Driving home recently I witnessed one of those near misses caused by sheer lack of attention. In this case, someone filtering on to a fast dual carriageway sailed out into the inside lane oblivious to a Mini already in the lane, forcing the Mini to slam on the brakes to avoid being side-swiped.
This little incident, the sort of thing I’m sure we have all seen hundreds of times, set me thinking: is driving a modern car just too easy, encouraging the driver to lose concentration. For sure, not so long ago cars could be downright hard work to drive: heavy vague steering, so-so brakes and tricky gearboxes, to name but a few challenges. All these obstacles are long gone, with any car however humble able to be driven smoothly and with the minimum of effort – without the brain fully in gear, in fact.
Even the mighty supercar is not immune: the McLaren 650 for example can be driven easily and safely by almost anyone, whereas its counterpart of a few years ago the Porsche 911 turbo had a well-deserved reputation for sudden and abrupt off-road excursions if not treated with extreme caution.
Couple this ease of driving with the massive advances in safety, and the car of today is a far different beast to its predecessor of not so long ago. I was reminded forcefully of this when taking a friends 1950’s Singer sports car for a spin recently: no seat belts, a very hard, unyielding dashboard placed inches from your chest and filled with protruding knobs & switches all perfectly placed to do you the maximum harm in an accident. Doors with catches so flimsy that they felt likely to fly open without warning, and most striking of all the tiny size of the beast, making the smallest modern car seem massive. Great fun to trundle round the lanes, but daunting in heavy traffic, where one’s vulnerability became worryingly obvious.
And lest anyone think this pillories a 1950’s car unfairly, just try jumping from a modern car into say an early 1990’s Rover 200 – that same feeling of flimsiness and vulnerability is very much present. Compare that to the car of today, where the driver sits cocooned in his tonne-plus of metal, isolated and insulated from all that’s going on around him, comforted by the superb crash-protection of his steed. This reduction in involvement has to be experienced to be believed, indeed many younger drivers will have never experienced the rawness of older motors. Come to think of it, most older drivers will have forgotten “how it used to be” as well.
So couple this aura of invulnerability of a modern motor with its ease of driving, add in the sort of electronic driving aids now widely available, and maybe you have a recipe for driver inattentiveness.
What driver aids? Well, let’s take the VW Golf, that bastion of mid-range family motoring, as an example. With a few ticks on the options list, you can have a Golf which damn nearly drives itself: adaptive cruise control and city braking to keep you a safe distance from traffic in front, even – with an automatic gearbox – bringing the car to a halt if necessary, then setting off again when appropriate. Oh, and the handbrake pops on automatically when the car stops, then pops off again when the car starts to move. Lights which switch on & off, and even dip automatically, wipers which need no human intervention, steering which gives you a nudge if you drift out of lane – the list goes on. Driverless cars? They are closer than you think!
Not that I’m decrying all these features and safety aids, they have saved countless lives and innumerable life-changing injuries and will continue to do so. But do they make safer drivers? I’m not so sure: in the past when you had to concentrate continually to stay on the road, whilst at the same time being very aware that any mishap was likely to hurt, did not make for inattention or thoughtless risk-taking at the wheel.
Compare that with todays driving standards, where near-misses and minor bumps are the order of the day. Now some of the “fender-benders” we see every day are doubtless the result of much-increased traffic density. Many more though are the result of, to a greater or lesser degree, reckless driving to gain a precious few seconds. Like the example of the start of this article, a situation which is all too familiar today, with the joining driver assuming that the traffic on the major road will brake or move over to make room for him (or her). Often they do, but not always, and that’s where things end in tears.
Another situation which arises time after time is one where a driver is waiting to pull out of a minor road at a T junction. If a vehicle is approaching and indicating to turn into the minor road, the driver then pulls out into the path of the indicating vehicle. But what if the oncoming vehicle did not intend to make that turn? What if the indicator had been forgotten? What if the driver was intending to turn not into your road but the next one – the list goes on. And sometimes the gambling driver gets away with it, sometimes they don’t. Either way, when the inevitable accidents happen, the resulting traffic delays more than eat up any time which may have been saved by such dodgy driving.
So are these dodgy manoeuvres the result of drivers switching off their brains as they no longer have to concentrate on the mechanics of driving, or have driving standards generally just declined? What do you think?