A pointed lesson for fast drivers

Our Northern Editor took a speed awareness course as an alternative to penalty points


I was done for speeding – 38mph in a 30mph zone – driving along the Upper Lisburn Road in south Belfast, coming back from collecting the morning newspapers. I missed the sneaky estate car parked close to the railings with its sneaky speed camera.

It was a fair cop but it didn’t diminish the little sense of grievance I harboured. After all how can you stick at 30mph on a quiet road at a time when the morning rush is over? It’s impossible to hold to 30mph or under in such conditions; the dial just creeps up the clock all by itself. Anyway, it should be a 40mph zone – at least. And remember in Northern Ireland you can shove your metric system: not an inch.

The Chris “the-wife-was-driving” Huhne solution wasn’t an option, not that such criminality was even considered. Some cocky friends and colleagues had told me nightmare stories of how they decided to have their day in court only to be dismissed with a heavy fine and additional penalty points by a busy judge who’d heard it all before. So it was take the fixed £60 fine and the three penalty points.

But then came the surprise letter and the offer I couldn’t refuse. The PSNI gave me the choice of the fine and points or taking an AA speed awareness course, an option that is not available in the Republic. It cost £86.81 but if I did my four hours in the King’s Hall I’d escape the points.

It was so busy on this particular 8am start that we were broken into two groups, me and 23 others divided into six quartets, a slightly smaller number in the other room. No names, no pack drill, but there was a certain chippiness about our bunch, a sense of some nursing the same degree of disgruntlement as I did, vexed to be giving up part of their day, yet grudgingly realising it was just about worth it to avoid the penalty points.

We weren’t hardened criminals; most of us were eight or 10 miles over the limit when caught. All thought the woman copped for doing 34mph in a 30mph zone was particularly hard done by. But she was stoic. Joe, our AA speed awareness instructor (this is the Automobile Association by the way), being well used to chippiness, laid down the ground rules from the get-go. “Show respect. Try to keep it as neutral as possible, mind your language. Challenge the point, rather than the person.”

There had been occasions, he said, “of gentlemen using colourful language or people making points about women or men drivers”. He also recalled the awkward, hostile atmosphere when a husband and wife met up at the same course without telling the other they had been caught for speeding.

He wanted us to engage no matter how cynical we might be. “Don’t go to the toilet and stay an hour and think you’ve done this course.” We were in lockdown.

Joe had a way with words. “A fixed speed camera is a headstone because they are only there because people have been killed there.” It mightn’t have been the most strikingly original simile but it made its point. We should also consider how those placed cameras – as opposed to the roving sneaky estate cars – acted literally as a brake to many drivers, added Joe: wouldn’t those bereaved at such black spots have wished they were in place as a warning before they lost their loved ones?

Joe didn’t over-dramatise, so again we got the message. But we were still chippy.

He urged us to consider the consequences of our actions: death, injury, higher insurance, car damage, fines, prison. Come on, Joe, 38mph or 34mph in a 30mph zone on a clear road, we responded, how can that really and truly be dangerous?

So, he went to the video. We were shown a picture of a quiet road, a slow bend with a good stretch, and asked what speed we could do on it. It was 30mph although some of us thought it might be 40mph or 50mph, me included. It was a real case from Wales, a driver travelling at 39mph, coming round the gradual bend as a 14-year-old boy was crossing. He braked hard but his car was still doing 26mph by the time of impact. It threw the youngster onto the bonnet, hitting his head off the windscreen and sending him crashing back down onto the road. He survived but suffered brain damage and paralysis.

Again Joe didn’t over-thesp it and again he made his point; the room was quieter, less chippy. You see we were all over 25, most of us parents. There is a separate course for under-25s where Joe and his colleagues go for Tarantino-type shock graphics and films. They can be chilling and effective but for us old dogs, less was more.

Signage test
We were tested on our Highway Code and signage knowledge. Some we got right, some we got wrong, but nobody could figure what the grey sign was. “That’s what you see going the wrong way on the motorway,” said Joe. Yes Minister, I thought, good one.

And, you learn something every day. I thought the only place 70mph was permitted was on the motorway but unless there was signage to the contrary that speed was also allowed on dual carriageways for ordinary motorists. Others such as heavy van and lorry drivers faced restrictions.

A video taught us how reaction distance and braking distance added up to stopping distance and if you were slightly over the line it could be fatal, even at relatively slow speeds. The cardboard model of the victim the professional driver kept crashing into was distracting though – there was a debate over whether she looked like Posh Beckham or Jennifer Lopez? “Marginal speed matters,” said Joe. “And if it’s raining it’s double the distance to stop.”

Much of what Joe quietly but firmly drummed into us was common sense. For instance, a very basic tip: use “funnel rather than tunnel vision” when driving, don’t just concentrate on the car ahead – take the longer, wider perspective.

“The best safety feature in the car is yourself.” Okay, corny, but still worth having at the back of your mind.

And maybe keep the radio to Lyric or Classic FM. “Because studies have shown that the worst type of music for driving is rock, and the worst songs are Bat Out of Hell and Bohemian Rhapsody .”

But getting back to how we all ended up in this room: how is it possible to stick to 30 on a free urban road? To use that Dublin phrase it’s like rehearsing for a funeral. Stick to third gear, was his tip. But all those emissions? Joe had it on good authority that the environment would be just fine if you kept the dial just on or under 30. And it does work, even if it’s dull driving. But we weren’t there for fun. Speed limits weren’t just casually arrived at, said Joe firmly. “They are there for a reason and we should stay within them.”

In 2011 there were 59 road deaths and 825 people seriously injured compared with 150 deaths and 1,525 serious injuries in 2002 before these courses began. There were 48 road deaths last year although this year has started badly with the PSNI statistics showing 11 deaths up to early March.

Joe wasn’t claiming the courses were the sole reason for the drop in fatalities but they were a factor, he was sure. “We have noticed a dramatic change in the amount of deaths and serious injuries since these courses began,” he said. “So I think in combination with other stuff such as the ads they are all playing a part in the reduction. The feedback we have got from people is mostly positive. Some people come in negative but go out positive.” Which, I have to say, was my experience: your frame of mind is different than when you entered the door of the course, less chippy.

Joe believes itcould be usefully taken up by the Garda and the Road Safety Authority: “I think everything we are doing here could be transferred to the South. It is making a difference in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Without a doubt.”

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