(original edit of article written for Taxi magazine. If you’re looking for something to do in Newport Pagnell on a Sunday morning, please read on…)
Summer of Discontent
One of the best aspects of our job is its flexibility: there is satisfaction in knowing we can use the 24-hour clock to choose which days and times to work, and it’s nobody’s decision but ours. However, I’m increasingly changing my week around to accommodate London’s disruptive programme of special events and road closures.
Some road closures are so extensive that a day off is the only sensible course of action. I often take Sundays off in July when they close Regent Street for their summer shopping extravaganzas. I worked around the first Sunday closure this year, but then the yellow signs sprouted up warning us of various sporting events scheduled for almost every Saturday and Sunday in July (August seems to be going the same way). How they can schedule running and cycle racing in Central London on the day they shut Regents Street and surrounding roads?
Why Regent Street anyway? The Mayor missed a trick here: If he’s planning to permanently close Oxford Street, he could have tried to soften us up there first. While we’re at it, is there some kind of bus festival going on around Cavendish Square this summer?
I intended to work Saturday the 29th, but on checking the TfL website it seemed that almost every useful road in Central London was being turned into a cycle race track. I’d already decided to take Sunday the 30th off as I wasn’t prepared to try to work around a cycle race while Regent Street was closed.
I chose Sunday 30th to book my Speed Awareness course. I’ve a pretty good driving record, but I’ve clocked up two incidents so far this year. My first crime was getting caught on camera touching the yellow box junction as I turned left from Midland Road into Euston Road (buses also touch the sacred yellow grid, but I’m sure they don’t get photos of their vehicles posted to them with a demand for money).
My second unfortunate incident was getting caught driving at 48 miles per hour in a 40mph limit. This was on the A5 in Dunstable as I drove home from London one evening. I had the choice of a £100 fine and points on my licence, or to attend a speed awareness course at my own expense. I’d attended such a course about seven years’ ago when I lived in Northampton. I was filmed rushing back with a KFC Bargain Bucket a mile from my home. Since then, they’d turned off all the speed cameras in Northamptonshire to save money. I assumed they did the same in Bedfordshire. I’ve lived there for 2 ½ years and I’ve never seen any flashes go off.
I was interested to learn that you can book a course in any location you want to. At first I thought I might like to make a day of it and book a course in a seaside town: maybe even work a weekend in Devon around it. Thinking more seriously, it wouldn’t really be fair on the missus to leave her to amuse herself for several hours while I get lectured at. I decided to go somewhere on my own, nearer to home. So, I found myself in an office block in Newport Pagnell on that Sunday morning. Newport Pagnell is only thirty-five minutes away – if I put my foot down. The courses also vary in cost: mine was one of the cheaper ones at £80.
I’ve got to say, it was quite an enjoyable experience. After checking there were no wives of politicians present, proceedings commenced dead on 8am. Talk about speeding: the male trainer clearly wanted this event over with as quickly as possible, and spoke so fast it was hard to keep up. He set a challenge: if any of us could correctly identify the speed limits of various classes of roads, we could go home at coffee break. None of us did. It took me the full four hours to get into my head the difference between a single and a double carriageway (what looks like a dual carriageway is actually a single carriageway if there’s no central reservation). The speed limit on a dual carriageway is 70mph unless otherwise indicated, so you don’t want to get it wrong. We learned that we concentrate for fifteen minutes in every driving hour, and that we tend to drive faster if the music we are playing is faster than our heartbeat. The trainer quipped that we should be OK with Coldplay (I suspect I was blasting out Motorhead on that fateful day in June).
Do you get irritated by the constant changes in speed limits on a smart motorway? The red-circled speed limit signs aren’t triggered by a person, but are set automatically by radar in the cats’ eyes. Rather than having everyone come to a halt on a congested motorway, the system merely slows you down, so you progress smoothly through. Our two-wheeled friends weren’t discussed very favourably, but when one man claimed that all motorcyclists break the speed limits, the trainer reminded us that out of the twenty-four of us, there were no bikers present. When we were asked to list a hazard I held back from shouting out “Uber drivers!”
I don’t want to give the impression I’m a serial speeder – I’m not. I rarely go above 65 on the motorway, and I’m always scratching my head at the speeds some people drive at on country roads (the deadliest roads of all). The course did its job: I try to drive more carefully, and I’m thinking of switching to Classic FM. I don’t intend to get done again. Though if I do, I have a few weekends free next July.