Complacency in the outside lane: My almost-collision on the M25

70

Brake lights.

Brake.

65

Brake! Brake! Brake more! Harder! How can this be happening?

50, 40, 30, 20

Not enough. More! Not too much! Don't skid! Don't hit him! Still closing!

What's behind? No time. Survived. Fifth to second. 70 to 10 in no time at all.

Oh. My. Word.

Thank you Jesus. Didn't rear-end the Toyota. Didn't get crunched by the whatever-it-was behind.

Back to normal. Back to the middle lane. Grateful. Realising.

Back off. Avoid this.

It was the M25 on a Sunday afternoon. Heavy traffic from junction 10 to Heathrow and beyond. Variable speed limits. 60. 40. “Queue Caution”. 50. 40. 40 seems to be the lowest number the signs can display, even when you can't do more than 30. Finally we're out of the variable speed limit. We pass the junction with the M4. Into the outside lane. Finally we're moving properly.

I know the 2-second rule. You should keep a 2-second gap between you and the car in front. At motorway speeds, less than that is dangerous. Less than that and the equations start to look dodgy. How fast is the vehicle in front decelerating? How good are your reaction times? How good are your brakes? And if you can slow down fast enough, what about the vehicle behind you? And the vehicle behind that one? And…

So I know the rule. But I broke it. And, thinking about it now, not for the first time. Me and about 60% of all drivers, it seems. You just watch next time you're on the motorway. The middle and outside lanes are full of cars breaking The Rule. And most of the time they – we – get away with it.

Until they don't. At which time, they crash. Because the guy in front braked hard and the guy behind couldn't brake hard enough.

This time the equations worked for me – just. I was shocked but able to react fast enough. I knew I had to brake hard but was able to avoid locking the wheels. My brakes were good enough. And I really think the Lord himself spared us a nasty accident.

In our era of quiet engines, crumple zones, airbags and ABS I think we're lulled into a false sense of security in our cars. We assume we won't crash sitting 20 yards behind another car at 70mph. Or that if we do, it won't be that bad. But we're wrong. And I have just had a motoring wake-up call.

Let's face it: If we're going to hurtle around in tin boxes running on four bits of rubber we really ought to assume it's inherently dangerous. The fact that I've not been able to drive at the speed I'd like for a few miles doesn't change that. If I can't drive at 70mph without that 2-second gap in front, I shouldn't be driving at 70mph. The only reason I'll happily preach this is because I just came perilously close to learning it the hard way. The very hard way.

Here's a bit of perspective: My journey, without all those other pesky cars, could be done in about 2 hours 30 minutes. As it was, the sheer number of people inconsiderately wanting to use the M25 at the same time as me meant the journey was about 20 minutes longer. On that near-disastrous spell in the outside lane when I was pushing along at 70mph, 5 minutes doing 65mph instead would have lengthened my journey by less than one minute.

So – don't do what I did; don't get complacent in the outside lane. Slow down, back off – and get home safely.

 

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Automatic Wipers on the VW Golf: No better than the Focus C-Max

Some while ago I waxed lyrical (and irritated) about the inadequacies of the automatic wipers on my 2005 Ford Focus C-Max (a 2 litre petrol Ghia for those who like to know). If by some slim chance you don't recall that exciting post, click over to it here then come back.

Nice car, shame about the rain-sensitive automatic wipers

In recent weeks I've been driving a relative's 2007 VW Golf (a 1.6 litre petrol in silver – one of my least favourite colours for a car, as it happens, but rest assured that hasn't prejudiced me against it in regards to what follows). And I've made a discovery: the automatic wipers are equally inadequate. Like the Ford, you have four settings: Single Wipe, Normal Speed, High Speed – and Automatic. Like the Ford, Automatic mode includes a variable “sensitivity” control. And like the Ford, it sometimes fails to respond appropriately to the rain conditions, refusing to wipe when you need it unless you switch it up a notch and back down again. Or, of course, give up and resort to a series of manual Single Wipes.

