September 21, 2012 8:15 pm

A crash course in reasonableness

Everyone could use a speed awareness course every few years
An illustration by Lucas Varela showing people attending a speed awareness course©Illustration Lucas Varela

As the group assembled for the speed awareness course, I had to conclude that we did not look much like a group of reckless joyriders. There were several rather flustered women and for quite a long time I was the only man in the waiting area. This is what happens, I thought ruefully, when you get caught speeding a little. I reflected that Jeremy Clarkson would not have been done for driving at six miles over the limit in a family saloon. Jezza would have been doing at least 85 in a Maserati Bastard. Over the next few minutes the gender balance equalised, but the large quantities of Hush Puppy shoes and Berghaus tops did little to dispel my sense that this was something less than a meeting of The Five Families.

Like everyone present, I had been caught on a speed camera. I can plead no mitigation. It was a wide and empty coastal road on a glorious morning, The Beta Band were on the stereo and while I wasn’t intending to speed, I clearly wasn’t overly exercised about it either. When the letter came, the choice between an afternoon on a speed awareness course or three points on my hitherto clean licence was not a difficult one, although I did consider trying to argue that actually it was Chris Huhne’s wife who had been driving. Even so, I was not looking forward to what I assumed would be a four-hour harangue. I predicted enforced confessions, videos of weeping parents and other miseries.

In fact, it was nothing of the kind. We began and continued in conversational style, with the trainer explaining that we were there precisely because we hadn’t been driving like maniacs but like the majority of people who sometimes push it a bit. We were drearily normal. There was, I realised, no prospect of a part in The Italian Job for us, unless perhaps the Italian job in question was a light lunch at Carluccio’s. Had we been driving faster we would simply have been penalised. But in the division between the damned and the saved, we were not beyond redemption.

This was an exercise in putting reason behind the rules, delivered in an atmosphere which recognised that the failings that had landed us in the room were pretty much universal. It acknowledged that most people do not set out to drive badly, but have become complacent about the risks and their ability to manage them. It was a model of the “nudge” behavioural theory that works on the principle that people will do the right thing if you remind them in the right way.

This was therefore an appeal to reason buttressed by useful info, much of which would be obvious if you thought about it, but which, of course, you rarely do. I learnt that for a speed camera to be put in place, there have to have been at least three fatal or serious accidents nearby. Likewise, most of the warnings on roads, such as triangular signs informing you of an impending junction or the word “Slow” painted on the tarmac, are put there only reactively, not proactively. In my local newspaper days, I remember a fast stretch of road we had dubbed “murder mile” – I think every local paper has at least one “murder mile” on its beat – where I always slowed down because, ingrained in my mind, was the fact that someone had died there. Here then, were visual clues to trigger the same response. And, of course, there were charts on the plummeting survival rates for pedestrians once the speed of impact is over 30mph.

I could go on, believe me I really could. In fact I did, most of that evening, jabbering on at the dinner table like the experimental offspring of Billy Graham and The Green Cross Man as I passed on the interesting news to my wife.

It is probably too much to hope that one four-hour course has rid me of every bad habit. I’m cynical enough to know the true test will be if I still feel this way in a month when I’m late to pick up the kids. But for now, as The Monkees would say, I’m a Believer, and as we filed out of the room I reflected that everyone could use such a course every few years – and what a shame it is that you had to be caught first to be sent on one.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE