Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Clarkson on: danger

Once again, the spectre of lowered drink drive limits has reared its ugly head. Public Health watchdogs, who seem to labour under the misapprehension that death is something which can be avoided, say that if the limit were cut to 50mg, we'd all live forever.

Financially, they say, there are advantages to the lower limit too, arguing that drink-related accidents cost London alone £20 billion a year. Really? That's £54 million a day and that sounds a bit far fetched.

If, say, the average car is worth £10,000, then you'd need 5,400 write-offs a day to reach the £54 million. In London alone remember. Where the traffic moves at 9mph. So how do you write a car off at walking pace?

Happily, the Department of Transport can see this is all nonsense and has firmly stated that the limit will be staying at 80mg. Yes, it concedes, other European countries have a lower limit, but they have less severe punishments. And anyway, it goes on, lowering the limit would dilute the message that it's better not to drink at all if you're driving. Unusually wise words from the ministry.

I have argued until I'm blue in the face that you must allow some alcohol in the blood or we'll turn into a country of monks.

And, of course, we're not monks. We're monkeys. According to Robert Winston, who was promoting his new book on the radio this month, we're designed for life on the Savannah. Hunting. Running. Gathering. Having sex. And that's about it.

I touched on this in my series Speed, when I learned about the ancient part of our brain, the bit that controls much of what we do. When we hear a noise, at night in the house, we stand still. Why? Because on the plains of Africa, millions of years ago, standing still reduced the chances of being seen by a lion.

When we're frightened, our faces go white. Why? Because blood is drained from all non- essential parts to feed extra power to muscles. We get sweaty palms too, so that we have better grip should we need to climb a tree.

We might like to think that religion and civilisation and Bill Gates have turned us into super-beings of some sort, but the fact  remains that behind our PalmPilots and our microwave ovens, we're no better and no different than a tree vole.

Next time you're watching football on TV, look at the face of someone who's just scored a goal. It's a pre-human, primitive expression of pure joy. Why? Because the brain has just dumped a gallon of dopamine into the system.

That's the reward, the gold-star drug which you get after you've taken a risk and survived. And if the body is programmed to pat us on the back for facing down danger, there's no point preaching about a need to be safe. That's, quite literally, not in our nature.

"We’re not in control of our own emotions. We’re just slugs, who happen to have opposable thumbs"

Have you ever wondered why we sometimes lose our temper? It's so that at times of extreme stress our body is full of adrenaline and endorphins which will kill the pain if something goes wrong and we get punched, or eaten.

So really, we're not in control of our own emotions. We're just slugs, who happen to have opposable thumbs.

So don't you think it's incredible that after a million years of mooching about on the prairies, and 10,000 years on a horse, that after just a hundred years of practice, we're able to control two tons of metal at 100mph? Not only that, we're able to steer it, with just a moment's notice past another two tons of metal coming the other way.

Day in and day out, millions of tree vole slugs manage to get their car to work without a scratch. Don't you think that's incredible? I do. And more astonishingly, we're able to miss one another while a bit tipsy on alcohol. So we shouldn't be worrying about the minority who do bump in to one another, we should be marvelling at the majority who don't.

The thing is though, that as humans perform a task over and over, it gets filed away in a deep, dark part of the brain known as the subconscious. You don't have to think about chewing food. You just do it.

What worries me slightly is that driving is now starting to fall into that category. At one extreme, you have Michael Schumacher who is able to win a race, steering his Ferrari at 200mph, in the wet round Eau Rouge while speaking into the radio about the weather.According to Ross Brawn, Ferrari's Technical Director, other drivers just grunt because the actual effort of driving is requiring their full attention. But Schumacher finds the driving so easy he can ask the team to get his jet ready for four, rather than five.

On the road, we see the same thing. Fifty years ago, you got dressed up to drive a car, in string-backed gloves. Now, you drive along drinking coffee, talking on the phone, arguing with the radio. And you still don't crash.

But how long will that last? I have noticed in the last couple of years a decline in driving standards as people forget what they're doing.

Overtaking is a classic case in point. When I started to drive, which in evolutionary terms was about a quarter of a femtosecond ago, it was quite normal to pass a slower moving car. Those who travelled slowly accepted this and kept a watchful eye in their mirrors.

Not any more. They dawdle along with no idea that half the world is caught up in their wake - I refuse to believe they do - no-one could live with the guilt. And that's bad enough, but what's worse is that no-one ever tries to overtake.

There seems to be a sense that there's no point, and that anyone who does pass is a raving maniac. I'm not actually. I just want to get home and see the kids before bedtime.

Then there's the question of roundabouts. Where in the Highway Code does it say you start on the left lane, and veer to the centre before exiting on the left again? Yes, this cuts the corner and reduces steering effort but the downside is that you'll hit the car on your right, which you didn't know was there, you dozy ha'p'orth.

I've been guilty of this. Sometimes, there is no point overtaking because you're only going to get held up again round the next bend. And sometimes I'm not in a rush so I do drift along thinking about sex and Prescott. Rarely together, though.

At times like this, I'm a menace. When I go fast, however, hunting down the car in front, and risk-taking when I get there, I feel alive. I feel sharp. I feel in control and human. When I go fast, I feel safe.

 

Jeremy Clarkson, Column

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