Wheel-life lessons

Observations on speeding

Does driving make you feel good about yourself? Does it give your life some meaning? Are you exhilarated by speed? Then you may be one of those motorists who use cars - and driving - as emotional props, weapons even.

Almost everyone has exceeded the speed limit at some time in their driving career. Many do it routinely. I don't, but one recent Sunday morning I did get caught: I was doing 36 on a deserted road in the East End of London.

A few days later a letter came from the police and I was offered a choice: pay the fine, and get three points or - costing marginally more - take a two-and-a-half-hour speed awareness class for £72. It was, as they say, a no-brainer. A few weeks later I reported to the London Speed Awareness Scheme. Our group had one thing in common: we'd been done for driving at 36 or 37mph in a 30mph zone. A computer Q&A assessed each individual's attitude to driving and tested our reactions and abilities to spot hazards on the road. My results said I drove slightly faster than most and had average "hazard perception", but left bigger braking distances and margins for error than is typical. My concentration level was rated "attentive".

But my "emotion feedback" told a different story. Apparently my responses to the questionnaire did "not indicate a high level of emotional stability when driving". In severe cases this could make me more likely to be involved in "blameworthy accidents" and more likely to speed.

I believe I'm a good driver. I've done an advanced driving course, and I've been on a skid-pan to learn to control a vehicle in adverse conditions. So it was a shock to hear these results. And though it's true I was the only person on the speed awareness course to have undergone any additional training since getting my licence, the point was that if I didn't see the camera, then I might not have seen a child running into the road either. One-third of the more than 3,201 road fatalities in 2005 were the result of speeding.

Of the 40 people in our group, no one could remember when they'd last read the Highway Code. Only one person knew all the national speed limits. A man in his sixties from Croydon said he'd only once noticed a national speed-limit sign in his entire driving career. Maybe he never left Croydon. Well, why would you?

We were shown pictures of a local road typical of the kind where most of us would have been caught. The pictures had been taken because an eight-year-old boy who had crossed the road on his electric scooter was hit by a car travelling at 39mph in a 30mph zone. We saw the picture of the skid marks and the place where the child landed. He was killed. The boy might have lived had the driver observed the speed limit.

"Cretin," I thought, looking at the car - an old Fiat with tinted windows - imagining a cocky 20-year-old listening to hip-hop, fancying himself a good driver, going 3mph faster than me . . .

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia