Do you fantasise about roadside executions when someone fails to indicate?
Find yourself talking back sarcastically to motorway dot matrix signs talking down to you in HUGE LETTERS?
Abandon all hope for humanity whenever you visit the Hobbesian horror of your supermarket car park?
Hate cyclists when you’re driving – and motorists when you’re cycling?
Are you surprised and hurt when your wise advice and running commentary on your friend/partner’s driving isn’t gratefully received?
If so, then Mark Simpson’s Driven Dotty, an acerbic, confessional exploration of the psychopathology of everyday brum-bruming, the strange lusts and loathings that possess us when we get behind the wheel, is for you.
Or perhaps for someone you know, but wish you didn’t.
Driven Dotty is a last hurrah for the human-driven motor car. Before such silliness was abolished by automation and algorithms.
Driven Dotty, a collection of my blog-musings on the madness of motoring, is available on PDF for download for free on the link below – but a donation would be nice. Say a quid? *flashes headlights in acknowledgement, despite Highway Code*
Personalised number plates are the pits. The egotism of them! The silliness of them! The waste of them! The motoring equivalent of a sovereign necklace, their only value is warning everyone that the driver ahead is a BI6 DCK.
Or so I used to think. And I suspect many of you may have done so too.
Personalised plates or ‘vanity plates’ as they are sometimes called are booming. According to the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency almost 350,000 registrations were sold over the past year. More than four times the total in the mid-1990s – earning a pretty £102 million for the treasury.
It’s estimated that as many as 20% of cars are now fitted with personalised plates, up from less than 1% a few decades ago. Having a vanity plate no longer means you must be a plonker. Unless you think every fifth person you meet is a plonker. In which case you are probably the plonker.
To make matters worse for the vanity plate hater, there has been a 20-fold rise in the value of rare plates over the last two decades. ‘One and two’ plates (one number, two letters) that were purchased for £3000-5000 in the early 90s are now worth a cool c. £60,000. Very rare plates meanwhile can fetch absurd sums. Last year an ‘007’ plate from Guernsey fetched £240,000 at public auction. A couple of years ago ’25 O’ – coveted by 250 GTO owners – sold for £518,000.
Vanity plates add to the gaiety of the nation, are increasingly popular, raise money for the Treasury – £2.3 billion since they began to be sold in 1989 – and can represent a very good investment. In addition to being something you’ll never have to go back to check when it comes to entering your registration at a car park ticket machine or checking in at a hotel.
So why the hate? Envy may be part of it – and many of us can’t afford private plates and so will happily look for reasons to discount people who can. But we don’t necessarily hate people for having flash, or modded cars. Both of which are attempts to ‘make a statement’ and achieve ‘status’. Big exhausts, low suspensions, klaxons and even millionaire marques tend to make us smile rather than spit.
I suspect it’s because we tend to personalised plates as a form of cheating. Blasphemy, even. By default, a UK registration plate will accompany a vehicle throughout its lifetime. It is not attached to the owner. Unique as DNA, it is also usually the only bit of the car that is personalised – but not, we seem to think, by the owner. But rather, by the DVLA. Otherwise known as God. Which, by the way, bans the word ‘GOD’ from personalised number plates.
The DVLA giveth, and the DVLA taketh away.
Likewise, cars used by the reigning monarch – The Defender of the Faith – on official business have no registration number.
Perhaps it’s a hangover from the age of deference and feudalism, but many of us, myself included until I actually started researching the subject, seem to think in effect that number plates should only be allocated not purchased.
Registering vehicle and fitting a registration mark has been compulsory in the UK since 1903, in order to make it easy to trace a vehicle involved in an accident or law-breaking – and also easier to tax them. A kind of motoring Doomsday Book. Originally the only plates allowed to be transferred were ordinary registrations. But in 1989 the DVLA began selling personalized registrations unrelated to the registration districts, opening the egomaniacal flood gates.
In the age of ‘personal branding’ on social media and in fact all walks of life, it seems likely that personalised number plates are only going to become even more common. When people obsess over personalising their mobiles, why spend much more money on something you are going to be seen driving/wearing if it isn’t going to have your signature on it?
The nearest I came to having a ‘personalised’ number plate was when I happened to buy a used car with a registration that began with my first initial, followed by my (then) age. The second part started with my second initial. No one else would ever know it was ‘personalised’ – and in fact it was only after I bought the car that I realised the significance myself. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. It made the car feel more ‘mine’. So much so that when the new owner sent me a photo of it I felt a little bit jealous – of the plate.
Not that this stopped me still dissing people with properly personalised number plates. After all, mine had arrived by divine DVLA/Exchange & Mart lottery. Theirs by way of some grubby financial arrangement.
You’re stuck behind a MG Rover that is going a little slower than you would like. It’s driven by someone with white hair, glasses, and perhaps a hat and driving gloves. They are taking their time at junctions and traffic lights while peering over the steering wheel like that ‘Kilroy Was Here’ Second World War graffiti that they are probably old enough to have drawn themselves.
Suddenly the idea of bringing in compulsory re-testing of drivers who are over 70 becomes very appealing. Anything that thins out those doddery drivers from our roads must be a good thing, no? Especially now they’re getting so crowded.
Every few years, usually after some gruesome collision reportedly caused by an older driver, sections of the media launch a BAN OLDER DRIVERS NOW! campaign. Polls are conducted in which, unsurprisingly, most people who are not themselves older drivers say that people who are older drivers should have compulsory re-tests when they turn 70, and every three years after.
Earlier this year Prince Philip, aged 94, drove the President of the United States and the First Lady, along with the Queen of England, in his Range Rover. Though admittedly it was only 400 yards and on private – or rather, Royal – land.
