Neil McNicholas: UK drivers going full throttle on road to tragedy

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My dad was always an excellent driver and, as a kid, I think I learned a lot from the example he set. I have now been driving for almost sixty years and thankfully so far without incident – all the more so given some of the places and conditions where I have driven for perhaps a quarter of those years.

Some of those situations were truly a nightmare to drive in. In Africa (and I won’t be any more specific than that) driving standards would have been a joke were they not also such a tragedy.

Encountering not just accidents but fatalities was commonplace on the major highways which were basic two-lane roads but carrying high speed traffic, with cyclists and animals suddenly appearing out of the bush to cross the roads and other drivers often being somewhat “liberal” not only in their understanding of the roadworthiness of their overloaded vehicles, but also regarding which side of the road they would use.

In the Middle East (and again that’s as specific as I will be), you had to contend with underage drivers barely able to see over the steering wheel, and adult drivers who hadn’t even a passing acquaintance with the concept of a driver’s licence. Were you to be involved in an accident it was always your fault because, so the argument went, if you hadn’t been in the country in the first place the accident wouldn’t have happened. You can’t fault logic like that – as fatal as it might be.

In America I have driven extensively in a number of the States, but Florida – where I lived for three years – took the proverbial biscuit. Driving standards there were typically as bad as those I had encountered in the Middle East, though it was hard to come up with an explanation for why it should be that way.

All in all it was always a pleasure to be back in this country and to experience and enjoy good driving once again, but over the years those good standards have been steadily and noticeably declining.

Currently our roads are as nightmarish as any of those I have experienced in places where people often don’t know any better – and yet drivers here should. Everyone has to pass a test to obtain a licence and yet it would seem that as soon as they pass, they tear up the Highway Code along with their “L” plates and thereafter it’s the survival of the fittest.

When I was in the Middle East I was once told by one of the locals that their definition of “good driving” was driving how you liked and as fast as you liked without being involved in an accident. It wasn’t “good” in terms of the quality, but of the outcome, and with such an understanding comes a huge amount of fatalism. My fear is that this definition is catching on here also.

I’m convinced a lot of it has to do with a lack of personal discipline – something that crops up in so many aspects of our ailing society. Unless there is a police car or a police officer in sight, people drive with little regard for the law, which is why, in the absence of the real thing, cardboard cut-outs of police cars on motorway flyovers work so well.

I was recently approaching a town along the coast that holds an annual scarecrow contest and the entries are exhibited along the main street. Right next to the 30mph speed limit sign was a scarecrow in hi-viz police clothing, and it’s amazing how it makes you check your speedometer. If the scarecrow wasn’t there, I wonder how many drivers would be that conscientious?

I recently moved into a neighbourhood where all the side-streets have a 20mph speed limit. I’m not so badly in need of a life that I sit in my front room watching, but there is no getting away from the fact that I’d say 99 per cent of drivers passing my house are doing at least 30-40 (so not even keeping to the 30 limit they might have expected) and many are doing in excess of 40 or 50 even though it’s a residential street. There are even some of the local youths who ride their motorcycles down the street at close to motorway speeds. And the thing is that, seemingly, it doesn’t matter. The police do nothing about it and therefore drivers continue to ignore the law with impunity.

Sadly (and sometimes tragically) this is the way things seem to be going in this country, and any time you venture out onto the roads, increasingly you take your life into your hands in ways, and to a degree, that never used to be the case. Driving has ceased to be the pleasure it once was and has become instead an occupational hazard.

• Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Middlesbrough.