once thought.

This thing we call ‘build quality’, too. Freed from the need to drive the car, I can concentrate on those little bits and pieces that truly reveal how much effort has gone into making something properly – air vents, arm rest mechanisms, that sort of thing. God, supposedly, is in the details, and there’s quite a lot of Him in the rear ash-trays of an E-Class. Since they got that bit right, I’m prepared to believe the engine will be pretty good as well.

But what I’ve noticed most is that hardly anyone can actually drive. I’m not pretending to be especially good at it myself, and I’ve always maintained that people who talk up the seriousness of driving are just being drama queens, because it’s a rudimentary skill. But now I accept that I was wrong. It’s actually beyond most people.

“I’ve been obliged to attend what are often referred to as ‘functions’ – a term I reserve for my bowels”

I’m not talking here about dithering, driving in the middle lane of a motorway, overtaking in too high a gear or any of that advanced stuff. I’m talking about the ability to move the various levers in the correct order and at the right time to progress smoothly and without scattering women and children.

Driving instructors are always talking about ‘anticipation’ and ‘looking through the bend’, but I now think that this is a pretty ambitious goal for most people. The man driving the Ford Galaxy I was riding in yesterday ought to think about looking more than six inches beyond the bonnet. As it was, the world was full of terrifying surprises for him: other cars, people, kerbs, walls, cast iron bollards, the ticket barriers at car parks. Every stop he made was an emergency, and the brakes were either off or on so hard he needed a new set of discs.

The bloke driving an old Mondeo in Herefordshire last week was possessed of the opposite failing. He advertised himself as a cab driver, but in fact he was employed solely to discover at what point a series 1 Mondeo would carry on straight ahead instead of going around the bends on a country lane. I thought I was going to have to wrest control from him before he killed us both.

It wasn’t much more relaxing being driven by one of the BBC’s directors last week. He made the simple task of joining a busy motorway look as ambitious as flying an Airbus under Tower Bridge. He obviously expected to fail, judging by the sweat pouring off him and the noises he was making. I always accelerate until I’m going at the same speed as the other cars and then slip in to the stream. He shouted blue murder and aimed at the Eddie Stobbart logo.

I could go on, but the pattern is pretty similar in every car I ride in. The person behind the wheel just cannot drive; it’s as simple as that. I’m beginning to wonder if those applying for driving jobs in minicab companies are so thoroughly vetted for criminal past, paedophilia, outstanding insurance claims and a health and safety questionnaire that no one is thinking to check if they’ve ever actually driven a car. I’m bloody certain some of them haven’t.

At this point, it would be easyto advocate a tougher driving test with retests every five years, but that isn’t the answer. Unusually, Jeremy Clarkson might have the right one. Normally I disagree with him on principle – I think the requirement might be in my new BBC contract – but this time I’m with him.

Snipers on the bridges. Before it’s too late. 



James May, Column

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