This isn't about reliability. We all know VW are renowned for reliability; indeed, they focused on it in their famous 1980's advertising campaign. No, for the highly-reliable VW and the statistically-less-reliable-but-pretty-good-in-my-experience Ford, it seems to be much more about a limitation of the technology. It's just not quite there. The sensor, the algorithm, the colour of the paint; who knows? Whatever the reason, neither model's automatic wipers can hack it in light rain, fog or snow. So there.

And why, you may be wondering, have I bothered to tell you? Well, (he said, thinking on his feet) I'm keenly aware that the two examples of this defective tech both date from the last decade. Even the newer model is seven years old. My question, to you, therefore, is this: Do you drive a car younger than seven years? If so, does it have rain-sensitive automatic windscreen wipers? If so, how do they cope in light rain, snow or fog? Please tell me they've got better. Or, if you can't honestly do that, tell me I'm entitled to my dissatisfaction and not, as a nagging doubt keeps suggesting to me, making a motoring fuss about nothing.

I look forward to your wiper-related feedback.

 

Photo Post: Colour Picker used on a Barcelona taxi

As I confessed before, Colour Picker is probably derided by purists but is a toy I like on the Canon Ixus 800 IS. The striking black and yellow of Barcelona taxis cried out to be Colour Picker-ised, so here's one of the results. And it just happens that the lettering on the nearby shop is the same yellow. I planned that. Oh, and for those who like to know, the shot was taken near the Place Catalunya end of Las Ramblas.

 

Automatic wipers – Just not clever enough for fog or light rain

ONE of the few irritations about my Ford Focus C-Max is that the “intelligent” automatic windscreen wipers just aren’t quite smart enough. Much of the time they’re great, magically varying the frequency and – in very heavy rain – speed of wiping pretty deftly, thereby saving me the trouble of manual adjustment. Quite frankly, I just don’t know how I managed without them. (That, should it not be obvious, was sarcasm intended for humorous impact. And now by explaining it I’ve clearly ruined the humour. Thank you very much.)

Nice car, shame about the not-quite-perfect auto-wipe

The auto-wiper inadequacy phenomenon arises under conditions of light rain, fog or snow. There’s a control on the auto-wipe setting that varies the sensitivity, i.e. more or less wiping for a given amount of moisture detected by the external sensor (for such I’m assuming there must be, unless there’s a tiny person living under the bonnet who peeks out of the radiator grille, decides how heavy it’s raining and adjusts the wipers by turning a dial). Sometimes when you’re lacking sufficient wipeage, you wind the sensitivity control up a notch or two and it behaves as required. Other times, however, you reach the maximum and still you are wipeless, forcing you ultimately to either knock the wiper switch all the way down for a single manual wipe, or to peer myopically through your increasingly runny and obscure windscreen until you can no longer see, thus causing you to have a nasty accident and lose your license, your no-claims bonus and your driver’s self-esteem in one dreadful and tragic swoop.

On balance, therefore, I tend to resort to the single manual wipe, repeated as required, thereby negating the energy / time / hassle-saving afforded by the auto-wipers under more favourable conditions. (Well, probably not, but it sounds good.)

What to do?

Wipe, darn you, wipe!

In the old days, wipers were on or off. Then they added a higher-speed constant wipe. Then they added a manual single wipe (or flick wipe). Then someone thought of intermittent wipe. Hooray! Then, in some cars, although never in one owned by me, someone thought of variable speed intermittent wipe, controlled by a wheel on the stalk similar to the sensitivity control on my auto-wipers. This was useful. I know, because I tried them on one of the big old Rover 800’s.

Clearly, then, for the ultimate set of wiper controls, what one needs is to supplement Variable Sensitivity Auto-Wipe with good old-fashioned Variable Speed Intermittent Wipe. Result: windscreen wiper heaven. I could have:

  • Single manual wipe
  • Normal speed continuous wipe
  • High speed continuous wipe
  • Variable sensitivity auto-wipe
  • Variable speed intermittent wipe

Ford, please take note. Or maybe some vehicle manufacturer has already done this. If you have knowledge of this vital motoring technology being available, please let me know.

Need to rest now; feeling a bit wiped out.