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

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Brake lights.

Brake.

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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

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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.

AutoMemory #6: Nissan Cherry Europe B591KFG

Cherry_europe

It ought to have been a winner. It was the right body style, the right colour, and a good make. It was also the right price. And I had specifically prayed for a car that met these criteria.

When the quirks and foibles of our Morris Marina saloon became too much to put up with I decided I wanted a hatchback. A red hatchback. Three doors would do. And we had about £2,500 to spend. When I came across the said Nissan Cherry it seemed too good to be true. And, as it turned out, it was.

* adopts Tiff Needell-like voice *  

Back in the late 80’s, if you wanted reliable, you bought Nissan. In fact, the Nissan Cherry was rated Europe’s most reliable car. Probably one of the worst-named, mind you. But reliable. And a bit boring. But a sensible choice, if you like that sort of thing.

After purchase I found out that a Cherry of that age and mileage should have retailed for about £4,000.  

* switches to Quentin Wilson voice *  

The problem, it seemed, was with the “Europe” bit. For the Nissan Cherry Europe was a bizarre, ill-fated collaboration between Nissan and, of all people, Alfa Romeo. It had an Alfa engine and was built in Italy. And since the engine wasn’t in the least bit sporty, it managed to combine the worst of both worlds and turned out to be both boring and unreliable. Production didn’t last long and second-hand values took the proverbial nosedive. Hence my apparent bargain.

The steering, like all my previous cars, was unpowered but seemed particularly ponderous. I soon discovered that having three doors rather than five was a pain. I realised that I’d made a mistake and just didn’t like the thing at all. I don’t recall if we particularly suffered with unreliability but I didn’t want to find out and only kept it 18 months – the shortest time I’ve ever hung on to a car. Even the Marina stayed with us longer than that.

I was still young (and probably slightly more foolish than I am now) and needed to learn that what looks like an amazing price probably has a story behind it. I also learnt that even when you think you know what you want, you might not actually know till you try it. Even when it seems your prayers have been answered.

 

 

Simple Pleasures: Overtaking for the heck of it

On my route to work there’s a hill just after the lights where you have to put your foot down. Giving you a glimpse into the strange recesses of my mind, I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the engine as I accelerate from second to third. It is, as they say, sweet. I’m no petrolhead (that’s a motoring enthusiast for those of you who don’t watch Top Gear) but that particular sound is just very…satisfying.

On this particular morning the sun was shining as I savoured that familiar, regular 3-second pleasure. And, odd as it may seem, I decided it was time I thanked God for it. Weird? Possibly. But I did anyway.

Further along that stretch of road the car in front was doing about 40 and showing no sign of accelerating. Seeing an opportunity I put my foot down and took the rev counter into unfamiliar 4 or 5,000 rpm territory as I pulled past him. Again, strangely satisfying. And this despite having to brake within a minute to prepare for the turnoff to work.

As I turned in I saw the car I’d passed in the mirror. It arrived about 10 seconds after me. So to gain 10 seconds I’d used more petrol and increased the risk level of my journey. But it was fun. A simple pleasure.

It’s easy to take those pleasures for granted, and even not to realise that there’s something to be thankful for. But sometimes you’ve just got to overtake for the heck of it – and enjoy it.

AutoMemory #5: Morris Marina OFU157S

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As promised some months ago, here are fond, or possibly less than fond, recollections of a second Marina, this time a white 1.3 saloon. It was the first car my wife and I owned together and it took us to our exotic honeymoon near Filey. It also drove us to despair, received a Biblical name and required new front ball joints on an infuriatingly regular basis.

The thing about the Marina is, it’s trendy to take potshots and laugh at it as a simply dreadful car, typical of the automotive disasters produced by British Leyland in the seventies. It’s not quite fair, though – really it isn’t. Because my feeling about our white 1.3 saloon was always that when it was going well, it wasn’t a bad car. Indeed, no less a prestigious publication than the Haynes Manual described the Marina as, “a driver’s car, and a good one at that.”

The Marina doesn’t deserve to be pigeon-holed with the likes of the Allegro or the Ambassador. These, as I understand it, have a rightly-deserved reputation for being super-naff. Whereas the Marina was, well, OK. In theory.

The problem was that it frequently didn’t go well. Several days after a service, performance would drop off as the condenser across the points failed and the points began to spark and rapidly became pitted. The aforementioned ball joints, despite being given the recommended seeing to with a grease gun, would dry out and start to groan. The rear light cluster would leak, causing earth loops and strange effects like the reversing lights flashing when you turned the indicator on. And the rust; there was a lot of rust.

