Dave's Story.

It's good driving that saves lives

Safe driving is no accident

New government publicity shows a car hitting a child in a high street with the claim that at 35 mph it takes 21 feet further to stop than at 30 mph.

We say "Pah!". Simply driving at 30 mph will not save a significant number of lives. We need drivers to pay proper attention and to take full responsibility for their actions. This sort of advertising virtually suggests that ALL you need to do to be safe is to keep to the speed limit.

Anyway, the following story tells in some detail how a skilled driver saved a life, irrespective of the speed limit.

Several years ago I was driving into Uxbridge to do some shopping. I turned right from a mini roundabout onto the residential road that led down to the shopping centre. I would have been in second gear round the roundabout and in the normal course of events would have perhaps gone up through third and into fourth at about 30 mph and cruised on at about that.

It was 4pm and there was a lot of activity about. Shoppers, children coming home from school, other cars. On the nearside pavement about 60 yards in front of me were three girls, maybe 10 to 12 years old, chatting in a triangle. One at the edge of the kerb with her back to the road, one facing more or less towards me and the other facing down the other way.

What it was that rang alarm bells about those three in particular I'm not sure. Maybe the intensity of their conversation and the subliminal impression that they didn't appear to be looking around or taking in any other information from their surroundings. There was no one behind giving me the hurry up and no one just at that moment coming the other way. I stayed in third at 25 mph and moved out as far as I could towards the crown of the road. I also moved a finger over the horn button and my right heel across in front of the brake pedal so I could pivot it over faster. As I drew nearer I throttled off even more down to 20 mph or so and by then was pretty much concentrating exclusively on them.

The girl by the kerb must have been saying her final goodbyes. No doubt it never crossed her mind that they could be her last words ever. As I got to about 2 or 3 car lengths from her she pivoted rapidly to her right i.e. away from me, jumped off the kerb and ran flat out across the road. She never looked up or to her right or left - just went.

The situation reduced itself to one of simple physics - trajectories, speeds, accelerations - all bringing both of us to a single point in space and time where the front of my car and her upper legs and pelvis were going to meet. Humans are very good at instantly calculating trajectories which is why we can catch balls so well. Time slows down enormously when you might be about to die as I know well from the three occasions when I've come off a motorbike at high speed. I also now know that it slows down in a similar way when someone else is about to die.

I hit the horn and the brake at the same time. She was a few feet off the kerb already in the fraction of a second it took me to react. As time slowed down I saw her head start to swing towards me as she registered the sound of the horn. Her hair flew back in an opposite reaction and her mouth started to open as she saw the front of the car filling her field of vision and bearing down on top of her. Her legs froze as she skidded to a stop almost exactly centrally in front of my car.

What saved her life was not what I was doing at the time which was applying the brakes - but what I had done 50 yards previously; slowing down, moving further out and above all concentrating on her. I came to a stop at the same time as she did - about 4 or 5 feet from her and we just looked at each other through the windscreen for a second or two. I pointed down the other side of the road to remind her to look this time before she set off again. It would have been more than ironic if she'd dashed off in relief but straight in front of another car. Alanis Morissette could have had a field day.

I knew I was never going to hit her as it happens - despite the melodrama of the text above. A story needs a little poetic license though :) I didn't even have to brake quite to the limit and could have stopped a bit shorter at the risk of locking the wheels if it had been really necessary. What would have happened if I'd been going faster though is debatable. Much faster and I might have been past her before she ran across. A little bit faster and both our lives might have changed that day. The speed I did set was to guarantee that whatever she did I could avoid her. In effect being proactive on her behalf.

You dissipate more kinetic energy slowing from 30 mph to 20 mph than you do in slowing from 20 mph to rest. If I'd only been doing 30 mph that day I could still have hit her at maybe 20 mph or more. I could have claimed quite legitimately that I wasn't speeding, it wasn't my fault, she never gave me a chance etc. Thousands of parents have no doubt heard exactly that over the years. Little comfort though because she would still have been lying broken on the road. The fact that I had already slowed to 20 mph meant I stopped with room to spare. If I'd actually hit her it certainly wouldn't have been my fault but the accident, like most others, was avoidable. It was avoidable because I avoided it before it had a chance to happen. QED.

The moral is not that speed kills other people. It's that people kill other people. By being unaware, careless, selfish, poorly trained or poorly skilled. A single advert won't change that. The cumulative effect of long term public opinion might though in the same way as drink driving is now much less socially acceptable than it used to be. People always think "it can never happen to me" - sometimes it takes it actually happening to you, or at least coming very close up and personal,  to make you fully aware.

As the man in Hill Street Blues used to say - "be careful out there".

Dave Baker 1st July 2001