Tuesday 8 November 2011

Remember, it is far better to arrive late than not at all

Of all the many causes of delays on our overburdened motorway system, surely none is more maddening than the long, stop-start crawl that turns out to be due to drivers slowing down to have a good gawp at some mishap in the opposite carriageway.

Accidents clearly have a horrible fascination for many of us. Although one of the many things I learned over the weekend is that we must now refer to them as “incidents”, because “accident” implies an absence of blame that may well not be the case.

Friday's serious incident on the M5

Yet, having taken a leisurely look at the wreckage, we seem to absorb remarkably few lessons. Motorway traffic soon returns to its customary but illegal 80mph and the bad habits of tailgating, undertaking, using hand-held mobile phones and ignoring electronic warning signs all continue exactly as before.

Perhaps that is why the bright idea of leaving crashed cars by the side of the road as a dreadful warning to others never seems to have caught on in the UK.

Now, I make no claims to be a particularly virtuous driver. But my bad habits are certainly moderated by having been tangentially involved in two multiple pile-ups: one on the M62 and the other on the central motorway in Newcastle.

In both cases I crested a rise to find stationary traffic in front of me, and stopped safely, if not without difficulty. Many vehicles behind me did not. In Newcastle I was driving a literally brand new Land Rover, fresh from the showroom, and will be forever grateful to the driver of the large van immediately behind who, as the multiple impacts shunted him forwards, manfully steered away from the rear of my car. I was able to drive away without a scratch.

As, in both incidents, were the individuals at the front of all the chaos who were observed calmly restarting their cars and leaving the scene, without bothering to hang around to help the police with their enquiries.

Whenever I feel tempted to take risks on the road, I call to mind the image of the blue BMW I watched in my rear view mirror as it became airborne and executed a perfect barrel roll, wondering whether its final resting place was going to be on top of me.

Although both these crashes are still seared on my memory many years later, they were deemed far too ordinary to merit any coverage in even the local media, which I duly scoured for reports. I deduced from this that no one must have been killed despite the large number of vehicles involved.

Though this might be an assumption too far, since the rule of thumb seems to be that it requires several fatalities in a road crash to merit a small fraction of the column inches lavished on a single death on the railway.

I have never understood this. Rail travel is inherently safe, and there is nothing any passenger can do to make it safer. Driving, while rendered much less dangerous over the years by improvements in car and road design, remains a far riskier business than catching a train, and responsibility rests squarely with all of us who get behind a steering wheel.

This seems to me a pretty good reason for giving more publicity to road crashes, and their causes. And, yes, if the bereaved families can bear it, to the “human interest” stories of the lives they have cut short.

Because every one of us who drives a car will surely benefit from a regular reminder that we are piloting something potentially lethal, and that it is ultimately our responsibility to ensure that we are equipped to handle the unexpected, whether that be a bank of smoke, a falling tree, or an animal or child dashing out into the road.

Yes, delays are frustrating, sometimes infuriating. I find that the best recipe for calm is to keep reminding myself that life is already very short and that it is far, far better to arrive late than never to arrive at all.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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