Belfast Telegraph

What even cautious drivers like me need to know about speed

By Frances Burscough

It's 30 years since I passed my driving test and since then I'm proud to say I've been as thoughtful a road-user as it is possible to be. Although I drive a nippy sports car and may resemble Penelope Pitstop in some ways – or so I've been told – in reality I'm the very antithesis of a dangerous driver.

I always pride myself on maintaining the correct speed and showing as much courtesy as I possibly can to anyone else in the vicinity. In fact, some might say I'm courteous to a fault. My son certainly would, in the mornings when we're running late and yet I wave that bus driver out in front of me with a nod and a smile.

"For God's sake mum don't do that! Put your foot down!" is usually how he responds to any form of roadside bonhomie enacted before his school assembly deadline.

As for overtaking, that is something I'm so reluctant to do on a single carriageway that I once ended up with a car completely coated in salt, like a ready salted Pringle, rather than risk overtaking a gritter travelling at 20mph on an icy road.

So, in my unofficial self-appointed role as Northern Ireland's most careful driver, how did I find myself last Monday afternoon, doing the walk of shame across a hotel foyer to attend a Speed Awareness Course, devised by the Government as an alternative to prosecution for dangerous driving?

I can answer that in two words that any road user from Belfast will understand: Saintfield Road.

To present my case, M'lud, please allow me to retrace my steps if you will, to one Sunday morning in early November ...

It was a beautiful crisp, cold and sunny day, approximately 11.30am, when all the hat-wearing Sunday drivers were sitting comfortably in church and the dual carriageway was empty as far as the eye could see. I was on my way to meet a friend for lunch in Newcastle, the Mountains of Mourne beckoned temptingly in the distance and all was right with the world.

Now, although I was as careful and as cautious as always, I may indeed have accelerated modestly upon seeing the empty highway ahead of me but thereafter I maintained a constant speed of just below 50mph which seemed to me about right and entirely appropriate for the time and place.

Unfortunately (and unbeknown to me) the speed limit was 40mph. I was clocked. I was doing 47mph. End of story ... until a lovely card dropped through my letterbox on Christmas Eve from the Grinch at PSNI.

Of course, I felt outraged. All these years of toeing the line! All those friendly gestures as I yielded benevolently for buses, cyclists, lorry drivers, lollipop men, pensioners, pedestrians and schoolkids!

A 30 year record, blameless almost beyond the call of duty, called into question for a paltry 7mph above the permitted speed limit? It just wasn't fair.

And yet there I was, like an offender in a correctional facility, waiting to get my wrist slapped by the authorities. It wasn't just unfair, it was humiliating. Or so I thought at the time.

But then, as the course started, my eyes were opened completely.

As part of the four hour interactive presentation by AA Drivetech, we were shown the possible consequences of a collision when driving even slightly above the correct speed. I learnt then that those 'paltry' seven miles per hour could indeed make the difference between stopping in time or actually hitting a pedestrian, a tree, or another car. The difference between life or death, basically.

Even good drivers can make mistakes and just one mistake is all it takes to ruin a lot of lives. We also saw the aftermath, repercussions and implications that being to blame can bring.

That is what I learnt that day and why I came away ultimately glad I'd made the voluntary choice to attend. Not only did they explain how speed restrictions are decided upon and put into place, but also how you can work out – in the absence of road signs – the correct speed you should be driving on any type of road in any conditions.

For me, after 30 years of thinking I knew it all, this was an invaluable lesson I hope I never forget.

For more information on the course, go to nidirect.gov.uk/roadsafety

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