Older drivers are certainly becoming more noticeable. As the number of younger drivers is falling, the number of older drivers on our roads is rapidly rising. In 1975 only 15% of over-70s had a licence. By 2010 the figure had risen to nearly 60%. Over the next 20 years the number of male drivers over 70 is predicted to double, while the number of women drivers will treble. By 2030 90% of men over 70 will be behind the wheel. By 2035 there will be c.21M older drivers on our roads.
This seems like a terrifying statistic. Until you realise that despite the tragic stories you’ve read about in the papers – often involving a confused pensioner driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway – older drivers are not necessarily more dangerous drivers just because they’re older.
In actual, statistical fact older drivers are no more likely to be involved in collisions than other drivers.
Research by the RAC Foundation suggests drivers aged 75 and over make up 6% of all licence holders but account for just 4.3% of all deaths and serious injuries. By contrast, drivers aged 16-20 make up just 2.5% of all drivers but 13% of those killed and seriously injured.
Older drivers are less inclined to speed, or take risks – or be distracted by gadgets. Many older drivers avoid driving at night, in the rain or on motorways. Just 7% of over 65s admitted to using a mobile phone while driving, compared to 21% of drivers in general. Only one in 10 over-65s said they had looked for something in the glovebox while moving, compared with twice as many drivers of all ages.
Older drivers are also more likely to have an eye test once a year than the rest of the driving population.
Perhaps most counterintuitively of all, older drivers are half as likely to have memory lapses while driving – the ‘how did I get here’ syndrome – than younger drivers. (Though perhaps older drivers felt less free to admit such lapses than younger ones.)
The RAC did however find that some drivers over the age of 70 struggle at high-speed junctions, high-speed roundabouts and slip roads – locations where drivers are required to look around quickly and make quick decisions. Another study by Swansea University, published in September this year, confirmed these findings.
The Swansea University study also found that older women are more likely to have small accidents when doing tight manoeuvres. Older people are also more likely to be involved in accidents involving other older drivers, suggesting they make similar errors.
Forcing older drivers to get re-tested has been tried in Australia and Denmark without improving results.
Educating older drivers about new risks they may face and encouraging them to refresh old skills and developing new ones, rather than singling them out and subjecting them alone to compulsory re-tests, is generally accepted as the best way forwards. Though perhaps as the road safety charity Brake have suggested, a compulsory eyesight test when reapplying for your licence – regardless of age – would be sensible.
The older you get the more your independence and social life tends to depend on your car, if you have one. It’s something you can rely on when everything else is failing. Men in their 70s make more trips as drivers than do men in their late teens and 20s.
Of course, this may mean that some older drivers refuse to voluntarily give up their licence – even when they really should.
But it also means that younger licence holders should be less keen to deprive older drivers of theirs simply because they’re older – and show some consideration to more mature road users slowing them down.
Particularly since one day that crumbly old bastard dawdling in front will be them.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has a website for older drivers to help them assess how their driving is changing, where to find a local driving assessment or refresher training – as well as how to take the decision to stop driving.
Earlier this year, another twenty miles of hard shoulder disappeared from our motorway network as the latest stretch of ‘smart motorway’ opened on a section of the M1, between junctions 31 near Worksop and 28 near Mansfield.
By way of exchange, the more than 95,000 vehicles a day using it will benefit from an extra, fourth lane – as well 100% CCTV monitoring and information about traffic conditions displayed via overhead electronic variable messaging signs (VMS) – and variable speed limits designed to avoid traffic queues and keep traffic flowing. Journey times should be shorter and more reliable. At least for a few years.
For those experiencing a breakdown, running out of fuel – or a health emergency – there are now ‘refuge’ areas instead of the trusty hard shoulder. However, you need to be careful where your big end goes, or your dodgy lunch, since the refuges are a rather lengthy 2.5KM apart.
You will also have to hope there is no one else already occupying the refuge area (including foreign lorry drivers who reportedly sometimes use them to kip in), since there isn’t a lot of room. Additionally, because they don’t have a slip road, once your car is repaired or your lunch lost, you will have to wait for someone from the Highways Agency to come and stop the traffic to let you out.
This is the future of motorway driving in the UK. In addition to several currently under construction, there are ten more smart upgrades planned across England as part of a £1.5B investment. By 2021 the DoT promises there will be ‘292 extra lane miles added to motorways’. Given that they will be full time all-lane running, this also means that our motorways will permanently lose more than 300 miles of hard shoulder in the next decade or so.
It’s now ten years since the first smart motorway opened in the UK, between junctions 4 and 3A on the M42 in the West Midlands. Back then however they were called ‘managed motorways’.
Perhaps having taken some marketing advice, since 2014 the DoT now calls managed motorways ‘smart motorways’. A smart motorway – which by definition is always better than a ‘dumb’ one – is where active traffic management (ATM) techniques are deployed: these include variable speed limits and hard-shoulder running (either permanently or only at busy times). There are three types: ‘controlled motorway’, ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ and ‘all-lane running’.
A controlled motorway has variable speed limits without hard-shoulder running, such as on the M25 from J27 to J30.
‘Dynamic hard shoulder running’ motorway has variable speed-limits with part-time hard-shouldering in busy periods. These have a solid white line differentiating the hard shoulder from the main carriageway, and overhead gantries displaying a red ‘X’ over the lane when it is closed to traffic. DHSR has been extended to sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6 and M62.
‘All-lane running’, variable speed limits with the hard-shoulder converted to a permanent running lane, can be found on sections of the M6, M62 and M25. This is the new standard for all new smart motorway schemes – ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ seems to have been a softening up exercise, getting the public ready for eliminating hard shoulders altogether on smart motorways.
So why have hard shoulders become suddenly so unnecessary – and so cannibalised by our motorway network?
Because of course smart motorways are much cheaper than road-widening (smart motorways are ‘widened’ within the existing boundaries of the motorway), much less politically and environmentally costly than new motorways, and they are supposed to take much less time to construct. Though people enduring 50mph average speed cameras on the M1 for the past few years while it was ‘smartened’ might disagree.
