Doctor Diesel

Soapbox – Safer driving, and the potential of technology…

WebSoapboxStay with me, while I first set the scene by having a bitch about bad driving. Not long ago I sat in the third lane of a moderately busy M25, cruising along at around 70mph, when I came upon a tailback ahead in the fourth lane, with people switching back into the third lane and “undertaking” the obstruction in the outside lane. Like them, I eventually made my way (strictly illegally) past what turned out to be a pretty ancient estate car with an old guy sat at the wheel, cruising along at 50 to 55mph, just utterly and completely oblivious of what was happening around him. Other drivers were being fairly restrained in the circumstances, but that kind of thing makes you boil, although in terms of road safety I suppose that the hazard was not great; but the anger provoked can possibly hinder your driving judgement for some miles.

Trucks that creeps past one another at somewhere between 55mph and 60mph, taking a mile or so to complete the exercise, are similarly frustrating, and I find it hard to believe that there has been little action to eliminate a habit that’s particularly annoying on two-lane dual-carriageways. To my knowledge, the sole exception are stretches of the A14 where HGV overtaking is forbidden. But as to the rest of the road network, this kind of problem creates a pent-up overtaking demand that makes things pretty bad when they end.

But both of the above are less hazardous and annoying than drivers who scream up behind you flashing their headlights when you’re overtaking another car on a motorway, correctly using the “overtaking” lane. Some habitual 90mph cruisers become wild with rage if you obstruct their passage – even when quite often you can’t go any faster anyway, due to a tailback in the outside lane. Too many people seem to feel that the approved cruising speed on motorways is around 15 to 20mph over the legal limit, and anyone who isn’t going that fast is being obstinately obstructive.

But such things, and many other driving hazards, could be eliminated, using technology that exists, or is easily achievable. Let’s picture something less extreme and less frightening than the topical driverless autonomous car, but cars with more advanced driver assistance technology that still leaves the driver actively involved. It could feature radar-controlled inter-vehicle distance controls, something that’s increasingly available now, which could override driver inputs in the interest of safety, and could actually prevent tailgating at high speeds. Imagine the M25, with its variable speed limits, integrated with linked controls that strictly impose those speed limits on your car, and keep you at a safe distance from other vehicles, ahead and behind. With intelligent lane controls, operating in a similar way, to prevent dangerous lane-switching, it doesn’t take much to imagine an integrated overtake button that would take you past a slower vehicle, safely, and swiftly, whilst maintaining safe distances between vehicles. Then imagine technology that would allow normally speed-limited HGVs to use an overboost facility that, in controlled circumstances, allowed swifter overtaking? How about an option for HGVs, using radar control technology, to form up convoys separated safely by small distances to take advantage of the aerodynamic benefits of such slipstreaming to slash their fuel consumption? I believe that this kind of technology would allow safe higher legal speed limits, in conjunction with selective limits (maximum and minimum) for specific lanes, or reserved for specific high-technology vehicles. I don’t think that such systems are beyond today’s technology, given the will to develop them and incorporate them into today’s cars within very few years. It makes a lot more sense to me than taking a quantum leap to the totally autonomous car that, without an inevitable huge expense on purpose-built new roads, when there’s supposedly no money to build them anyway. On existing roads, I suspect that they will only create panic, and a dangerous mix of old and new technology.

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