Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Speed Awareness Course

What, a whole week gone without posting! I must remedy that. And to kick off, let me tell you how my Speed Awareness Course went. It was at Salomons conference and wedding centre on the west edge of Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

The course was booked for 10.00am on the day, and the written instructions were very strict about having to be on time - or else one would be locked out, and cast back into Police hands! So I made a point of getting up there with plenty of time to spare. I left home at 8.30am and arrived at 9.10am, after a delightful sunny drive through Ashdown Forest. I had time to walk around the grounds a bit. Salomons was once a large private country house, and has attractive terraced lawns and a lake. It's maintained in immaculate condition for its modern uses.

I think you'll agree that the venue could hardly have looked more pleasant. At around 9.45am I found my way to the suite of rooms where the course was going to be had. I first entered a large room where we all foregathered to have our ID checked and be signed in. This room also had fresh tea, coffee and biscuits laid on. For the Course itself, there was a separate, even larger room with tables and chairs to divide us into groups. Nearby were nice toilets, and in the breaks to come smokers were allowed to step outside the building and puff away for ten minutes in proper shelters designed for the purpose. That was a surprise: the written pre-Course stuff suggested that nobody would be allowed to go far from their seats: and that ruthless Korean guards who spoke no English (and knew only an obscure dialect) would guard the exits with implacable dedication to duty. But in fact it was all much more open and relaxed - much as an ordinary business conference might seem.

There were twenty-three of us attending the Course. Our ages ranged from later twenties to later sixties. There were no boy racers. The reason why not soon became clear. Youngsters had to make a serious financial investment when learning to drive, with hugely expensive insurance costs that must be kept in check; and they would lose their licences after only six penalty points. So they had a lot at stake, and only the stupid and reckless among them now speeded. This explained why I never saw boy racers on the road. They wouldn't be offered the Course anyway - only prosecution.

I joined the cluster of girls and ladies for coffee, and we mostly stayed together in the Course delivery room, forming an all-female table. My companions were two older women (Brenda and Margaret) and two younger ones (Anna and Lyn). There was a scattering of girls and women on the other tables as well. Men outnumbered women on the Course by about two to one.

Everyone seemed prepared to take the event seriously, and most of us contributed something by way of questions answered or suggestions made, including myself. It was not however a situation for anyone who was shy of speaking up in a clear voice. I was really thankful that my own voice was fit for purpose. I noticed one or two men eyeing me up, but it might simply be that I asked some pertinent questions, or pursued clarification from the tutor on some surprising point. But maybe they were simply giving all the talent in the room a surreptitious once-over. By the way, this was my look for the event:

We must all have been very curious to know all about each other's wrongdoing, but nobody revealed the circumstances of their own speeding offence, nor did the tutors encourage disclosure. Nor was much said about ourselves as persons. I suppose it was generally felt that after the Course we'd all disperse promptly and never see each other again; so anything more than polite and friendly chat was a waste of time. And at 2.30pm, when it was all over, everyone did indeed run off faster than you could say 'It's a fair cop, officer.'

There are no shots of the Course in progress. Photography was expressly banned. In the past, people with handy cameras on their phones had taken shots of local celebrities attending the Course, and then published them on Facebook or Twitter, with an insulting or embarrassing caption. It was no longer allowed.

There were two tutors, one called David and the other called Dave. They were both seasoned course deliverers who specialised in this type of course, so they knew their stuff and how to get it across.

From the start it was clear that this would not merely be a way of punishing us. We were treated as adults. It was a positive, persuasive, coherent, and pretty hard-to-ignore exposition on why it mattered that we all make driving within the speed limit a habit from now on. More than that: it was like a course on advanced driving techniques. By various means, including frame-to-frame video analysis, accidents caused by speeding were deconstructed and the necessary points made. And it was driven home that drivers must read the road to work out what should be their appropriate speed, rather than just go as fast as possible within the legal speed limit.

We spent time thinking about the consequences of an accident - not just the damage to one's car, nor whether one could personally walk away from an accident, nor what the effect on one's licence and employability and insurance might be, nor (where death or serious injury had resulted) how hard it might be to live with what one had done. There was also the plight and long-term prospects of the victim, including the people who cared for them, and how all their lives would be changed. In short, that speeding, of all things, led to unwelcome and sometimes devastating consequences. I'd thought myself socially responsible, but I still found it all illuminating, and very likely to make me watch my speed in the future and slow down as required.