In 2007 it was estimated that installing ATM on UK motorways would take c.2 years at a cost of £5-15 million per mile – compared with 10 years and £79 million for widening.
Not everyone is convinced that smart motorways are so smart, however. Parliament’s Transport Select Committee recently published some feedback criticisms, such as the distance between refuge areas, and the frequency of gantries (they can be every 500m).
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents have also expressed concern that emergency services would take longer to reach an incident – but the Highways Agency rejected this, citing the 5000 miles of dual carriageway that doesn’t have a hard shoulder.
For its part the AA has expressed concerns about breakdowns in lane one, saying it believes that the risk to a vehicle stopped there at night is too great to accept. Then again, perhaps this may be something to do with the fact the AA is not allowed to attend broken down vehicles in a running lane.
Advocates of smart motorways also point to studies which suggest that they’re safer than un-managed motorways with hard shoulders. Though if you’ve ever seen a drowsy articulated lorry ahead of you wander half way across the hard shoulder in a cloud of dust before suddenly turning back onto the main carriageway, it’s difficult not to wonder if the smaller ‘margin’ for error on smart motorways means that it’s just a question of time and mileage before there is a seriously nasty pile-up.
But whatever you or I or even the AA may think of them, smart motorways are here to stay and you’ll be seeing a lot more of them – and fewer hard shoulders. Of course, traffic volumes are only likely to continue to rise, eventually choking the smart motorways – and there won’t be a hard shoulder left to cannibalise.
But at that point a hidden appeal of smart motorways to politicians may reveal itself – with their gantries, CCTV and digital cameras they already have a lot of the infrastructure needed to introduce road charging.
And although unpopular now, when we run out of hard shoulders, charging may seem like the ‘smart’ – or only – option.
Mark Simpson on the tarmac war between cyclists and drivers
Like many drivers, I hate cyclists. They’re in your way. They’re too slow. They’re too erratic. They’re too self-righteous. They get away with murder.
But when I’m on my pushbike, I hate drivers. They’re up your arse. They’re too fast. They’re too aggressive. They’re too impatient. They’re murderers.
So you could say I have a balanced view.
As a cyclist I envy the way that drivers are dry and warm and protected by a metal box, picking their noses. I hate the way they can overtake me without having to break an honest sweat – polluting the environment instead.
As a driver, I envy the freedom and fresh-air healthiness of cyclists, the way they filter up to the front of the traffic queue, and don’t have to pay anything, or take any tests to ride their pushbike in their Day-Glo underwear on Her Majesty’s highway.
And of course, in today’s urban/suburban traffic it’s quite likely that you’ll find yourself at a red light facing the lycra buttocks you took so much trouble to overtake and make taste your exhaust two minutes ago.
When you consider how much running a car costs – and at such moments you really do – this can be a bit humiliating.
Little surprise then that a recent survey of UK drivers found that three quarters of them think that cyclists should have to get a licence before they are allowed on the road alongside cars.
While nearly half (42%) thought that cyclists should only be allowed to use the pavement. This however is currently a fineable offence – though one that seems hardly enforced. When I’m a pedestrian, I hate cars and cyclists.
The survey also found that half of drivers agreed with the statement: ‘Cyclists should all have their saddles confiscated’. Okay, I made that one up.
To be fair to drivers, there are a lot more cyclists around these days, on roads that are a lot more choked – and ‘calmed’, that is, narrowed – than before. It’s increasingly difficult to safely overtake cyclists in urban areas. There are more cycle lanes, but often they’re not used because of poor layout or maintenance.
Sometimes drivers must feel as if cyclists are being used by traffic management planners as 21st Century versions of the guys with red flags that had to walk in front of the first motorcars.
Also, it needs to be admitted that a significant proportion of bi-pedallists don’t seem to think the Highway Code applies to them. And because a license isn’t required to ride a bike, and because a pushbike doesn’t have a registration plate, that’s kind of true.
Yes, cyclists may be fined £30 for jumping a red light – but only if there’s an actual bobby stood on the other side of the lights with time on their hands. Frankly, you’ve more chance of meeting a unicorn than a uniform. Or seeing a cyclist giving hand signals.
Some years ago, in a fit of madness I bought a moped. But I quickly got rid of it when I discovered that it was much slower around town than using my pushbike. Because it was wider and heavier than my bike I couldn’t get to the front of the queue so easily. And because it had a registration I couldn’t always take the ‘shortest route’….
Drivers today have also noticed that cyclists today have become a lot more assertive. 52% of drivers have had an ‘altercation’ with cyclists – and 35% said they had been on the receiving end of ‘road rage’ abuse from the pedal-power people.
Who nowadays often have helmet-cams: ‘YOU’RE ON CAMERA, MATE!!’.
We’ve all seen those shaming YouTube clips of drivers behaving badly, overtaking much too close – the Highway Code stipulates ‘a car’s width’ – and then getting shirty or outright violent because the cyclist shouted at them. Usually in Essex: ‘WHY WERE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD THEN, YOU F***CKIN C***HNT?!’
A surprising number of drivers seem to be unaware that cyclists are advised to cycle away from the gutter and, according to Transport for London: ‘If the road is too narrow for vehicles to pass you safely, it may be better to ride in the middle of the lane to prevent dangerous overtaking’.
Yes, sometimes there does appear to be a kind of mobile class war going on: the white collar cyclist with almost a passive-aggressive Judge Dredd/Judy complex, chasing after loutish van drivers and goading them into saying or doing something stupid or just criminal on camera.
But generally these clips serve a useful purpose: they allow drivers to see the road from the cyclists’ wobbly, exposed POV. In 2014, 113 cyclists died on our roads. According to a survey conducted last year, cyclists experience a ‘very scary’ incident on average once a week.
