It was my own fault.
Chelmsford on a wet weekday night was trying my patience. Traffic had slowed to a crawl and thanks to some road works I’d got lost in an endless housing estate.
Finally I made it back onto the main road, but thanks to the road works found myself driving the wrong way. At this point I had a strop, and began accelerating. Then I saw the white painted lines on the tarmac, whipping under the front of my car. Speed camera; something confirmed by a quick double flash in my rear view mirror.
Not long afterwards a buff envelope flopped through the letterbox, containing a grainy photograph of my car and a letter from Essex Police indicating ‘an intention to prosecute’ me for speeding. Well, I was guilty as sin, having hit about 36mph in a 30 zone.
I had two options. Points on my license or, as this was my first offense after three decades of driving, take a speed awareness course, so that’s what I did.
I approached the course with a few pre-conceptions, suspecting it would contain a large dollop of ‘name and shame’ platitudes; and was something to be got through. After all, what had I got to learn?
Instead I spent a day taking part in a lively course that was more about education than contrition. My fellow offenders were a mixed bunch, from housewives to business types. Most of us weren’t serial speeders, but people whose concentration had lapsed or had simply made a mistake. Only one rather aggressive middle-aged man spent the day repeating that as his son regularly drove at 90mph plus on motorways and had had never been nicked, why was he being made to sit through this course for busting a 40mph limit? This rather missed the point.
We worked through a booklet and a variety of question and answer exercises, and I have to confess that some of my knowledge of road signs –such as ‘minimum speed’- were a little off the pace, and my capacity to work out speed limits from the distances between street furniture was frankly rubbish.
I was re-introduced to the Highway Code booklet, which when I took my driving test in the late 1800s (OK, the early 1980s) was a limp little thing with about a third of the information the current one contains.
There was a great deal of useful stuff from the amount of room you should give cyclists when passing them to the fact that not only are there pelican and zebra crossings, but also one called a ‘toucan’ which can be shared by pedestrians and people on bicycles.
I’d promised myself for years to look at this book, but this was a promise that had repeatedly slipped. Now my encounter with it proved just how rusty some of my knowledge had become.
Although I write about cars for a living, like many people I treat everyday driving as a functional process, and having done it for a long time often don’t give it a lot of thought. My speed camera faux pas changed that, and made me look at what I was doing with fresh eyes, which for any driver is a good thing.
It also made me realize that I hadn’t spotted that speed camera because I’d concentrated on being cross rather than my surroundings, and that had an equally pre-occupied pedestrian stepped into my path, the consequences could have been far worse than a few points on my license or a day spent at a speed awareness course.