One Winter’s day as we drove past Rutland Water on our way to visit a relative, I took my foot off the gas only to find that…nothing happened. We didn’t slow down. Slight panic. I tried pushing the clutch in, only to find, naturally enough, that the poor old engine screamed in protest. The accelerator was stuck, the cable frozen. With panic rising I turned the ignition off and coasted to a stop. After calming down we worked out that what I should have done was to put my foot under the pedal and forcibly lift it up. Obvious when you thought about it but far from it at the time, believe me.

If it wasn’t the accelerator it was the petrol pump. I forget the details after almost 30 years but there was a saga with the fuel pump involving a repair, smelling petrol and realising said repair hadn’t worked as one opened the bonnet to observe petrol merrily spraying all over the hot engine.

Despair.

Having discovered the sprayage just before going to church, we then heard a sermon on the story of David and Goliath – the latter being, of course, an apparently unslayable giant. And the former, an unimpressive boy who trusted God and slayed the unslayable. After that, our beloved, infuriating white Marina was known as Goliath.

After more repairs and even a full respray, Goliath was finally traded in – for a vehicle which ought to have been much better but which turned out to be the least favourite car I ever had.

Intrigued? Watch out for the next exciting episode…

AutoMemory #4 – Triumph Toledo XBN921L

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At £400 it seemed a bargain – but it wasn’t. Far from it, considering the bits that had to be replaced, repaired, welded or patched. On the other hand, it wasn’t my money; Dad paid for it, being particularly keen that I didn’t follow in my brother’s footsteps into the biker fraternity. On the other hand, it did take a lot of my own money over the 18 months it lasted. On the other hand (whoops that’s three up to now) I learned an awful lot about maintaining cars, as did poor old Dad, who later admitted he lost a lot of sleep over my wreck.

I don’t recall losing sleep but my Toledo did, at various stages, lose oil, water, petrol and power. Amongst other things, we had to patch the petrol tank, repair a hole in the boot, replace all the brake drums and fill holes in four wheel arches. One day I tried to change a headlamp bulb and found the whole lamp unit coming away in my hand as the surrounding corroded metal crumbled to a pile of rust. Solution? A custom-made plate was fabricated courtesy of the workshop at Dad’s work and welded in place.

Naturally that wasn’t the last part of the bodywork to succumb. Both sills were replaced and treated with black bitumastic paint rather than trying to match the paint colour. And several of the structural box sections underneath needed welding – whereby hangs another fascinating Toledo tale.

In what, with hindsight, was clearly a pointless attempt to (literally) stop the rot, I had sprayed the underside with Waxoyl, a popular rust inhibitor at the time. You were also urged to spray it directly into the box sections, which I did. Waxoyl used white spirit as a solvent and on the day the car went to the welder’s it clearly hadn’t dried out. A spark from the welding torch set light to the white spirit causing, one presumes, a spectacular fire which fortunately was rapidly contained and didn’t reach the petrol tank. The bill, however, included a charge for the discharge of a fire extinguisher.

There was more, naturally. Recon starter motor, recon dynamo (not an alternator as far as I recall) and finally a recon gearbox which cost a massive £80 and lasted not much more than a few weeks. Its demise signalled that enough was finally enough and it was time to tow it to the scrapyard. I got all of thirty quid for it and kept the rear number plate as a souvenir. This was probably illegal, especially as someone actually put the thing back on the road.

And that, 30 years on, is my tale of motoring Triumph.

Amber Means Stop (except when it doesn’t)

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QUESTION: When you see a traffic light turn from green to amber do you:
(a) Put your foot down and hope you beat the red light (and hope that if you don’t beat it there’s no camera)
(b) Stop if it is safe to do so but otherwise continue
(c) Tremble with indecision and end up six feet over the line before screeching to a halt.

(Oh – when selecting your answer, do make the assumption that you’re first in the queue. It may sound obvious, but I just read a discussion where the second car in the queue ran into the first because the driver simply assumed the first car would carry on through the amber light. What he should have done (IMHO) was to assume precisely the opposite. But that’s another debate.)

I don’t mind telling you that I’m firmly in the (b) camp. Not that I’m never guilty of the (a) school of thought (and driving), but I will argue vehemently that approach (a) is plain wrong and that the law is clear – Amber Means Stop (unless to pull up suddenly would cause an accident or a sudden drop in the stock market, etc.). It does not mean “go for it – you’ll get away with it”.

It’s been suggested to me that arguments of “common sense” should apply, e.g. it’s late, not much traffic, no danger from continuing, and so forth. Be that as it may, IT’S ILLEGAL. As is driving over the speed limit. Which I also do from time to time. But that’s not because I’m suggesting that exceeding the speed limit is right. You might call me a hypocrite, and that might be fair comment, but that is not what is under scrutiny here. The question is of right and wrong, not compliance.

So – is it (a), (b) or (c)? I know what I think – am I right? If not, why not?