And the pedal warrior footage also remind drivers that although they may be riding round in powerful soundproofed, climate-controlled armour with seat-belts and airbags – while the cyclist is just a crumple zone wearing a plastic hat – that there are still potential consequences for their behaviour.
That said, road safety is ultimately the responsibility of all road users. Cyclists and drivers, the vertebrates and invertebrates of the highway, have more in common than just the road they share.
Mark Simpson on the capital offence of failing to indicate
‘That’s alright. Don’t bother indicating. I can read your imbecilic mind!!’
I often find myself coming over all Victor Meldrew when confronted with the worst offence in the entire motoring universe. Failing to indicate.
Well, OK, it might not be the worst, but it’s certainly one of the most annoying.
Yes, I know. Not bothering to indicate does save you the Herculean effort of moving your hand an inch or two every now and again. And it makes it much easier for you to cut someone up. Also, what’s the point of going to all that trouble of indicating if it just means that you then have to turn the ruddy thing off almost straight away?
Failing to signal is not just lazy and rude. It’s dangerous. The US Society of Automotive Engineers estimates that US drivers fail to indicate an impressive two billion ‘FU’ times a day, and that this causes up to two million crashes a year – twice the number of accidents caused by ‘distracted driving’, e.g. using a phone.
Regardless of the risk, the failure to communicate your intentions to other road users makes life more difficult for everyone. On the motorway, the habit of so many drivers for changing lanes without indicating, or worse, indicating after changing lanes (‘See! I DID indicate!’) – or not bothering to let you know they’re about to exit as they mysteriously decelerate – makes long journeys seem a lot longer.
And also, perhaps, lonelier. Indicators are most of the time the only way of communicating with other drivers.
Perhaps it’s because I drive a small car, but there seems to be a direct correlation between the size of a vehicle and the drivers’ propensity to signaphobia. The bigger the car the bigger the damn they don’t give.
Then there’s the endless fun to be had at a junction when someone likes to keep you guessing which way they intend to turn. Or even better, they give no ‘indication’ that they are going to turn at all. Which is one of the reasons why failing to indicate is something that affects pedestrians – and their toes – as well as other road users.
And then we have the Brownian motion of today’s roundabouts. So apparently loathe are drivers to communicate their intentions that just closing your eyes and holding your breath and going ‘WHEEEE!!!’ seems to be the most popular approach.
In fact, the only time you can be absolutely sure that someone will use their indicators is when they want you to let them into a queue of traffic. It’s not an indicator, it’s more like a begging tin. Sometimes followed by the brief use of hazard warning lights to communicate ‘Cheers Guv!’.
The good old Highway Code tells us that ‘signals warn and inform other road users, including pedestrians, of your intended actions’. For signaphobes of course it is other road users and pedestrians’ responsibility to guess their intentions.
It goes on:
‘Give clear signals in plenty of time, having checked it is not misleading to signal at that time’
‘Use them to advise other road users before changing course or direction, stopping or moving off.’
‘Cancel them after use.’
The number of people who don’t use their indicators seems to be almost matched by the number who leave them on after a rare occasion they did use them – probably when they wanted someone to let them into a queue of traffic a week previously.
Such is my detestation of failing to indicate that I do it when there are no other road users or pedestrians around. Partly because it’s possible that I have missed them, even when driving across, say, the Australian outback. But mostly because I know how easy it is to get in a bad habit – and how difficult it is to cancel one when started.
Frankly, at my stage of life it’s also a useful reminder to me that I intended to turn off at the next junction.
So imagine my horror when I realised in researching this article that I have regularly been failing to indicate properly at roundabouts. For years. Probably decades.
I was aware that if you wanted to take the first exit to the left you indicated left on your approach. I was also aware that if you wanted to exit to the right, or going full circle you needed to indicate right – and then left after you have passed the exit before the one you want. And was of course scrupulous in my observance.
But – the shame! – I didn’t realise that if you were going ‘straight over’ a roundabout (that is, the second exit) or taking any other ‘intermediate exit’ you needed to indicate left after you have passed the exit before the one you want.
I’m mortified by this discovery. By rights I should drag myself out of my own car and shoot myself by the roadside.
But then again, I’m sure other road users and pedestrians were able to read my mind….
Driving is a wonderfully useful thing. It gets you from A to B without breaking a sweat, without getting cold or wet, and without having to listen to other people eat crisps ludicrously loudly, or watch them spill their large, very sugary Virgin Trains tea all over the table you’re sharing with them.
There is however a drawback. Driving involves decisions. And attention. And having to turn this thing in front of you called a ‘steering wheel’. When you would rather be picking your nose, chatting to your passenger in an animated fashion about office gossip, or finding that Adele track you haven’t listened to for at least a week. Or perhaps just having a nice open-eyed snooze.
Lots and lots of drivers really don’t like driving and proper driverless cars are still a few years off. What to do? Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem – become your own driverless car.
It’s really very easy. Though it does make life very difficult for everyone else. Just find a motorway, find the middle lane and then make yourself at home! No need to turn the wheel much again, look in your mirrors or engage your brain until you need to exit the motorway. Suddenly, without indicating.
Or at least, that used to be the solution. However, the much-publicised conviction of a van driver in Leeds Magistrate Court last week threatens to wake middle lane hogs from their cozy slumber, wrapped up between the outside and inside lanes. The court was told he was driving a Citroen Berlingo van at 60MPH and repeatedly refused to move out of the central lane of the M62 near Huddersfield.
In what will sound a frustratingly familiar scenario to many motorway users, police said drivers had to brake and swerve to overtake the blissfully unaware Berlingo and that he had numerous opportunities to move back into the left hand lane but failed to do so, choosing instead to drive in ‘an inconsiderate manner’. (Though you can be sure that like most people confronted with blatant road-hoggery they used a ruder expression at the time.)
