“Middle lane hoggers” and other driving stupidity

Yesterday morning, Vanessa Feltz dedicated much of her talk show (BBC London, 94.9FM, 9am-noon) to the supposed news that people who drive for long distances in the middle lane on the motorways (rather than the left-hand lane) rather than using it for overtaking, as it should be, face a £90 fine and three points on their licence (get twelve points and you are usually banned from driving for a year). I was unable to find a specific news story for this claim, but what is true is that the government are planning to raise the fine for minor motoring offences from £60 to £90, which includes speeding but also various other minor infractions including this one. As ever, Feltz raised the “irritation factor” with her own rhetoric and cliches about “taking the middle path”. I use the motorways a lot in my work (and getting to work), and this is one of the less serious examples of dangerous driving I see every day. (You can listen to the show here until next Friday.)

The middle lane is an overtaking lane (as is the outside lane), but in practice, on a busy motorway like the M25, the inside lane will be taken up with trucks that cannot do the speed limit for cars and vans (70mph), so if you can do that speed, you will not be spending much time in the inside lane. On a rural motorway like the M40 in Oxfordshire, using the inside lane is feasible. However, every day I see an awful lot of eye-wateringly stupid, dangerous driving, and the worst times for it are at times when it is busy but not busy enough for the traffic to really slow down. Many times I have seen fast-moving (as in, above 60mph) dense traffic, with people driving too close to the car in front to slow down or stop if necessary, without going into the back of the car in front. Tailgating is very common, as is changing lanes with little or no notice, signalling literally the same second they change lanes, putting the car they cut in front of in the position of tailgating them. I have also notice that trucks are driven very inconsiderately, often simply with the purpose of avoiding slowing down at all costs, so they will drive straight across slip roads, regardless of anyone coming onto the motorway, and pull out into the middle lane with barely any notice, as soon as they pull behind a slightly slower truck in front. The drivers seem not only want to avoid slowing down, but to simply keep their foot on the gas and keep at the maximum speed their speed limiters allow (usually 56mph, sometimes less in the case of supermarket trucks). It’s lazy driving.

Sometimes this puts other motorists in extreme danger, including other truck drivers. A couple of weeks ago I was turning off the M25 from Godstone onto the southbound A21 at Sevenoaks, and ahead of me was a Homebase truck which was maximum height (about 16ft high). Coming down the M25 from Dartford was a tanker whose driver refused to slow down to allow the Homebase truck out, forcing it into the hard shoulder — which is where people stop when they break down, so it could have led to him hitting a stationary vehicle. The tanker then turned off half a mile down the road at the Riverhead junction, so he gained almost no advantage with this dangerous behaviour. Admittedly, the traffic already on the road has priority, but it takes little effort to slow down, and it takes less energy to speed up from, say, 40mph than from stationary after having been blocked from entering a main road.

These types of drivers are sometimes called “no-ways” — people who will not give way, no matter what, trapping drivers in side turnings and in dangerous positions to avoid slowing down at any cost. Another place where this type of behaviour is common is at bottlenecks, where dual carriageways end. There used to be lots of these off the motorway in the south, such as on the A23 in West Sussex, but most of them have been replaced by solid dual carriageway, as on the A23 and A3. A remaining one is on the A21 south of Tonbridge, where there is a few miles of single carriageway between where the Tonbridge bypass ends and the Pembury bypass begins. There are clear signs telling people to use both lanes to queue (there ought to be a sign further down saying “merge in turn” as there are at some merging points), but instead, people form a queue in the inside lane, leaving an empty outside one. On some occasions, people who use the outside lane are blocked from rejoining the flow of traffic, their behaviour treated as queue-jumping rather than perfectly legitimate overtaking. This has happened to me twice, with one guy swearing at me as I tried to get in front of him.

The problem is that detecting stupid driving is less easy than detecting minor speed infractions, because the latter is easy to measure while the former requires a person to be there and keep a look-out. When I worked at a self-drive company in Croydon a few years ago, I noticed that some of their drivers drove too fast without necessarily breaking the speed limits, and cut corners, which is also highly dangerous. There is plenty of propaganda around saying “it’s 30 for a reason” and “speeding is bad driving”, but the location of the cameras shows otherwise — they are often located at wider points in the road, outside built-up areas where the need for a 30mph limit is clear, and on hills, where keeping speed at or below 30 and keeping one’s eye on the road is difficult. In other words, they are located at high-revenue points, not safety-critical points. That said, introducing variable speed limits (as currently found on the M25 around south-west London) across more busy areas of the motorway, such as throughout Surrey, might cut down on some of the crazy driving, as drivers generally respect the limits (unlike the temporary ones, which are often found to be baseless). I also think there needs to be better education — there should be in-class education on matters like lane discipline at the time one learns to drive (or even in school), rather than at the wheel with an instructor. I would also introduce regulations on breaks for drivers of smaller goods vehicles — right now, at the end of the working day, a van driver might have been driving (or working) for many hours without a break, as there are no hours rules for low-weight goods vehicles. As a result, bosses do not factor in breaks while deciding what work a driver has to do in a day. Tiredness is often the cause of short tempers and impatience, which can have serious consequences when driving a car, let alone a heavier vehicle.

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