(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 20th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 18th July 2018).
The state of our roads and managing our increasingly congested national network has long been a political hot potato, and it seems that forty years ago, it was no different, as I discovered when I read my dad’s column from 22nd July 1978.
“So many highways and byways are becoming very neglected by our authorities,” says Dad. “They do not have the money to effect repairs and lots of roads, urban and rural, have degenerated rapidly over the past months.”
He blames the policy of only maintaining popular routes for the deterioration of quieter ones, the rationale being that by ignoring the less busy roads, it left money in the budget to maintain the ones that are used more.
Having just landed back home after a two-week holiday in south-West France, where I drove all the way, I became very well acquainted with both our own and our French neighbour’s highways and byways. So with the benefit of that recent experience, I can say that driving in France is a much more enjoyable experience than here. I covered almost the length of the country, there and back, and did same in the UK (between North Yorkshire and the south coast).
In France (Paris excepting), the roads seemed significantly quieter and were extremely well maintained, no doubt thanks to their toll system. Drivers were courteous, patient, and everyone followed the rule of pulling back into the inside lane as soon as possible after overtaking. There was no such thing as middle-lane hoggers, and if a slower car did pull out, drivers just sat back patiently until it had completed its manoeuvre, presumably because they knew that it would pull in again straight away. I saw very few of the shenanigans between drivers that we get over here, such as driving intimidatingly close to a slower car in front to get them to pull over.
By contrast, my return journey from the south to the north of the UK couldn’t have been more different, with bad-tempered, impatient drivers, lane hoggers and more roadworks than you could shake a stick at. I blame the dreaded ‘Average Speed Checks’ for contributing to a nation of frustrated and angry drivers. They are spreading across the country like a plague of locusts and I lost count of how many I encountered en route. When we spend mile after mile on the motorway crawling along at a 40mph limit, it’s no wonder we get cross with other drivers who we feel impede our way.
We are a nation of selfish drivers who, once we are at the wheel, undergo some kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality transformation. We enter our own little cocoon, where our desire to get to our particular destination is the number one priority. We are all out for ourselves, and woe betide any fellow road users that get in our way.
In France, on the other hand, they seem to understand that if we all abide by the road rules and respect our fellow drivers, on the whole it will mean that we will get to our destination more quickly and safely, and emerge from our car as happy as when we got in it.
They understand that to keep traffic flowing through roadworks, you leave space for people to enter the queue, rather than drive bumper to bumper, like we do, to stop those people we think are trying to queue jump from easily getting in. But by doing that we are in fact compounding the problem and the knock-on effect is to make the traffic jam worse. In France, drivers are educated to use all the lanes as they approach the roadworks, right up to a lane closure, knowing that the etiquette is for every car to let one into the queue. It’s such a simple and sensible a system that keeps the traffic moving. If everyone does it, then everyone benefits. But once we are behind the wheel, we seem to have trouble with that communal concept.
So, obviously, the answer to the money question would be to introduce tolls, but how do we make bad road etiquette socially unacceptable? Answers on a postcard please…
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