The law was changed in 2013 giving the police more powers to issue on-the-spot fines for driving misdemeanours such as hogging the middle lane, tailgating, undertaking and failure to give way at junctions. Figures published last year revealed that 10,000 motorists have been fined under these new powers for dealing with ‘anti-social driving’. Though many drivers moan that there doesn’t appear to have been much of a decline in middle-lane hoggery, particularly in the South East where most lane-hogging seems to happen.
The bloody-minded Berlingo driver is believed to be the first to be convicted in court of the offence. It’s not clear why the case came to court rather than being dealt with by an on-the-spot fine. Perhaps he refused to pay and decided to have his day in court. If so he seems to have changed his mind about being Britain’s most famous Middle Lane Hog – Mr Berlingo failed to turn up, was convicted in his absence and ordered to pay a £500 fine, £400 in costs and a £40 victim surcharge and handed five penalty points.
£1000 and five penalty points is a bit more than Days Inn charge for a snooze on Her Majesty’s highway, so who knows? Maybe indicating and actually turning the steering wheel every now and again will become more common on motorways now.
It seems unlikely though that all middle lane hogs are going to suddenly discover the existence of the left lane, particularly as traffic congestion continues to increase. And the (self) righteous anger of other drivers at the selfishness of middle lane hoggers is unlikely to go away.
After all, whatever lane they’re in, all other cars on the road are ‘hogging’ it. Unlike yours. Deep down, all drivers think that the road they’re driving on was made just for them. The real crime of the middle lane hogger is to not even try to hide that presumption.
Mark Simpson on the lost glamour of Leicester Forest East services
Leicester Forest East, situated – or rather, squeezed – between J21 and J21a on the M1, contains a slightly interesting paradox to those sufficiently undulled by the boredom of motorway driving and an entire family pack of Haribos to notice it.
Not its appearance, which now looks like a very average 1960s motorway services that has seen better days, but because it is in actual geographical fact west of Leicester and there is no Leicester Forest. On investigation however, it turns out not to be a Harry Potter-esque Platform 9 ¾ situation. The name is down to the slightly disappointing discovery that the services are located east of somewhere called Leicester Forest West.
And that, you might think, is all there is Leicester Forest East. Along with the usual bland modern quick fix carbs/fats/caffeine outlets, including a Burger King, KFC, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Harry Ramsden and a Starbucks.
But you’d be wrong. Very wrong. LFE has a past. And what a past! When it opened fifty years ago on February 15, 1966, LFE was the most glamorous place to eat on the motorway – and very possibly the whole of Leicestershire.
“Shall I point at something else now? Or do you have enough pointing shots?”
It boasted a 692 seat Terence Conran-designed silver-service restaurant occupying the bridge above the carriageway, called ‘The Captain’s Table’, fitted out with luxury carpets, ocean liner décor and a deck-like balcony. There were even waiters in sailor suits and a pianist on a baby Grand. And no, I’m not making this up.
Today, motorway gourmands stopping here have to make do with a pricey panini from Waitrose.
Although it now looks like a fairly non-descript unloved 1960s giant concrete bus-stop, LFE was an architectural novelty in the UK when it was built. Based on an Italian design used on the Autostrade, and placing terraces at each end of the two-storey bridge-come-amenity building, it was rather ‘Mod’.
Frozen food retailer Ross had won the Ministry of Transport tender with their audacious design and a promise to bring fine dining to M1 motorists. They had decided that motorway services represented an exciting new business opportunity as well as a good way to publicise themselves – hence the fishy-themed restaurant, and their efforts to make the food as good as possible. By all accounts, they succeeded.
In a nice touch, the first private motorist customer, Andrew Thorp of Church Road, Leicester, and the first lorry driver, Derek Lashbrook, of Greenwich, London received a voucher entitling them to a free meal there every 15 Feb until 1991.
But the worth of those vouchers expired much quicker than anyone anticipated – the golden days and the good intentions didn’t last very long. With more and more motorway services opening in the late 60s, the ‘glamour’ and novelty of eating on the motorway rapidly declined into a chore – while competition rapidly increased. And the competition was on price, not quality. Inevitably, the Captain’s Table hit the iceberg of economic realities and began to go under. It soon found itself sharing the commanding bridge at LFE with other service amenities, while the distinctive terrace was closed for ‘health and safety’ reasons.
In the 1970s, Ross reluctantly gave up on glamour altogether and introduced a betting shop, ice cream stall and a separate Happy Eater restaurant. Eventually Ross threw in the motorway services towel and sold LFE to the current operator, Welcome Break in 1985 – who are of course a byword for culinary delight….
While it’s almost certainly a more convenient and much quicker pit-stop with more choice in its modern ‘food court’ than back in 1966, it’s apparent that the glamour of LFE – rated 3/5 burgers by this motorway services review site – has long since fled. As it has of course from all other motorway services.
But sometimes it is still occasionally glimpsed, usually in the newsagents, buying crisps and a fizzy drink. In a recent BBC report on LFE’s 50th birthday, Suzanne Chapman, who works in the newsagents, recalled the celebrities she’s served: ‘Terry Waite, Steve Davies, they’ve all been through’. Some were shyer than others: ‘David Frost came, but he didn’t come to the till, he sent his driver and stood in the background.’
Perhaps Frost, who of course became a celebrity in the same decade as Leicester Forest East, was busy reminiscing about the Captain’s Table and the waiters in sailor’s outfits.
Mark Simpson on the information overload facing today’s drivers
Before we all started zooming around cyberspace and endlessly fiddling with games, apps and cool lock screens on our smartphones, the most exciting sense of interactive information – of hardcore control – that most people who weren’t actually fighter pilots or engineers or micromanaging dictators got was from the dials on their car dashboards.