Naturally there were statistics galore. And the effects of different impact speeds on flesh and bone. And experiments to show us each exactly how slow or fast our reaction times were.

There was great emphasis on the fact that even if one's personal reaction time was the same as a formula one racing driver's, the car itself could not defy the laws of physics. It couldn't stop dead with its own brakes. From a given speed, it needed a minimum time and distance to come to a halt. And that was the origin of the 'two second rule' for following a car in front.

And so on. I found it all highly educational, and much of it is now going to stick. I had already - ever since my own speeding offence in February - been keeping within all limits, in order to make that practice habitual. The Course has now reinforced my will to do that. This is quite apart from the financial incentive: I am still achieving a 10% reduction in my fuel consumption, just from driving slower and more smoothly. You know: an extra £200 a year in my pocket from now on. Pays for Demelza, that.

What in particular did I bring away from the Course and apply at once to my everyday driving? Apart from knowing at all times what speed I should be doing, and making sure that I travel within that speed?

Well, I realised that I'd better set up Fiona's forward-facing radar to give me more braking distance. It had been set to warn me with a red dashboard light when there was a gap between me and the car in front of 1.2 seconds. I'm now experimenting with 1.4 and 1.8 second gaps.

As to controlling speed around towns, I am now trying out manual gear changes. The tutors recommended that drivers shift up no higher than third gear in towns, both to restrain top speed, but also to keep the engine running at its optimum rate, and thus secure best fuel economy. That sounded slightly counter-intuitive to me, but I do know that chugging along at low revs in 'D' drinks fuel, and that I get my best mpg when the revs are around 2,000 rpm. In towns, then, where I might be limited to 30 or even 20 mph, manually limiting the auto gearbox's ability to change up should keep revs higher than if using 'D' all the time. And I need to get used to manual gearchanging for use in mountainous areas, especially when towing the caravan. Manual operation also enables Volvo's Hill Descent Control, a computer-controlled low-speed braking system on Fiona intended for very steep, rough or slippery slopes, when in first gear.

So that's two driving techniques I can employ to make my driving safer! Plus applying greater anticipation of hazards, and modifying my speed to be ready for whatever situation may develop.

Would I recommend the Course as an option, if it were offered? I certainly would. But that presupposes speeding, and getting caught doing it. I'd now recommend not speeding at all.

I can't honestly say that I will never speed again in my life. I never speeded around towns, and, out on the open road, I never charged around at a rate of knots just to show off. But there were several situations in which I felt justified in breaking the speed limit for a few seconds. Such as when stuck behind a large, slow vehicle that was severely limiting my view of the road ahead. It seemed safer to get past with a temporary burst of speed. Such situations will recur. I'm confident however that I will in future give any breaking of a speed limit a lot of thought. And with improved reading of the road, I may never need to do it again. Strictly speaking, I have to admit there is no such thing as 'necessary' speeding.

Occasionally you see roadside notices on the lines of 'Caught speeding? NO excuse'. I intend to keep that in mind.


  1. If we are ever caught speeding in the future there is a very good chance that it will be due to the increasingly random changes of limit without sufficient reminders. The days of knowing the limits for the kind of road you are on are long gone, I think the Scottish government are planning to cover their costs by using variable speed limits mostly on the motorways where they are appearing in ever greater numbers and being switched on when the conditions are clear and fine.

    There is no better or easier way of driving the motorists behind you crazy and frustrated than driving carefully within the limits...

  2. Just reading your post makes me resolve to keep my speed down, though I admit it may not last.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I must drive a lot of drivers crazy then Caroline. I try my best these days to drive within the speed limits when once I didn't. There really isn't a good reason to speed except perhaps in an emergency related to a life or death situation. Ignoring the speed restrictions is selfish and anti-social.
      Glad you found the course worthwhile Lucy.

      Shirley Anne x

  4. Like Caroline, it's the constantly changing limits on open roads that are most likely to catch me out. So these days I often have my satnav app running even if I know the way as it displays the speed limit and makes an annoying noise if I go too fast. It's not foolproof, of course, as limits do change, but it certainly helps.

  5. It’s good to know that you had a great experience with your speed awareness course. And I agree; it’s not a way of punishing you or anyone. This course is just a helpful way to remind everyone of how important it is to drive safely, teach some advanced driving techniques, and the consequences of every action.

    Stephanie Waters @ Chastaine Law


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