Will Self: the first step in dealing with your speeding problem is agreeing that you have one

It may surprise regular readers of this column, who have read me over the years animadverting on the follies of all aspects of the vehicular, to learn that I am a chronic speedhead

At the speed awareness course run by AA DriveTech somewhere in the arse-end of the Angel, I run into Stephen Bayley, the design guru. Bayley is the author of (among many other works) Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, a copy of which he rather opportunistically has in the Gladstone bag he’s lugging along at the end of his cream-linen clad arm. A quick exchange establishes that he, like me, was nabbed by the speed cameras on Tower Bridge doing 27 miles per hour. Our admission calls forth from our fellow course participants, who are sitting on plastic stacking chairs waiting to undergo the “registration process”, that they – old, young, black, white, brown, male, female, gay and straight – are all guilty of exactly the same offence.

It’s a very modern moment, this: an application of technology to the turbid urban mill race has resulted in the diversion into this quiet, carpet-tiled pool of an odd group of fish, united only by this fact – that on such and such a date, we were all travelling at the same velocity in the same place. And yet . . . and yet, the recognition of this piffling common characteristic is sufficient, or so I like to think, to unite us as a group. As Gary (not his real name) from DriveTech checks our IDs and fingers our details into his handheld device, our solidarity grows; we swell into this new identity, until – seated in trios at melamine-topped desks, confronting our instructor – we have become the “Tower Bridge 22”, a fearless gang of desperados whose only wish was that the drawbridges had actually been raised as we speeded towards them, so that our cars would have been launched howling into inner space!

Our instructor, Peter (not his real name, either – indeed, I don’t believe he has one), sets out a few house rules, including the need for us to maintain confidentiality. So I suppose I shouldn’t be writing about this course, let alone telling you that Stephen was there. Still, I like to tempt fate: I’m the Edward Snowden of the TB22, fearlessly exposing DriveTech’s sinister secrets, and when the City of London police come knocking, I’ll go on the run, holing up at South Mimms services until I’m offered asylum . . . by Burger King.

Up until now, I’ve been struggling to fit in with the rest of the TB22. I want to be a good group member. Besides, unlike Stephen – who vigorously contends that he never speeds and that the 20-miles-per-hour limit, as well as being inadequately advertised on the approach to the bridge, is imposed on baseless grounds cooked up by English Heritage regarding its not-so-superstructure – I know I need help. It may surprise regular readers of this column, who have read me over the years animadverting on the follies of all aspects of the vehicular, to learn that I am a chronic speedhead. True, I don’t own a car any more but put my hands on the hireling wheel – as they were on the night of the 17th inst – and my foot slams straight to the floor. So . . . I am reaching out – while Stephen tenses up.

Over the next three hours, with only a 15-minute break for coffee, Peter leads us through the dos and do-nots of velocity. The course is a mixture of the informational (basically, a refresher on the Highway Code) and the emotional: lots of statistics about fatalities and how an extra ten miles an hour will turn you into the Angel of Death, slaughtering all suburban firstborn. I am, as I say, willing to be healed and so I participate enthusiastically. So does Stephen. Unfortunately, we take part perhaps a little too enthusiastically: I’m not sure Peter gets that many attendees who wish to discuss in detail the traffic management theories of Hans Monderman, or the impacts of high- and low-frequency vibrations on bascule bridges, let alone the neoliberal underpinning to his argument that the government needs us to be able to drive so that we can join in that collective desideratum, “growth”.

By the end of the course, when we’re using our hand-held devices to “vote” not only on multiple-choice questions but also on how we feel Peter has done, I’m feeling considerable solidarity with my fellow speeders. But then, as we are encouraged to put what we’ve learned to the test by answering questions in response to Peter’s laser pointer hovering over an image of the approaches to the dreaded bridge, it becomes painfully clear that I am a man alone. It is Stephen who personifies the group’s Geist, for almost every member of the TB22 is still carping bitterly about how they were nicked at all. Loonies.

A vandalised Gatso speed camera. Photo: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.