It was a damp and drizzly day on the A40 and I was driving, sedately, at 40 mph, as requested by numerous circular signs. I was in the middle lane and I couldn’t help but notice that every car in the outside lane was hurtling past me at 80 mph and the ones on the inside lane were overtaking me at a similar jaunty speed. Behind me a black 4×4 — the love child of a London cab and Darth Vader’s holiday home — flashed his myriad lights and pressed his horn, millimetres from my little grey bumper. He was on the phone and he wanted me to either go faster or face sudden and violent compression.
Curiously, I was on my way to my first ever Speed Awareness session. I wondered why. I had been digitally captured in Denham — twinned with Shark Bay, Australia — doing 33 mph in a 30 mph zone, which had been a 40 mph zone in the previous three years I’d been driving there, including last week. Still, I had broken the law of the land and must be re-educated or face points on my nice clean licence and perpetual fear of my accelerator foot.
My instructions were to turn up at 10 am to a numbered building on the Uxbridge Road. The Uxbridge Road was not familiar to me but it is now. I drove up it and down it, executing illegal turns right, left and centre, but by 10.30 it was clear that even if I found the building I’d be so late that I’d be made to attend a Punctuality Awareness session in an industrial park in Cold Christmas Lane. Eventually I went home, telephoned, agreed to pay £93 for my tardiness and arranged another date. This time I rehearsed the journey in advance and arrived in good time to park and hear the end of Desert Island Discs.
There was a waiting room inside for all the miscreants and it resembled a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases, I imagine. No one spoke or exchanged glances, and the reading material was rank. It was irresistible.
“Good morning fellow criminals!” I chirped as I came round the door.
One or two of them smiled shyly and a couple even responded. Within minutes we were exchanging experiences, comparing scenes of crimes and giggling behind our hands like Japanese tourists. I was all set to resume my traditional role as class clown.
But the instructor was a gem — funny, forthright, interesting and informative. The hours flew past as I took notes, exclaimed at revelations I should have known and asked pertinent questions. Like the best teachers, he presented his case with clarity and levity, including acronyms such as COAST — Concentration, Observation, Anticipation, Space, Time — and wise homilies: “Only a fool breaks the two-second rule; only a prat gets closer than that.”
And it turns out we were there for a good reason. If you hit a pedestrian at 30 mph they are likely to survive. If you hit them at 35, chances are they will die. It’s a sobering thought. I came out chastened and resolved. I would take an advanced driving test. After all, when I took my first, 37 years ago, I was heavily pregnant and not required to do the emergency stop. Since then I had fallen into bad habits which had be reined in immediately.
I thanked the instructor with genuine warmth and bid my fellow classmates farewell, vowing never to see them again in similar circumstances. We all agreed it had been a superb wake-up call. “Take care now!” we chortled, waving out of the windows of our vehicles in the car park queue, “Remember to COAST!”
I will never understand what happened next, even if I live to donate my head to cryogenics. I got into my car, started the engine, checked my back window, mirrors and blind spot, released the handbrake and backed slowly and magnificently onto a traffic island.
Traffic Island Risks. I thought my fellow Speed Awarees were going to expire. A couple were actually hanging out of their windows gasping for air. An Indian lady had covered her face with part of her sari, another woman was frozen in a pop-eyed, silent scream. They all thought I’d done it to make a point or get a laugh. I hadn’t. I was genuinely trying to drive by the book. Sadly not the Highway Code, more like Just William.
I am still talking about that Advanced test. It is up there with learning Ivrit and the trumpet. It took my late mother, then in her fifties, 69 driving lessons before she passed her test. After about the 60th, my brother agreed to sit beside her while she practised. She kept her foot firmly down on clutch and accelerator all the way to the end of the road, when my brother suggested she might perhaps like to change gear. She gave him her Judy Holliday look.
“You what?” she breathed in amazement. “On my own?”
Geoffrey swallowed hard and asked her what she meant.
“Well!” she said defensively, “Mr Middleyard always holds my hand.”