Why Driving Used To Be All Fields

londongeneralomnibuscompany1910-1920Why are we driving less? This article in the Guardian a few weeks ago got me thinking and despite regularly lamenting the decline in other people’s driving abilities (mine, of course, are flawless) I hadn’t stopped to wonder if less people were driving or why. In fact, if anyone had asked me, I’d have said there were more people on the roads, not fewer.

‘Poor road user behaviour leads to increased congestion’

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post for Londonist which reported on the Transport Committee’s plans for tackling road congestion. Despite being an official document it actually makes fairly interesting reading, not least because it suggests that bad driving could be a problem rather than concentrating on environmental tub-thumping. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

The overwhelming view from the evidence we received was that aspects of poor road user behaviour lead to increased congestion. Assistant Chief Constable Nick Croft cited road rage, ‘undertaking’ and bad lane discipline as all making incidents and accidents more likely to happen, thereby adversely affecting the general flow of traffic and Nich Brown, of the Motorcycle Action Group gave the example of when vehicle users are told that a two-lane road will narrow into one lane 800m ahead, and everyone attempts to get into the open lane at once, instead of filtering alternatively and keeping the traffic flowing. The Minister, Mike Penning MP, said he was concerned about how to ensure that drivers were taught not just to pass a driving test, but to drive responsibly.

So, driving standards have gone down. But why? There are a couple of reasons why this could be.


Firstly, the introduction of speed cameras and the subsequent push by successive governments to get us to reduce our speed using a combination of carrot (it’s better for the environment, it makes driving cheaper, it’s safer etc) and stick (reduce your speed or get a whacking great fine and penalty points).This is mainly because speed is a very easy thing to enforce – 31mph in a 30 zone is breaking the law – so it’s not subject to the er… subjectivity of what the definition of bad driving actually is.

Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a concentration on speed rather than bad driving and exceeding the speed limit now appears to be synonymous with unsafe driving. Don’t get me wrong, inappropriate use of speed and/or driving too fast for the conditions is idiotic and deserving of punishment. But a driver doing 46mph in a 40 zone is more likely to get a fine and penalty points than a driver who pulls out of a side turn onto a busy road without looking.

Basically, the message is that it doesn’t matter how badly you drive as long as you do it under the speed limit. There’s no expectation that drivers need to be good drivers – and by this I mean showing courtesy and consideration towards other roads users, using observation effectively, driving according to the conditions, understanding yours and your car’s limitations and all those other things that make people good drivers. Sure, you can probably factor in a whole load of other things like stupidity, selfishness or the pace of life or whatever, but it comes down to the perception that few people take any pride in good driving any more and that’s partly because really terrible drivers can carry on being really terrible largely undetected. Who cares if drivers sit in the middle lane of the motorway at 65mph when they’re not overtaking? Who cares if a driver goes all the way round the roundabout in the left lane to turn right without indicating? Who cares if only about 11 people in the UK understand the concept of ‘merge in turn’ rather than adopting a queue mentality and going batshit if another driver has the cheek to merge in front of them? Who cares if a driver does 40mph on an NSL road and tries to block anyone overtaking them?

Driver aids and fuel

Secondly, cars themselves don’t exactly encourage drivers to take responsibility or possess any skill. Despite popular belief, ABS doesn’t eliminate the requirement for safe braking distances. Satnav doesn’t mean you no longer need to look at road signs of any description. Traction control doesn’t mean you can launch your motor enthusiastically at the nearest corner and expect to come out unscathed. Airbags and impact protection don’t mean it doesn’t matter if you crash. They’re driver aids, not driver replacements. The current driving test, as pointed out in the Transport Committee report, only teaches people to pass a test, not to drive responsibly, build their driving skills over time or maintain good driving habits.

What else? Well, the skyrocketing cost of insurance has priced many young drivers off the road. When I insured my first car third party fire and theft in 1991, it cost £350 which was pricey at the time but not unaffordable. Now a new driver would be paying many times that amount. Fuel costs have also shot up dramatically. According to petrolprices.com:

Between 1993 and 1999 there was a rapid increase with duties on fuel increasing by 3% above inflation. This was due to a major change in petrol taxation in 1993 when the Conservatives introduced the Fuel Price ‘escalator’. This was a way of the government making money and also to help protect the environment by discouraging people from using their cars.

This fuel escalator forced prices up from one of the lowest in Europe to now one of the most expensive. When it was first added, fuel prices rose by 3 pence a litre and tax contributed to 72.8% of the total cost. By 1997 the escalator had added 11.1p to the cost of unleaded petrol and was at 75%. It didn’t get any better when the Conservatives left office and Gordon Brown took over, as the escalator increased and 3 pence was added per litre. This took tax up to an incredible 81.5% of the total price of fuel.

The first paragraph contains a key point – ‘protect the environment by discouraging people from using their cars’. This has effectively paved the way for dubious attempts at eco-taxation by encouraging the belief that motorists bear more responsibility for the environment than anyone else (the phrase ‘gas-guzzler’ makes me want to punch someone).  Motorists are demonised to the point where simply owning a car let alone driving it can be viewed as almost morally wrong. Drivers feel pressured into justifying their car ownership in terms of practicality or cost-effectiveness while trying to point out the shortcomings of public transport, especially outside cities and liking cars, enjoying driving is seen as an aberration. Someone once said to me by way of an insult, ‘I bet you like Jeremy Clarkson, don’t you,’ as though somehow that encapsulated everything negative about motoring.

It’s just no fun

Having said that, driving has become a pretty miserable experience. Deliberate attempts to impede traffic flow and force people off the roads have led to increased congestion which leads to more pollution. Abysmal and/or thoughtless road planning makes motoring a trial and cycling or walking dangerous.

Many people cite the fact they live in London (or some other major town/city) as a reason why they don’t own a car. Well, great! Large towns and cities generally have very good public transport systems and there’s always Streetcar, Zipcar et al if you need a car for a trip out of town or something. But there’s kind of two flipsides to this, firstly that not needing to own a car for whatever reason doesn’t automatically make one a better person and secondly that one can’t assume everyone’s circumstances are the same. So are less people driving because urban populations have increased, perhaps because of employment opportunities versus cuts to transport services or other economic factors? I don’t know, ask an economist. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

I think that a number of factors mentioned above have removed any pleasure from driving, made it too expensive to be a pastime as well as a mode of transport and reduced people’s ability to drive well and safely. Because hardly anyone cares about driving any more.  Even the BBC’s coverage of top-level motorsport has been decimated with the shifting of half the Formula 1 season to Sky Sports based on so-called limited appeal to a mass audience, not to mention the annual rumblings about F1 being polluting and elitist.

Flying cars, that’s the answer. Or those pod things that were in Minority Report.

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