Damon Hill and Sir Jackie Stewart. Portrait. Photo: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

// On The Road

Driving standards in many countries can be described as having plummeted in recent years. Attend almost any motor racing event worldwide and, apart from an abundant police presence outside the venue, you can rest assured that any attempts to emulate a favoured driver’s on-track performance on the public highway will result in the ‘rule book’ being aimed at your cranium in short order.

Yet, away from the racing scene, drivers of all ages still misbehave. Driving under the influence of drink or drugs remains intolerable and, should the miscreant be caught, you will hear few cries of dissent about his or her subsequent treatment. However, ‘stunting’ or, as they like to state so categorically in the United Kingdom, ‘driving without due care and attention’, is sometimes questionable.

Dependent on weather conditions (mostly moist in the UK), I shall always endeavour, because I do not have immediate access to a test facility or a personal private circuit, to find an empty parking lot, upon which to practise the under- or over-steer limits of my car. With the first snowfalls of winter, you will find me thus employed for what I refer to as ‘personal standards improvement’.

Needless to say, because we reside in a ‘kiss-and-tell’…oh, stuff the ‘kiss’!…society, I will be spotted handbrake-turning, pirouetting, reverse-spinning and assessing the tractive qualities of my vehicle’s drive-train. The discovery may go unnoticed for some time. I might even get away it completely. Yet, on the other hand, some curtain-twitcher somewhere will report my derring-do maneuvers as being a combination of ‘dangerous’ and ‘terrorist activity’ and, therefore, not to be tolerated.

I have received the full-on ‘blue-light’ (okay, I know that you guys have red lights atop your police cruisers) treatment. Yet, the odds are on that, having made my perfectly plausible explanation (“This is an advancement of driver safety, Mr Police Officer…”), I shall either be asked to move on and not cause a nuisance, or, on one rare occasion, the copper (an east-end of London term of endearment for a policemen) even joined in.

However much fun might be achieved from performing a perfect burn-out at automated stop-lights, I did learn a lesson a few years ago in the centre of downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Having revved up the 327cu in V8 of my 1967 Chevy Impala coupe, knowing that the two-speed automatic transmission would struggle to lay tortured, low-grade, bias-belted rubber, as I surged over the crossing, the entire muffler disconnected itself from beneath the car and skidded in a most sparkly fashion behind it, fortunately not across the sidewalk, which would have been inexcusable.

The Edmonton City Policeman, who had been waiting innocently in his AMC Matador around the corner, sped into immediate red-light action. It was fortunate indeed that I was able to explain my predicament in a cut-glass English accent, after the denizen of the law helped me to clear up the still hot remnants of the Chevy’s exhaust system. I was despatched post-haste to a muffler repair shop, with a $50 ticket in my top pocket. I had learned the value of ‘stunting’, despite the feeble excuse that my foot had slipped from the brake pedal.

As I recall only too happily from my several years spent living in Canada and the US of A, a great many of your roads are surfaced in graded gravel. As a long-standing fan of rallying, I never underestimated the joy of slip-sliding along smooth, loose surfaces, making Scandinavian ‘flicks’ to change direction or avoid potholes. It is little wonder to me that Finns, Swedes and Norwegians make such renowned rally drivers. Blacktop, as rare as it was in my formative years on the road, was the stuff of sissies.

As denigratory as my suggestion is, when Damon Hill entered the fray, with his fairly judged comment to a major British journal, he stated, “I’m a big fan of the 55mph speed limit. Most people aren’t safe to drive over 55mph.” Such a remark was bound to raise a few hackles.

Funnily enough, I do understand the logic for his comment. Driving standards have slipped to such a low level across the Atlantic that the introduction of the ‘double-nickel’ that you guys rejected so roundly a few years ago might hold some merit on our shores. British roads are ridiculously overcrowded. We are a tiny island community, with a population that barely tops 55million. Yet, there are well over 35million vehicles in regular use on its shamefully inadequate and ill-repaired roads.

The average speed in the capital city of London is comfortably less than THREE miles per hour, which is hardly conducive to high levels of industriousness or productivity. Even New York can boast a higher average. Yet, serious road traffic incidents still occur on a daily basis. The UK’s four and six-lane motorway network (up to ten-lanes on parts of the fabled M25 London Orbital motorway) offers an opportunity to reach as much as 70mph legally. Mind you, as most of the driving population using the motorways travels at speeds in excess of 80mph and incidents are low in number, it is understandable that the government wants to increase the posted limit from 70 to 80mph.

Yet, Damon’s remarks have been circulating everywhere, including the safety lobby, the Driving Standards Agency, driver education schools and all and sundry. Pride, it seems, is the injured party in most cases. Ironically, as local authorities post ever-increasing numbers of speed restrictions on the UK’s main and lesser grade roads, the vast majority of British motorists are uncertain of where they stand, unless they receive a ticket in the mail from one of the innumerable, featureless, irrefutably grey and un-opinionated boxes that serve as electronic speed detectors.

Damon may have had a valid point to make. However, just because he could drive regularly at 200mph, alongside other F1 Superlicence holders, does not mean that the rest of us is incapable of managing to drive from A to B at between 42 and 65mph in moderate safety. The fact that his remarks were directed at motorway driving is virtually by the by.

In the meantime, Mrs Evadne Molehandbag and her long-suffering husband, Eric, will continue to head the queues of traffic, in their 1976 Morris Marina, on Britain’s over-crowded roads, driving everywhere at 38mph, even in through town centres. They will never witness the inside of a Magistrates’ Court, or the poorly inscribed third copy of an electronic ticket, while I and my fellow motoring enthusiasts will be dealt another blow, by the long arm of the legal system, for topping 45mph on an urban dual-carriageway at 2.00am, when there is nothing else about.

Rock on Damon! You may have fuelled a fire but you ain’t resolved the real issue.