Sometimes, I long for those halcyon days when my children did not have driving licences. There are two reasons for this. One is that every time they take the car out I worry about them being involved in some horrific accident. The second is because now they are very vocal critics of my own standard of driving.
Before you become a driver yourself, you don’t really pay much attention to how someone is doing behind the wheel, as long as they get you from A to B safely. But as soon as you pass your test, not only do you get a full driving licence, but it seems you also get another licence – the licence to criticise someone else’s efforts behind the wheel. It’s certainly true for me. My boys have suddenly become driving experts, despite the fact I have driven mostly incident-free for the past 33 years. They could not care less that studies by road safety charity Brake show that women are the safest drivers, and young men the most accident-prone.
Today’s road users have many distractions to contend with, not least the sheer volume of traffic, which keeps increasing year on year. It’s a common complaint from those in the older generation who recall when the roads were less busy. But today, most households have at least two or three cars. When I passed my test in the 1980s, there was only one of my peers who had their own car, the rest of us having to rely our parents’ generosity in lending us their pride and joy (thanks Mum!). But now, having asked my kids (who share a car between them), most of their driving friends have their own car. A friend of mine has five cars in her household, one for each parent, and one for each child.
It’s a far cry from the days recalled in a letter to my dad that he mentions in his column from 16th February 1980. A Mr Percy Smith from Carlton Miniott near Thirsk had written to describe what it was like driving in the 1920s: “There were no heaters, no doors, and no windscreen wipers. Oil lamps were used for illumination and traffic on the roads was negligible.”
Back in those days, owning a car was something only the privileged few could afford, and it was more akin to a sporting pastime than an everyday necessity. It wasn’t just for men, either, as women were equally fond of getting behind the wheels of these exciting new machines.
In his archives, Dad has an account written by a female driver of the time, who offers some very useful advice to any fellow ‘lady automobilists’ as they were called. She describes how ‘the dress of ladies playing sports like lawn tennis, croquet, or when skating, cycling, hunting or cart driving, was always excessively becoming’. But in the case of motor driving, there were only two things to consider – how to keep warm in winter, and how not to be suffocated by dust in the summer. There was also the problem of headwear as the fancy large-brimmed hats, so fashionable at first, had a habit of blowing off.
So outfits were designed specifically for female drivers that were more practical than becoming, and included a heavy coat, gloves, under garments and appropriate headwear. The writer suggested choosing grey clothes to disguise the effects of flying dust.
She also acknowledges that anyone serious about driving would have to make certain sacrifices. “Alas, if women are going to motor, and motor seriously – that is to say, use it as a means of locomotion – they must relinquish the hope of keeping their soft peach-like bloom. Perhaps the hardest concession a woman can make if she is going to motor is to wear glasses, not small dainty glasses but veritable goggles. They are absolutely necessary, both for comfort and the preservation of the eye-sight.”
So having read that, I’m quite pleased that those tasked with improving the original versions of the motor vehicle ultimately saw fit to include doors, a roof, windows, windscreen wipers and heaters.
Of course, despite what I wrote in the first paragraph, there are advantages to having children who can drive, the main one being that I can go for a night out, have a few glasses of wine, and always be guaranteed to have my own personal taxi home.
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