Taking the speed awareness course
Some of you will remember that I got caught by a speed camera a couple of months ago (and some of you, I remember, were not all that sympathetic to my plight). Rather than pay the small fine and take the three points on my licence, I accepted the offer of a slightly larger "fee", a four-hour speed awareness course in Milton Keynes and a clean record.
This is a privilege granted by Thames Valley Police -- who "seek to educate and not to prosecute" -- to those of us minor offenders who have been caught going between 36 and 39 in a 30 mile limit.Presumably if you're only going at 35 they don't bother with you. (Damn, I was going at 36, just a mile an hour over the safety zone). So last Saturday morning I turned up nice and early (the invitation made it clear that latecomers would not be admitted and would have to take the points), along with 18 other middle-aged speeders; the under 25s have their own special course.
I should say right away that, though I am going to share a few moans in this post, I would give the occasion a qualified thumbs-up. It was low on humiliation, completely non judgmental and free of the kind of sensationalism that you see in the "Kill your speed" poster. We didn't have to go around in Alcoholics Anonymous style, fessing up to our crimes. I don't even know how most of my fellow felons got caught. Certainly there were no sob stories, as one of my colleagues reported when he took the course: "I was taking my dying mother to hospital, your honour . . ."
What is more I did learn quite a lot.
For a start I had no idea that only 4% of traffic accidents in the UK took place on motorways (and accounted for only 6% of the road deaths). Nor did I realise quite how much the level of road casualties had fallen over the last 70 or so years -- it is now a third of the 7500 that it was (so estimates have it) in the 1930s. In fact one of the heroes of the morning was Leslie Hore-Belisha, not only the inventor of the Belisha Beacon in 1935, but of the Highway Code too, the driving test and various road markings, that are now taken for granted.
Most striking of all was the stuff about the "hard shoulder". I knew that it is the most dangerous place to be on the motorway. I hadnt realised that average time between stopping on the hard shoulder and being involved in an "incident" was 26 minutes. Can that really be true?
To judge from their answers to the questions the rest of my group (which in the quizzes were displayed, anonymously, on a big screen) were even more ignorant than me. One person thought the speed limit on a dual carriageway was 40 miles an hour, another (or perhaps the same one) thought that you were allowed to go no more than 60 miles on a motorway. In practice the average speed at which people actually drive in lanes two and three is 82 miles miles an hour.
So why the moans?
The problem for me was that it was all a bit too bloke-ish (our teacher was an ex-forces man, now driving instructor), and assumed far too great an interest in motor cars on the part of some of his audience. When we arrived, proceedings kicked off with a getting to know our neighbour session. We had to find out their names, what the make of their first car had been and what they drove now. Me and my (female) neighbour didnt think much to this. She didn't own a car anyway and had been caught in a hired one. Later on we were asked about our favourite car -- a concept that seems a bit remote to me.
Next, when we got into teams to answer the questions (buzz groups?), the teams were given the names of cars or racing teams -- McClaren, Ford, Honda etc. One of the blokes (no less car obsessed than the teacher) objected that Honda should now be called Braun GB and a blokeish little discussion ensued about this, while the women looked on. We were half the class, for heaven's sake, and we were in for speeding in our Vauxhall Corsas. Did we have to be treated as if we knew about Formula 1?
Then, there was the corporate, staff development style of learning, from powerpoints to learning objectives. At one point a message popped up on the screen: "interactive discussion to develop problem solving skills' (I may be arrogant, but I thought my problem solving skills were in fine shape already). And there were too many of those unanswerable questions that are intended to engage the learners, but in practise only baffle. "What was happening a month ago?" Setting Part IB Tripos Papers? No, the right answer was that it was snowing.
As usual there was one (man) in the group who was ready with an answer to every question. If he had been in one of my supervisions I would have known how to shut him up, or at least tone him down. But our teacher didnt. Or perhaps, as this guy was also a car buff (he was the one who insisted that Honda should be called Braun GB), I think he actually rather enjoyed his contributions. Instead he picked on some poor guy who managed to get a word in edgeways on two consecutive occasions. "Let someone else have a go" said the teacher, quite unfairly. The man shut up for the rest of the course.
So as well as being instructive, it was also patronising and irritating. But then we were escaping 3 points, and apparently the rate of re-offence after one of these courses is something like 1 in 12, compared with 1 in 4 for those with points. And in the credit crunch it's a booming little industry. We were told that, DriveTech, the company that runs these courses for Thames Valley and other police forces now has an annual turnover of £18,000,000 per year.