Department for Transport

Come on Boris, let’s educate younger drivers

I’M NOT SURE how I feel about the bloke who used to be the motoring correspondent for GQ – and someone who posted a semi-respectable time as a Top Gear star in a reasonably priced car – being given the keys to an entire country.

Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister. And I suggest he starts – well, starts once he’s got the small matter of working out whether we’ll be leaving the EU sorted – by sorting out this nonsense about young drivers heading out at night, once and for all.

You might have noticed a slew of headlines in the national newspapers the other day suggesting that, as part of plans to bring in a new graduated driving licence, that newer drivers could face a ban from getting behind the wheel once it goes dark. But once I’d pored through the details of the Department for Transport’s new Road Safety Statement (I know, I should get out more) I couldn’t actually find any details of this rather draconian-sounding plan.

What I did discover were findings from a study suggesting that there was insufficient evidence that 20mph speed limits in urban areas – that’s you, highways people at Sefton Council and Lancashire County Council – had led to a significant change in collisions and casualties. It also noted that the number of annual road fatalities on British roads had barely changed since 2010, despite the volume of traffic increasing by eight per cent.

But what did pique my interest was the Government’s target to increase the number of drivers who’d ventured out after sunset before taking their test from 82.5 per cent to more than 90 per cent; it’s got similar plans for would-be-motorists practising their ability to drive independently, and those getting experience of tricky country roads, which have the highest accident rates.

Let’s go hell for leather, Boris. I reckon the chap who did doughnuts – of the tyre-shredding, not confectionary-based, variety – in a Ginetta in the interests of plugging Brexit will agree emphatically with the idea of up ‘n’ coming motorists being given lessons in what it’s like to rescue an ageing Proton from catastrophic understeer on a greasy country road. Youngsters should be taught just how irritating it is to have an Audi Q3 four inches off their rear bumper on a busy motorway, and how to respond safely; it might stop them becoming the culprit themselves a few years later.

In fact, I’d go even further than that. I’d take them to a private test track and let them feel an ABS system strut its stuff in an emergency stop, before taking them to the pitside café, treating them to four gin and tonics and letting them see for themselves exactly how being hammered knackers your reaction times.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax is all the proof you need that banning stuff doesn’t work – and I reckon taking the same approach with driving and enjoying cars will have exactly the same result. But treating new drivers like adults and showing them how cars react in different situations, might actually encourage them to enjoy them properly…and safely.

Over to you, Boris.

Noise-sensitive cameras? Look elsewhere, TVR owners…

I STILL haven’t finished writing my letters of apology to the neighbours yet. I own an old car that’s a bit noisy – and I had to fire it up at 5am the other morning.

It’s a Reliant Scimitar GTE with a hulking great V6 at one end and some ‘cherry bomb’ exhausts at the other and – being fully aware of its Pete Townshend-esque vocal qualities – I tend to restrict its outings to Sunday afternoons, when everyone’s either filing out of churches or heading into pubs. But on this particular occasion, following an incident where it cut out in some motorway roadworks and a subsequent 12-hour AA breakdown recovery, I had to briefly start it up so I could nurse it from the recovery truck and back into the garage. For all the poor folk who had a Ford-powered wake-up call as a result – I’m sorry.

But what’s worrying me, and a lot of other TVR, hot hatch and motorbike devotees, is something that the Department for Transport’s trying out at the moment; noise-detecting numberplate-recognition cameras.

I completely understand why they’re being trialled, particularly because I live on a busy residential thoroughfare where lads barely beyond their GCSEs blast past at stupid ‘o’ clock on two-stroke bikes that sound worse than Madonna’s recent Eurovision performance. Not only are these oiks thoroughly annoying everyone else, but the DfT’s worried that the resultant noise levels are actually breaking the law, because the bikes have been modified illegally. Fair enough.

