Doctor Diesel

Road rant

Hello Doc.

The motoring pages of most newspapers really irritate me, and I sometimes wonder why I keep reading them. The letters seem to come from complete morons and you can tell that most of them sort of think of themselves as real car enthusiasts, but of the type that go to the Goodwood weekends and slobber over old racing cars and ridiculously expensive and fast new ones. So it makes a refreshing change to read your earthy words and the realism that goes with most of the stuff in Diesel Car. Anyway, this is not getting me far in terms of putting my questions to you!


Firstly, do you think that the increasing electronics technology that’s going into most new models are actually advancing the motoring cause and, secondly, do you feel that it is the cars that should be continually “improved” when the roads themselves, aside from the odd new stretch of dual-carriageway, are deteriorating in the quality of their road surfaces and becoming increasingly confusing with more and more road signs appearing with every passing year?

Bill Baker, Filey


Those are a refreshingly different couple of questions Bill, on which I’ll be very happy to air my opinions! I have to confess that I’m tending to suffer these days from a bit of technology overkill, particularly when I sense that some of the “driver aids” that are appearing seem to conspire to reduce the effort and concentration required to drive safely and, as a result, easily tempt people into using mobile phones and indulging in other dangerous distractions. Of course we men aren’t that good at multi-tasking, and increasing age means that I’m even less able to tickle my stomach and stir a cup of tea at the same time anyway now – not that I often feel that urge! But at the same time this new technology is arriving, other avoidable aspects of car design are actually making them even more necessary; if your vision, front, side, or rear from the driving seat of one of the more highly styled cars is seriously reduced, that’s precisely why you may now need such rear-view cameras, blind spot warning systems, and added pedestrian safety systems, along with traffic queue low-speed collision prevention measures.


Meanwhile, as I think you are suggesting, more and more (and often badly sited) road signage relating to speed limits, approaching hazards, lane prohibitions, no-entry areas at junctions, and so on is increasingly overloading drivers with information – even when they know where they are going. For the stranger in town who’s not only driving, but also trying to navigate using road signs, or a flawed satellite navigation system that gives late turn instructions, you’ve a recipe for more accidents, not less – particularly with the surprise element of someone on two wheels weaving their way seemingly fearlessly between cars and trucks.


At the same time, the roads themselves are deteriorating from a simple lack of money for maintenance and Britain’s roads are slowly sinking to the abysmal level that I experienced when working in the USA in the 1980s, where lack of money had allowed many once decent roads to slip into being little better than middle-age cart tracks. Where’s the progress in that? Do lane deviation warning systems work properly when the white lines themselves haven’t been repainted in years? Where’s all the new technology for improved traffic management? Don’t mention the Highways Agency! The best way of creating and maintaining a traffic queue on a motorway is to light up a sign saying “queue ahead” and you can guarantee the instant formation of a queue and its maintenance until the sign gets eventually turned off, whether or not there was any actual reason for the sign in the first place! Some of these signs are illuminated at the same time every day, queue or not, and they are comfortably self-fulfilling when, within minutes, the required queue has been generated. How satisfying!


There’s also a fundamental contradiction somewhere when new car sales in Britain, funded by ever more generous consumer credit, are soaring, whilst the funding for maintenance of existing roads and construction of new roads that might reduce congestion is frozen solid, or even contracting. Is this a shortcoming of government policy, or is it something we as drivers are just accepting when there seems little opportunity or system to demand any alternative. It seems to me that, since the national motoring organisations came into the hands of commercial profit-making ownership, there’s really been nobody to speak for the motorist. It doesn’t just come down to lower fuel prices, because motoring costs have not actually soared as a result of the higher taxation of road fuel, with better fuel economy, but the credibility of that taxation has been totally lost because we see so little of it being spent on the roads and for the benefit of the everyday motorist.


Returning to technology, I do know that the 300 plus complex pages of most car handbooks are very rarely fully digested by owners and that explanations of much of the technology described therein are therefore left unread, and thus wasted. I am beginning to think that my next car will need to be in base level trim, have a manual handbrake, ignition key starting, just five gears, doors with nice protective rubbing strips, and metal bumpers with black rubber inserts. Does anyone know of a nicely maintained low-mileage 2002 BMW 318d Touring that’s for sale?


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