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What is it with cars and politics? From Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to U-turn to Tony Blair’s insistence that he had “no reverse gear” our leaders picture themselves in the nation’s driving seat. Campaigns target voters like “Mondeo Man”, summed up by the car they drive; focus groups ponder whether politicians would be more likely to own a Jaguar or a Robin Reliant (spoiler: it was Jeremy Corbyn).
The smell of petrol fumes permeates. You could even say it’s exhausting. And with an election looming, Britain’s roads have become a new battleground: agitators on the right this week secured a longer lead-in for the compulsory adoption of electric vehicles and want less “‘elf and safety” — there have been rumours of action to stop council traffic-reduction schemes. The left, meanwhile, seems up for the fight.
The latest furore centres on Wales where road rage is all over the front page, as Cardiff band Catatonia once sang. Almost 400,000 citizens have signed a petition to the Senedd, a record, objecting to the introduction of a new default 20 miles per hour speed limit across the principality. The move by the devolved Labour administration in Cardiff is part of a UK-wide trend for local councils to try to reduce road accidents, as well as emissions, by getting us to slow down in built up areas. We’re all touching the brake guiltily, from Wandsworth to Sheffield to the Scottish borders.
It’s boom time for outrage but also for providers of the road-safety courses the police prescribe when you get caught breaking the limit. A quick survey reveals an alarming number of friends and colleagues have already been sent on a course — or even several.
My oldest friend, a born rebel, was predictably growly and “loathed” it. But most found the experience perversely thrilling. Getting educated in almost anything is a chance for swots to revert to that happiest of phases: being teacher’s pet. Being asked to spot the hazards in a simulated street scene, one friend said he became an irritatingly bumptious student again and couldn’t resist the competitive urge to find more than the others.
Some pals seemingly can’t wait for the time to elapse before they can offend again and go back for more. “Missed motorway awareness because of lockdown. Is it wrong that I was disappointed?” was a typical response. One friend was amused to find a session in affluent Cambridge was “like a LinkedIn networking session”.
After going through a red light on the mean streets of Maida Vale (it was my birthday, I was late), this summer found me logging in to join a tutor and 10 fellow speed freaks for a morning’s online instruction. He was brilliant. During a segment on managing your emotions behind the wheel, the group was humming with breakthroughs. Point of consensus: hating tailgaters, who make others speed to get away. And we all felt dreadful for the delivery driver who clearly didn’t have the same leeway to call ahead to change an ETA.
I now believe everyone should have a road safety catch-up lesson regularly. Despite the political risk involved in lowering speed limits, more courses might be unexpectedly popular. As Scarlett Maguire of the polling company JL Partners told me, “people do feel really strongly about their cars.” In recent focus groups she heard motorists condemn policies as “punitive” — though concern about climate change is universal and high. Perhaps drivers need a bit of group therapy; my lesson felt oddly close to it.
Meanwhile, if either of the current candidates for the next prime minister think they are roaring towards Downing Street like Lewis Hamilton, Maguire has sobering news: this year, when a survey asked the car question, both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were seen as so bland that the list of answers was too boring to release. “They’re brandless,” she says.