But what I am worried about are people like my TVR Chimaera-owning mate getting stick from the locals if said trials are a success, and there being a slow but relentless sleepwalk into any legal-but-loud vehicle being condemned because it’s got an exhaust that’s a bit shoutier than normal. I’ve already mentioned that – emergency breakdown recovery aside – I self-police the Scimitar’s start-ups to avoid winding the neighbours up, but what if I want to take it out for a run to a country pub one evening? Could I, in a not-so-distant future, earn an ASBO simply for driving it back home again?

This isn’t about defending people who ride illegally-modified motorbikes around late at night, but making sure anyone who owns an older (and slightly noisier car) isn’t caught out. Same goes for anyone with a cherished Moto Guzzi in their garage or a prized Lambretta taking up residence in their living room – and don’t get me started on my various mates who own old buses! All of which are machines that might not pass noise regulations designed for brand new cars, but passed every law when they were new and are owned completely legally by law-abiding taxpayers who just want to get on with their hobby.

The Department for Transport is playing a tricky game here. It’s doing the right thing by going after the folk who keep everyone else up at night with stuff that isn’t even legal – but I dread the day that law-abiding chaps and chap-ettes in their TVRs are vilified too.

Tailgating – the radical ideas the Government would NEVER use

Nigel Mansell definitely won't approve of you driving this close to the car in front

TWO seconds. It might not seem that long as increments of time go but it’s a surprisingly useful way of measuring things.

It is, for instance, how far I’ll get into each episode of Bodyguard before I’m completely and utterly lost trying to work out what’s going on. It’s also roughly how long I can listen to any Black Eyed Peas song before wishing for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. It’s also, if Tesla’s own claims are to be believed, how long its new Roadster will take to thrust you to 60mph from a standstill.

But it’s also a short space of time I see being routinely ignored every time I hop into the car and go to work – yes, extra petrolhead geek points if you already knew that it’s the time you’re supposed to leave between your own car and whoever’s up front. The road safety mantra’s the same regardless of whether you’re pursuing a tractor or the new TVR – only a fool breaks the two-second rule.

Which is why I’m glad that the man who briefly made moustaches cool in the early 1990s, Nigel Mansell, is giving his backing to a new campaign to stop people tailgating. The 1992 Formula One world champion reckons it’s an ‘utterly deplorable habit’ that does precisely zilch to make you a better driver. I’m glad that he’s involved, because none of my more radical solutions would’ve got past the Department for Transport’s sense checkers.

My initial idea of having snipers on motorway bridges with their crosshairs trained on tailgaters obviously wouldn’t have worked – if only because every time someone cuts into your safe space, they briefly make you the tailgater until you hit the brakes, and the last thing you’d want in that tense moment is a bored ex-squaddie shooting out your front tyres.

Then I thought about having some sort of bendy metal pole that shoots out from your rear bumper, and extends and retracts according to your speed, so its length always corresponds to that safe two-second gap. It’d be rigged up to some highly charged battery, so that any German saloons that dare venture too close are briefly treated to 50,000 volts.

However, I can’t see either of these ideas making into commuting reality, so how about treating the ‘utterly deplorable habit’ the same way the Government already does with smoking? It’s simple – every car is fitted with a TV screen embedded in its bootlid and a rear-facing radar scanner, not unlike the ones already used for parking sensors. Get too close and the screen would show you images of cars that have totalled by tailgaters – and Mr Impatient Sales Rep backs off. If it works with cigarette packets, why can’t it work with Ford Fiestas? Failing that, how about some sort of front-mounted radar sensor that automatically shuts the throttle if you edge too close?

I suspect roughly none of these ideas will make it even close to reality, but as someone who’s had a car rear-ended and written off by a BMW-driving sales rep you can probably understand my frustration with impatient clots who drive too closely.

Nigel Mansell is definitely a step in the right direction, though. If he can make moustaches cool, who knows what he can do for road safety?

There’s one thing worse than singing Angels while drunk – driving

This is the best choice of car for Friday nights - unless you fancy getting nicked

THERE are several things, I’ve long maintained, that I can do marginally better when I’m slightly smashed.

