The reverberations that followed a drive in the countryside in April are only now settling. We had set our hearts on seeing a 13th century tithe barn, but there was a problem. It was four o’clock, the barn would close in an hour, and we were lost. We were driving along roads close to the monument but, with the local council’s provision of road signs being so miserly and with the details on our National Trust pamphlet so sketchy, our prospects of finding the barn in time were fading.
Our difficulties were compounded by an overcast day that offered no way of navigating from the sun’s position, by a car-hire firm that hadn’t supplied a road map and by a satellite navigation device that would only direct us to an address on the Cardiff seafront! The Gods were conspiring against us.
We stopped to ask for help and after drawing several blanks, finally fell upon a couple who had just been to the barn themselves. Directions given, they told us that the building was not to be missed and that getting there before the 5.00pm deadline would be difficult, adding that we would have to drive fast. Off we sped.
The barn was still open and we visited it alone which made it particularly special. The building itself was vast – big enough to house two tennis courts placed end-to-end. And with its two giant doors, five-foot thick stone walls and high, wood-beamed roof, it was indeed marvellous.
But there was a downside. Several weeks later I received a summons for speeding. Unbeknownst to me, our hurrying had been captured by a roadside camera, and as the driver I risked a fine and several penalty points. Unless, that is, I owned up and attended a Speed Awareness Course. If I did so, my points and fine would be waived. I opted for awareness.
Finding a convenient time and place for the four hour session took months and finally, last week, I was sitting with twenty four others in a reception room in West London waiting for the session to start. Like guilty children we sat quietly, heads bowed, staring at the floor. In the room there were people of all ages, all shades and all men, bar five. Apparently, together we had accumulated a total of 800 year’s driving experience, a statistic that impressed Patrick, our course leader. It was the largest number at one sitting he could remember. With that amount of experience, “How could you be so remiss?”
To break the ice we started with introductions. “Please speak with the person on your left.” My neighbour was a smiling, mid-thirties American solicitor who had been caught speeding while rushing home to feed her children. As we spoke she neither behaved nor looked like someone who would break the law but, by now, nor did anyone else.
Then it was down to business, and with games, group work, interactive slides and videos, question-and-answer sessions and the occasional joke, the session sped by under Patrick’s skilful leadership.
I left full of facts, ideas and questions. I relearned the obvious details about speed limits, road signs, the hazards to me and others of speeding and the legal implications of being caught for a second time! Amongst the new driving ideas there was a trick for spotting children; if a vehicle parked has large wheels it might be possible to see children playing by the kerbside by looking through under the chassis. And so on.
In those gaps carefully left by all good speakers there was time to drift off and reflect more generally. It is said that it is in such moments that Nobel laureates have hatched key research. Although not exactly of the same order, in my case I found myself musing over my responsibilities as a road user, which encompassed duties both to myself and to others. Patrick can’t have known that in my less attentive moments my thoughts went along the lines: “Joe, over the years your reaction times have slowed, your attention span has shortened, you are now more easily distracted and even when wearing your driving glasses your peripheral vision is diminished, so should you continue to drive at all? Furthermore, Joe, when making your decision, how are you going to decide anyway?” Over the days since, after much deliberation plus a mixture of inertia and expediency, I have decided to continue driving. I confess that I have always erred on the speedy side in the past, but now I will be driving with a new-found timidity that is bound to infuriate others on the road.
The irony of it all is that my affair with the speed camera, and all that has followed since, seems to have had a much greater influence on me than seeing the wonderful tithe barn. And I am now wondering whether to attend other driving courses, this time without needing the prompt of being caught behaving illegally.
Any ideas Patrick? You were an inspiration.