Speed Awareness

Speed awareness courses save bears.

Since passing my test I’ve been driving fairly happily, competently and without incident, until this summer a massive flash from behind me as I drove home from a friend’s house was in itself nearly enough to make me crash. I’d been caught doing 36 in a 30 zone (which used to be a 40) by a fixed speed camera, and when I received the letter in the post I discovered that my excuses were included in the list of unacceptable ones: ‘It was the middle of the night’; ‘It was a straight, empty road’; ‘The speed limit changed recently’. ‘I was sleepy and full of cheesecake’ was not included, but I didn’t fancy its chances of success.

Luckily for me, if your speed is within a certain margin above the limit, Thames Valley Police automatically offer drivers a chance to do a (£90) Speed Awareness course rather than get three points and a £60 fine. Guess which I chose.

I dreaded the course for weeks, resented the 1½ hour journey to get there and was only consoled by the prospect that as it was a ‘Young Drivers’ Scheme’ there might be some fit dangerous drivers. A friend told me he’d been to one and that it was ‘a complete waste of my life…hours and bloody hours of being told what a terrible person you are’. From this I reckoned it would be endless videos like the creepy TV ad of the girl on the pavement whose blood seeps back into her ear before she stands and tells you that if you’d hit her at 30 she’d have lived.

Either I’m a freak (likely) or my friend’s course leader was rubbish compared to mine, as I definitely didn’t think it was a waste of my life or that I was being punished. Although at first I felt like a naughty teenager when I sat in my allotted chair (with a desk bit on the arm rest) with my name label, staring at a whiteboard, the course leader (I’ll call him Brian) began by saying that the only difference between us and him was that he hadn’t been caught yet, and that he wasn’t here to have a go at us but to give us useful information. He said he knew none of us wanted to be there but that he reckoned it was a pretty good alternative to points (we all nodded) and that he wanted us to enjoy it as much as we could. And I actually did.

The course was a 2½ hour presentation at a business park and was everything he promised: informative, interesting and actually funny at points. My first subtle scan of the room had told me that none of the males were particularly blessed in the looks department but any hope that a dazzlingly attractive personality would emerge from the skinny guy to my right were dashed when he told Brian, with an utterly straight face: ‘Mate. Don’t have a car do I? Got a pussy wagon.’

One of the first things we had to do was to guess, the percentage of collisions and then deaths that happen in a) urban areas, b) rural areas, and c) motorways. We all got the figures very wrong. The correct stats are (yes, I copied them down – definitely the only person in the room cool enough to take notes, pussy wagon pal was well impressed):

Collisions: a) 71%, b) 25%, c) 4%.

Deaths: a) 34%, b) 60%, c) 6%.

As most motorway crashes happen between cars travelling at similar speeds, the impact speed is usually only about 25mph. For this reason it’s apparently very rare to die in a motorway crash – which makes the M5 disaster the other week all the more sad.

More interesting facts:

  • If you’re a passenger, and you pass the phone to the driver so they can speak directly to the caller, YOU can get a £60 fine and three points, as well as the caller, if they’re aware they’re talking to the driver. Even if they’re just sitting at home watching X Factor.
  • If you see a crash on the motorway you should call 112 (in any EU country) NOT 999, because they’re much faster at tracing the exact location.
  • If you see a crash you should never, never, stop to help, weird as that sounds, as you could just get yourself into trouble and cause more chaos for the emergency services. Brian said he once saw someone stop and run to help, only to be killed – literally almost dissolved – by running into a huge puddle of what he thought was water surrounding a lorry, that turned out to be a lethal acid.
  • Cars are only impact tested on their sides to 10mph, so they crumple instantly when hit hard
  • Records of the trail you leave when you use your phone are kept for six years by your service provider – even pushing one button so you can check the time while driving will send a signal back so your whereabouts and speed at that exact time can be traced.
  • Sat navs and hands-free kits are lawful until you crash. Apparently all the small print that everyone skips past when they start up a new sat nav says that you must only use it if you can do so whilst maintaining control of your vehicle.
  • If you smoked weed a week ago it will still show up in your system if you’re tested, and if this happens you can be disqualified from driving for having driven under the influence of illegal substances. You can also be disqualified whilst taking any legal drugs that affect your judgement.
  • If you drink 18 units of alcohol and stop drinking at 2am, the alcohol content in your blood will continue to rise in the next hour. After that you only lose one unit per hour, meaning that if you drove at 8am you would still be over the limit – the only rule of thumb is to not drink anything if you’re going to drive. Even if you’re under the limit, if you crash and any alcohol at all is found in your system it works against your defence and could land you in prison.

So after all that I drove home like a snail, swivelling my head so much to check mirrors and blind spots that I must’ve looked like Churchill with a nervous twitch, and so tense that my shoulders ached for days afterwards. I bombarded my parents with these facts. Dad’s reaction was ‘You are the worst possible person to go on one of these courses, you take it all so literally!’ and Mum logically told me that it was good to be aware of these things but as there are risks involved in everything, if I didn’t take any I wouldn’t go out of the door.

I now have 28 days to complete four e-modules online before I’m officially cleared of my ‘offence’, which is taking ages as for some reason you’re forced to leave three days between each one. Despite the irritation of this (and the disturbing diagrams the modules show, demonstrating exactly how various bits of your body will be mauled in a crash) and the fact that I had to give up most of my day (and £90) to go on the course, I think it’s a brilliant alternative to points and a fine. I wouldn’t go so far as to advise people to deliberately speed so they can go on one, but if you get the chance then do what the letter tells you and ‘go with an open mind’. No one ever stops learning.

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