Singing Angels, for instance. There is not a chance on earth that I’d attempt the high notes on Robbie Williams’ teary-eyed ballad in the cold, sober light of day, but given a single malt or three I might just be tempted to belt it out in front of a pub full of strangers on a Friday night. I’m dreadful at pool too, but I remain steadfastly convinced that my ability to master a cue improves ever so slightly midway through pint number three.

But my control of a Citroen C1 – or any other car, for that matter – most definitely doesn’t, so I’m amazed that so many people still attempt it. In 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available, some 59,000 of us either took a breathalyser test and failed or simply refused to bother altogether. That means that on average there are at least 160 people a day taking to Her Majesty’s highway who are convinced that they are X Factor-worthy pool champions. If they drive as badly as they sing, that’s a terrifying thought.

Which is why the Department for Transport is cracking down on it by announcing a competition – and it’s not for who can down the most Frosty Jacks before hopping behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Polo. The £350,000 prize will go to whichever company invents a mobile breathalyser so accurate that it can determine your smashed-ness without a subsequent trip to the nearest police station, and have it fitted it to a police car near you within the next 18 months. The lucky few on the raggedy edge of being hammered will no longer be able to sober up in the back of a marked Vauxhall Insignia, en-route to walking (well, swaying) free by the skin of their teeth. It will mean you’ll be done for drink-driving, well and comprehensively, on the spot.

Bring it on, I say. I’ll defend to the death my right to wander into a nightclub while a teeny bit tipsy and dance to the Grease Megamix on a work night out in a way that I’ll almost certainly regret the following morning, but no one in that state should be behind the wheel. If more accurate breathalysers make it a cast-iron certainty that you’ll get nicked, then that’s got to a good thing.

And anyway, there are plenty of cars that you can happily commandeer if belting through Angels badly is your thing. They’re called taxis.

MoT exemption for classic cars is madness – here’s why

Classics like this MGB GT V8 will no longer need an MoT

“IT’S ABOUT the Toyota,” the voice on the other end of the line crackled. “I’m afraid it’s going to need a bit of work.”

The news from the garage came as a bit of a shock. The 1998 Avensis that I’ve been running around in for the past few months isn’t particularly renowned for its country lane prowess, and it’s so dull that I can’t even recall what it looks like, but it is the single most reliable thing I’ve ever owned. I’d also checked it fastidiously before it visited the MoT station, so I wasn’t expecting it to fail.

In the end I coughed up to have a sticky rear brake sorted and I was back on the road an hour later, but if the same problem pops up on my 1972 MGB GT next summer I needn’t bother. As of next May if my 19-year-old Japanese repmobile develops a glitch I’ll have to fix it before it can earn its annual ticket, but my 45-year-old piece of British Leyland heritage won’t legally be required to go into the garage at all.

Which – and I choose my words carefully, lest I be whisked away in a mysterious car belonging to the Department for Transport – is complete madness.

The aforementioned Avensis has never broken down, shed any of its components or so much as hiccupped over 12 months, but the fact that the MoT testers picked up the sticky brake on one of their machines means they were able to spot something I’d have missed otherwise. If a bombproof motorway cruiser (with a fresh set of tyres, belts and barely 30,000 miles on the clock, before you ask) can fail, then what horrors is my MGB or any other forty-something classic car harbouring?

Nor do I buy the Government’s argument that we’ll still be able to take classic cars in for inspection voluntarily; owners of pre-1960 cars, which have already been exempted for the last five years, simply don’t bother. The Department for Transport’s own figures show that only 6% of them take their old cars in for an MoT, given the choice.

The upshot is that this time next year there’ll be quite a few Ford Cortinas, Austin 1100s and MG Midgets rattling along Britain’s roads with no MoT whatsoever – and the thought of one of them suffering some critical component failure at the wrong moment troubles me. The Government reckons the risk involved is very, very small, but I’d rather there’d be no risk at all.

My MGB won’t be among that number, and if you own a tax-exempt classic car I’d urge you in the strongest possible terms to carry on getting it checked. Even if that means getting a few unexpectedly expensive phone calls…