Needles and lights and counters monitoring speed, revolutions per second, oil temperature, oil pressure, water temperature, outside temperature, inside temperature, humidity, mileage, voltage, fuel, time – all facing towards the Sun King (or Queen), the big boss making it all happen, aka The Driver.
Constantly, relentlessly conveying information to you so that you can make correct, life-or death decisions as you slice through time and space. And so that you can feel incredibly important.
Driving is the original God game.
As a sprog, when my dad was in the market for a new car, I would scrutinise the brochures he brought home and tot up how many dials, lights and switches there were on the dashboard. Whichever car had the most was clearly the most car and I would then nag and needle my dad to get it. Wisely, he always ignored me – otherwise we would probably have ended up with a Ford every time.
The driver’s pilot fantasy perfectly – and bloody dangerously – encapsulated.
To this day I’m still incredibly jealous that a school chum’s dad’s car had a dial that ours didn’t – I think it was for windspeed, or something. This may explain the unnatural pleasure that a dial that looked like it belonged in a Second World War Italian fighter plane and mounted right in the centre of the dashboard of my first car, a Fiat 127 Sport, gave me.
But times change. As the level of technology and safety gear has rapidly increased in cars, so has the amount of information that you are inflicted with, whether you want it or not. Paradoxically, increased automation – traction control, cruise control, lane-keeping, collision-warning etc. etc. – has meant more information about the automation. And of course, climate control, sat-nav, Bluetooth calling, and infotainment systems have also increasingly hogged our dashboards and distracted our attention further and further from the road ahead.
Drivers have changed as well. They are much less likely today to be ‘gaugist’ boy racers such as I was twenty years or so ago – and much more likely to be women. And in a world where information overload is almost universal and round the clock thanks to our constant pocket companions more and more drivers find the level of persistent information and ‘direct control’ model of car instrumentation, where each instrument and function has its own display/control, less and less flattering and instead something of an insult.
Our brains have been tamed by algorithms which tell us that we are God, but do most of the godlike work for us.
This is what excites people about the idea of the Apple Car. They are hoping that not only will it be really cool, and really compatible with their iPhone for once, but that it will have a dashboard that is ‘intuitive’ – like their mobile phone and thus the rest of their lives. The cluttered 20th Century unreconstructedness of current car dashboards are a terrible shock. It’s like walking into a pop-up micro-brewery in your man-bun and finding Oliver Reed at the bar.
This male designer recently wondered aloud why car dashboards are all ‘so wrong’. Essentially, he believes the ‘direct control’ model of car UI has reached the end of the road and that information and controls should only be offered when needed: ‘My car’s temperature is only important to me if it is trending in the wrong direction. Alert me when that happens, otherwise I don’t need to know.’
A lofty, senior executive (‘don’t bother me with trivia’) outlook is one that probably many people today, used to delegating responsibility to algorithms, would agree with. Though when he also says he doesn’t need to know things like his speed ‘all the time’ you have to remember that he lives in California, where ‘driving’ is a very relative, very conditional concept. Or as he puts it: ‘My morning commute is all about Zen, so my dashboard should be blank.’
But the future is already here. Or at least a slightly retro version of it that appeals to me. The new Audi TT’s digital instrument panel combines the functions of a central multimedia interface monitor and conventional instrument cluster in a huge 12.3 inch TFT display where you need it, right in front of you behind the steering wheel. So basic driver information, such as speed and revs, as well as directions, maps and music and calling info are finally in one sensible easily, quickly glanced-at place rather than scattered all over.
Although it does away with analogue gauges, it reassuringly renders the speedo and rev counter dials in virtual form either side of the display, combining the best of both worlds – digital-analogue. Audi have dubbed it a ‘virtual cockpit’ – the TT is a ‘sporty’ car that attracts ‘sporty’ drivers – and it appears to merge the experience of driving with playing a computer game. Which totally gets my sadult vote.
The UI control menus are described by Audi as ‘intuitive’, but probably won’t satisfy our Californian designer or most iPhone enthusiasts, since much of the on-screen info is persistent (you will know what speed and revs you’re doing at all times). Worse, there’s no touch screen.
There are however two modes: ‘classic view’, in which the speedo and rev counter are big grapefruit dominant; and ‘infotainment’ in which the map and ‘tainment stuff dominates and the gauges shrivel to the size of plums.
I think I’ll go with ‘classic view’.
British actor Richard Todd (1919 - 2009, wearing cap, centre, left) as Wing Commander Guy Gibson in 'The Dam Busters', directed by Michael Anderson, 1955. Behind todd is George Baker (1931 - 2011) as Flight Lieutenant David Maltby. To the right of Todd are Bill Kerr, as Flight Lieutenant H. B. Martin, and Denys Graham as Flying Officer Les Knight. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Mark Simpson navigates around the nostalgia and the facts about drivers and maps
I recently bit the bullet and had a clear-out in my rather cramped car. I freed up a surprising amount of space by getting rid of the yellowing, dog-eared maps cluttering it up with their obsolescence. Including a street atlas of North Yorks where I live, several city maps collected over the years (when am I likely to visit Plymouth again?) and a 2003 AA road atlas of Britain.
OK, I left one garage-bought UK road atlas in the boot of my car. But I’m not sure why, except perhaps to absorb spillages from my weekly supermarket shop. I honestly can’t remember the last time I looked at it. Certainly no more recently than any of the other maps I removed. Call it a large-scale, absorbent safety blanket.
I was a little bit sad, as I felt as if I was losing a part of my past and indeed of my masculinity. I grew up in a world where maps were something that, if you were a chap, you consulted often with a competent frown, pretending to understand them as naturally and completely as DIY and the offside rule – while wearing a square chin and a chunky wristwatch, like Richard Todd planning a daring raid on the Mohne dam.
