My 17-year-old daughter, Agnes, had that experience this month. Her test was in Salisbury, medieval cathedral city, where – in the week before Christmas – average speeds are not dissimilar to those clocked up by a footsore pilgrim a millennium ago.
Of course, heavy traffic brings its own challenges. Congested roads require some degree of motoring assertiveness. And a car with ‘learner’ plates is often seen as a soft touch by headlight-flashing, horn-papping bullies. But I shouldn’t have worried about Agnes. Although it was her first attempt, and things can go wrong on the day, she’s a fairly unflappable soul. I was delighted but not surprised when she texted the magic word: ‘PASSED!!!!’.
As a widower with six children still in full-time education, another driver in the family is a Godsend. My life occasionally feels like an involuntary mid-life career diversion into logistics management. After-school club collections, rugby matches, shopping. It doesn’t make for a happy dad at the time, but there are upsides. Like enforced sobriety. If I have to play taxi-driver after a teenage daughter’s party on a Saturday night, something has to give. My consumption of Belgian beer, mainly.
If you were wondering about the first use of the phrase ‘road rage’, it appears to have been in the United States in 1988.
Did you know that far fewer young Britons like Agnes drive at all? A couple of years ago a Government-backed study found that under a third of those aged 17-20 hold a driving license, down from nearly half in the 1990s.
Agnes seems destined to join this growing cohort. She’s happy to drive right now because we live in an isolated rural area, ill-served by public transport. Here the sighting of a bus provokes the sort of collective jaw-dropping normally prompted by a partial solar eclipse.
But when Agnes goes to university next year (resulting in a commensurate drop in my Belgian beer intake), she doesn’t plan to drive. “It’s not worth the hassle Dad.” And surely she’s right. When I passed my test 30 years ago the roads carried half the volume of traffic they do today. Suburban streets weren’t yet blighted by the sight of cars, bumper-to-bumper, parked on pavements.
And according to the internet, when I started driving in 1987, the phrase ‘road rage’ had yet to be coined. For Agnes it is a fact of motoring life; a hazard to be factored into a journey, like a low sun in the winter sky or aquaplaning on the tarmac after a storm. And it seems to be especially acute right now. This is anecdotal evidence based on the experiences of a friend in a neighbouring village who drives a lot for work. He tells me that Covid has definitely resulted in a higher incidence of what he colourfully – but not inaccurately – describes as “mentalism” behind the wheel.
However long Agnes is driving for, these first few weeks are a time of worry for any parent. But, although driving for her will not be an expression of emancipation along open-roads populated by polite smiling drivers – it will be relatively safe. It’s not that busier roads are slower roads and slower roads are safer roads. It’s the other stuff. The seat-belts. The stigmatisation of drink-driving. The airbags. In the year I was born there were far fewer cars on the roads. But the British death toll was nearly 8,000 a year. Now it’s about 1,700.
When I passed my test 30 years ago the roads carried half the volume of traffic they do today.
Agnes, coincidentally, may well end up studying in Newcastle. For some years I’ve harboured a fantasy about living a little further north still, in the Scottish borders. One change that Agnes will probably see in the course of her motoring lifetime is the arrival of driverless cars. It will transform long-distance commuting in a way that makes our current Covid ‘escape to the country’ thinking appear modest by comparison. I can only imagine. A car that would pick me up from work in London, before joining vast columns of nose-to-tail high-speed traffic, without me touching so much as a pedal.
With the computer telling the car how to take me to Kelso, I’d be free to read a book, watch a film, take a snooze, perhaps even catch-up on some of the Belgian beer I’d foregone in this earlier, more primitive era of motoring that requires the human touch.
Finally, and by way of a footnote. If you were wondering about the first use of the phrase ‘road rage’, it appears to have been in the United States in 1988. Like so many things, it was some years before Britain adopted this linguistic evolution. It first appears here in 1994 in The Sunday Times, in a report which puts quite a spin on the idea of interfaith dialogue.
“It was an amazing sight for motorists stuck in traffic in the north London suburb of Hendon. After cars had jockeyed for last-minute advantage, they watched as a leading member of Britain’s Orthodox Jews leaped out of his gold Mercedes and punched a Buddhist monk sitting at the wheel of a Nissan Micra. The attack earned David Schreiber, an elder of the United Synagogue, a fine and convictions for threatening behaviour. It also placed him among the growing numbers of ordinary British people caught up in ‘road rage’, a problem that police, motoring organisations and psychologists say is sweeping the country.”
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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