On Driving

I passed my driving test a few months ago. For the first couple of days I didn’t drive at all – I was kinda sick of it, to be honest. Having gone through the rigmarole of learning to pass the test, including one fail where I jumped a red light (hell, if you’re going to fail, fail hard), driving had lost any novelty it might have had.

I’d learned to drive initially as a favour to Fiona. When I lived on my own, or with other non-driving folk, cars never entered the equation. Living in a city the combination of walking, cycling public transport, taxis and the occasional favour sufficed. But Fiona owned a car, which sat outside the front of the house and was temptingly useful. Things that weren’t viable, such as a trip to Ikea or a wedding party in the arse-end of the countryside, suddenly became an option. If Fiona drove. So after tipping the favour scales a little too far a couple of times I promised to learn to drive. And then a year later, with a firm nudge from my mum, I actually started.

So when I had the certificate in my hand I was pleased, of course, but didn’t exactly embrace my new found freedom. I figured I’d use the car when I needed to but otherwise my life wouldn’t change. And like I said, for the first week it was like that.

But then I started driving for myself, rather than for the test, and I’ve found I really enjoy it. Which could be somewhat embarrassing for someone with a history of being virulently anti-car. As a cyclist I’d always been quite vocal in my distain for the average motorist. Jeremy Clarkson is the devil and his followers are idiot sheep, wilfully ignorant of the damage their motorised tonnage of metal could do to a body. I was convinced that getting behind the wheel of a car did something to people. It changed their brains, turned them into egotistical, selfish fools. And this wasn’t just an observation of The Other, hidden from personal connection by glass and steel. I’d seen this in my friends and loved ones as they sped around town, cursing at other drivers as I winced in my passenger seat.

For something so dangerous and risky, driving seemed to involve a complete loss of rational logic. People’s behaviour on the roads is the purest example of selfish idiocy. Socialism doesn’t exist on the road – it’s every man for himself and damn the consequences.

And here I am, enjoying driving. Which is odd.

In my defence, one of the things I really enjoy about driving is rigorously obeying the law. There’s a 20mph zone near us which is always in force regardless of whether the local school is open. No-one ever obeys the limit and zooms through at 30mph+. Except me. I slow down and trundle along until the 30 sign appears, and I do this just to fuck with the folks behind me. Speed limits in general are not a hinderance but a challenge – I like to think I get points for sticking to them.

And then there’s politeness. Other than forcing those behind me to obey the law I really like being nice to my fellow drivers. If it’s safe to do so I’ll let people turn onto a busy road because I’m pretty sure it’ll make no real difference to my progress. If I was on foot I’d be nice so why not be nice in the car?

Of course the real reason I’m being such a good driver is because I’m a contrary bastard who relishes going against the grain. There’s no real moral high ground here. I don’t do this because it’s the right thing to do – I do it because it gives me a self-righteous, vicarious thrill. Being a good driver is positively counter-cultural in our society so of course I’m going to try my hardest to be good. If it was the other way around I’d be a total cunt on the road, I’m sure.

But my personal psychological quirks aside, there’s something kinda fucked up in a world where this is the case. As I’ve been driving I’ve seen more examples of bad driving that when I was a pedestrian or a cyclist, because I’m right in the middle of it. And I don’t mean mistakes. There’s an important distinction between incompetence (of which I’ve certainly been guilty of in my first few months driving on my own) and wilful dickishness. The stuff that can be ironed out with practice and training is one thing. Behaving like a delusional self-important arsehole is another.

Other than the lazy catch-all “people are idiots” excuse, which I don’t buy because I’ve seen beautiful, intelligent souls turn into demons when sat behind a wheel, I’m at a loss to explain this. The cult of “The Motorist”, chaired by Lord Jeremy C and feared by politicians, can only really be a symptom, a power-grab by facets of the Right who see their individualistic policies reflected in the psychology of driving.

From media reports I was under the impression that drivers were disproportionately policed in this country – that cops were cracking down on otherwise law-abiding citizens for minor infractions of speeding, but I’ve seen no evidence of this. Driving down the Pershore Road at the speed limit with speed camera signs visible I’m invariably overtaken by some fool doing twice my speed who I invariably catch up with at the lights. How are they not caught on camera? Why do they feel they can get away with it?

But more to the point, why do they think driving at 60mph for a short stretch into the city centre will make a gnat’s pube of difference to their progress? How can they not see the futility of their action, multiply them by the dangers of their driving and come to a sane conclusion?

Driving is fun. I like driving, particularly at night (though not so much on Saturday night through the centre of Birmingham). I like how it focusses my senses on a specific, important task. This calms me down and helps me think. I also like listening to music in the car – old favourites take on a new context and new music can be appreciated in depth. And it feels good to pay back 20 years of favours, albeit indirectly.

But driving, as it is practiced by the majority, is fucking weird. Here’s some things I’d like to see in place.

Mandatory retesting every few years. People get bad habits, conditions and laws change. It’s astonishing that my license is valid until 2042.

Speed cameras everywhere, actively enforced. Especially on minor roads. This sort of blanket monitoring seems to work for the London Congestion Charge.

Education for non-criminal bad driving. If you’re reported x times for being a dick you have to go to a class on being nice.

A systematic destruction of the motorist cult. People need to know that driving is not a right – it’s a privilege which has to be earned.

That should do it.