Certainly you would much rather consult a map, even one with pages stuck together with sour milk, than ever ask for directions. Directions could be wrong, and were anyway likely to be too complicated to remember – no matter how many times the over-helpful pedestrian repeated them to you while you sat there, smiling, nodding and bitterly regretting your mistake.
Most of all, asking for them was an open and public admission that you had failed as a man.
But now of course no one needs to ask for directions, because we have a gadget in our car that will tell us where to go automatically and discreetly. And because it’s a gadget and gadgets are manly it’s OK to be told what to do by it. Even if it strands you in a raging ford or wedges you in a charmingly narrow street.
After a decade or so of widespread satnav use, and particularly the integration of satnavs into smartphones, map reading so twentieth century. It’s a lost art. Several recent surveys have suggested that most UK drivers are so reliant on satnavs they don’t know how to read a map any more.
A 2014 survey of 1150 road users by Flexed.co.uk found that 77% of people who use a satnav admit they rely on it totally on a journey – with an alarming 63% of drivers not even bothering with road signs when using satnav, let alone maps.
60% admitted they can’t even read a paper map, and only 9% said they research the route before taking an unfamiliar journey. Often they have no idea of the route they’ve taken to reach their destination, while listening to Adele really loudly.
Another survey of 2000 road users by Telenav GmbH (to promote their offline satnav Scout) published at the end of 2014 echoed these findings with 57% of all ages admitting they couldn’t read a map comfortably. But they also found that a whopping 85% of 18-24 year olds say they can’t read a map.
Certainly, like middle-aged me, most of these digital kids can’t be bothered to reach for a map, find the right page, find where they are on the page, find where they’re going to, decode the symbols and colours and navigate the best route between….
Sorry, I lost the thread there – I was so bored just typing that last sentence I had to go and check my Facebook and Twitter feed and play Angry Birds.
Perhaps most alarming of all, the same survey discovered that half of drivers don’t even wear wristwatches (you can determine North with one). The Dambusters spirit is truly dead.
These surveys usually prompt anxious headlines and editorial soul-searching about the loss of map-reading skills by a generation, and suggestions that map-reading should be included in driving tests. Obviously ‘map reading’ is some kind of code for ‘moral compass’.
Perhaps because they were slightly afraid of being told off for being slack, 63% of drivers assured the AA they had used a printed map in the last six months, compared to 60% who had used satnavs, while just over 35% of drivers said they used both satnav and an atlas to plan a route (compared to 9% from the Flexed survey). Only 17% admitted they relied solely on satnav (compared to 77%)
When it came to those lazy, lost 18-24 year olds the AA offered hope, finding that only 43% said they depended on their satnavs alone to negotiate the nation’s roads – about half the figure from the surveys a year later, and under that psychologically important 50% figure.
Now, far be it for me to suggest that the AA is worried about falling sales of its famous road atlases, but frankly, any recent survey that claims to have found that more UK drivers use printed maps than satnavs is clearly completely lost.
Even more so than 67-year-old Sabrine Moreau who in 2013 took a 1,800 mile detour through six countries after her satnav malfunctioned. She was aiming for Brussels from her home in Soire-sur-Sambre to pick up a friend from the train station but eventually ended up in Zagreb, Croatia.
And I think we’ve all been there, one way or another.
We all laugh at the stupidity or credulity of zombie drivers automatically following satnav instructions because they remind us uneasily of ourselves, but the reality is that most of the time Google and Garmin read maps much better than most drivers, male or female. Who, in the glorious pre-satnav past, would often be trying to read them on their laps while driving.
It’s time to face cartographic facts and not be distracted by the, er, legend. Printed maps are now pretty much as obsolete as driving gloves, hand-cranks and Richard Todd’s pipe. And that’s not such a bad thing.
There’s a place where drivers lose all reason and all humanity. A place where not only the Highway Code but the European Convention on Human Rights apparently no longer applies. A Hobbesian world at the edges of civilization, where pedestrians are mere squidgy pin balls to be flipped between car bumpers, where anything goes and nothing is off limits.
Except staying longer than two hours.
I’m talking of course about the supermarket car park. We’ve all been there. And we’re all going back. Even though we really, really don’t want to.
According to the AA accidents in car parks are the most common single category of car insurance claims. A cracking 20% of all claims – equivalent to six million – are for damage caused there, and most of these are for supermarket car parks. Though the true figure is probably even higher since many people, mindful of their excess or of losing their No Claims Bonus, don’t bother claiming for minor damage unless it can be proven to have been caused by someone else.
But good luck with that, since according to other research at least a fifth of drivers hitting another car in a car park would just drive off if they thought that no one would notice.
It’s true that many supermarket car parks function as meeting places for young tearaways with souped-up hot hatches throbbing menacingly with bass tubes. However, although noisy, these guys are usually relatively well-behaved – perhaps because an expensively lowered suspension tends to make you more careful. The ones you really want to watch out for are the 4x4s with ‘Baby on board’ stickers in the back window. The main reason people buy 4x4s isn’t ‘safety’ of course – but just so they can speed over speed bumps. And possibly people.
Many drivers instead of slowing down, actually accelerate off the Queen’s Highway into supermarkets. For them, supermarket car parks seem to be a cross between a track day and the dodgems – WHEEE!!! What’s more, they’re FREE!!! The fact that there will of course be other vehicles moving very slowly, or stationary – or reversing out of parking bays – only seems to add to their urgent need to get to the wine aisle ASAP and spend half an hour or so looking for a discounted wine that looks dead posh.
Supermarket car parks are also pavements, since people have to get to and from their cars – and load them up with their shopping before leaving. Which should give one pause. I mean, you might have thought that even the most reckless of drivers would be inclined to take more care here, if only because by definition they are about to become pedestrians negotiating the Death Race 2000 car park themselves. But only if you’d never actually used a supermarket car park.
Things are so bad, so red in tooth and claw in supermarket car parks, that local by-laws really should require all supermarket trolleys to be equipped with defibrillators.
Don’t let it be said though that supermarkets don’t bring the exotic into all our lives. You don’t have to travel to the Continent to see people driving on the other side of the road – just go to Tesco, Asda or Sainsburys. And in the Italo-French style, junctions in supermarket car parks have been dispensed with – or rather, the meaning of a dotted double line across the carriageway changed to: ‘DON’T LOOK, YOU LOSER! JUST ACCELERATE!!’.
All in all, it’s probably just as well that something used in the construction of supermarket car parks completely disables indicators.
Another fun past-time seems to be opening your car door without consideration to the one parked next to you, leaving an indelible memento of your intimate inconsideration on their paintwork. You might try avoiding this by parking in the farthest corner of the parking area, surrounded by legions of empty bays. So far away that you actually have to take a bus to get to the entrance. But this never ever works.
Someone will always take the trouble to ignore the acres of empty spaces and drive out of their way to keep your lonely car company by parking right next to you – and then dinging you. Quite often, as an added gift, you will find yourself wedged in by two 4x4s and have to turn yourself into Elastoman to get into your (doubled dinged) vehicle.
And if, by some Biblical miracle, some ineffable stroke of luck, you manage to avoid all these terrifying hazards presented by other drivers when doing your weekly shop, still you will not I’m afraid escape unscathed. You will return to your car with your unexpected items in the bagging area and find that you have been rammed by a rogue shopping trolley.
Probably one thoughtlessly discarded by Thomas Hobbes.
Books by Mark Simpson
The Psychopathology of Everyday Driving
A biography of the metrosexual. By his dad.
End of Gays?
Banning gay propaganda can backfire. Spectacularly.
“All Saints should be presumed guilty until proved innocent.”
The book that changed the way the world looks at men
It's a Queer World
A warped look at a fin de siecle world of pop culture where nothing is quite as straight or gay as it seems.
This book will change the way you think about sex. It may even put you off it altogether.
Male Lib is Nothing to Be Scared Of
Notes on Hipsterism
While everyone else in the 80s wanted to look like they’d walked off the set of Blade Runner or Top Gun, Peter York looked and sounded like he’d stepped out of Dangerous Liaisons. […]
Sixth Form Boys Will Hug Boys
Why masculinity isn't 'in crisis'.
Invasion of the Driverless Cars
Mark Simpson on the headless horsemen of the coming ‘carpocalypse’
Pride & Prejudice
I think the time has come to share a secret about my past I’ve kept hidden for far too long.…
‘Love Island’ – ITV’s Primetime Spornotopia
Mark Simpson undresses the gayest straight dating show on telly
Cristiano Ronaldo’s talent & prettiness are intolerable.
Hairdresser Cars on Fire
Feeling envious or threatened by someone else’s motor? Unable to afford it? Resentful of the pleasure and joy it clearly brings them? Allergic to bold style, design, and nice colours? Never fear! […]
Get Hur! How Gay Subtexts Became Ancient History
We don’t really do subtexts in the see-through, digital 21st Century. Sextexts, definitely. Subtweets, possibly. Subtexts, not so much. Who has the time? Who can even be bothered with having a subconscious? Subtexts are so analogue. […]
Inside Spornosexual Pride
Mark Simpson goes to BodyPower, the UK’s biggest fitness expo, & tries not to stare too hard. Even though staring is…
Stripping Down the Male Body
Disability charity Scope have been airing a cheeky ad this summer designed to encourage people to donate clothes. It’s a…
Union Street Blues: Plymouth’s Last ‘Run Ashore’?
Mark Simpson goes in search of a drunken sailor in Devon's historic, salty Naval port. […]
1983: The Last Summer of Synth-Pop
From the gender-bending antics of Eurythmics and Culture Club to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, and the…
I’d F*ck Me: Mirror Man-Love
Top Gun Turns Thirty – How Did It Get So Gay?
Mark Simpson on the (self) sexualisation of today’s male body & why straight young men crave gay adulation
How young men fell out of love with the motor car
Captain Kirk’s Bulging Trousers
The pointed queerness of the original Shatner/Nimoy Star Trek series – & the PC limpness of all the spin-offs.…
From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – Two Decades of Male Deliciousness
‘Metrodaddy’ Mark Simpson on the evolution of male vanity
The Rise & Fall of Monosexuality
Ten Iconic Car Ads
Ten unforgettable car ads that transcended both cars and advertising and came to symbolise an age
You & Your iPhone: The Perfect Relationship?
Imagine the perfect relationship. Imagine a relationship so perfect that it will be the only one you need. Or have.
The Swishy Villainy & Psychodrama of Skyfall
Mark Simpson fondles the pecs and thighs of James Bond’s latest ‘outing’
Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp
The Naked Civil Servant is the best and funniest TV drama ever made. And I’m sorry, but it’s a scientific fact.
How The Prostate Came Out of the Closet
Pietro Boselli – Spornosexual Philosopher
Mark Simpson sits at the feet of ‘The Bona of Verona’
Keyless Entry & Male Versatility
“I call him lollipop” The sexualisation of the male body probes new, perfectly-rounded depths
‘Bare Thrills’ Strips Masculinity Down To Its Skidmarks
Maybe I suffer from what Freud described as man’s tendency to devalue what he desires, but I find anything touched by TV…
The crusade against ‘fapping’ is eerily reminiscent of the anti-masturbation movements of the 19th century says Mark Simpson (Originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph 29 April, 2016) Those annoying porn ‘pop-ups’ are impossible to avoid these days. Especially when browsing serious newspapers. PORN HORROR! headlines zoom repeatedly into our sightlines, warning us that pornography is ‘addictive’ (despite an inconvenient lack of evidence), ‘ruins relationships’ and ‘rewires men’s brains’, turning them into sex zombie automatons. Whether or not it’s addictive for people who watch it, porn […]