Country: Rural road or hellish deathtrap?

Country Matters
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The Independent Culture
The young Welshman with two rings in his left ear drives everywhere at furious speed and whinges bitterly about anything that slows him down. "Tractors are the worst," he says. "They just get in your way. They're looking at you and laughing. So any bit of road you can overtake them, you just go flying past." He is the least attractive character in Channel 5's second programme in the series on road rage, to be broadcast on Monday evening. But Rural Hell includes several other choice specimens, and includes some alarming statistics: that you are 10 times more likely to have a fatal crash on a country lane than on a motorway, that 1,500 horse-related accidents take place in lanes every year, that 2,000 vehicles a year crash on bends simply because they are going too fast.

The programme provides yet another vivid illustration of the difference in attitude between town and country people. The rural folk who feature are calm, slow-moving and reflective; the townspeople are frenzied in their need to progress from one place to another at maximum pace. One urban driver after another complains that farm vehicles and animals are nothing but a nuisance: tiresome obstacles to be overtaken as fast as possible, rather than fellow road-users with an equal right to be on the highway. An American, skilfully piloting a large van, maintains that farm machines "have no appreciation of your needs". Apart from other defects, they have "dirt on their rear" so that you can't see when the drivers are braking or indicating a turn. As for that caravan: "I gotta 'take him, 'cos he's doing 35 and I need to do 50."

That last phrase sums up the whole problem. Anyone who needs to maintain 50mph in a hefty van should not be roaring along country lanes. Speed is the arch-villain and arch-destroyer - as no one knows better than Eleanor Hill. One sunny evening she was riding her horse Terrapin along a lane when she heard a car approaching from behind at lunatic velocity. Before she could take evasive action, she was flat on her face on the Tarmac, 20 yards farther on, and her horse had been smashed to the ground with its back and both back legs broken. She has not ridden since; but, as she remarked with understandable bitterness, the man who hit her got seven points on his licence and a fine of pounds 200, and is still driving around.

On New Year's morning a group of us, 40 strong, walked out from the village. For most of our seven-mile circuit we were on footpaths; when we did have to take to roads, the traffic was mercifully light, and drivers were courteous. But everyone was aware that on the first day of the year few motorists were out and about.

Along the way somebody asked why so much fuss is being made about the construction of new houses in the countryside. The populations of many villages, she pointed out, used to be far higher than they are now, and during the past couple of centuries, hundreds of cottages have simply disappeared with the run-down of rural employment. Why, then, worry, if new houses are built?

The answer is that country people's habits have changed entirely. In the 18th century they had no form of transport except their feet and possibly a horse and cart. They walked to work, to the village shop, to church, to the pub. Children walked to school and back. People grew most of their own food: a visit to the nearest town was an adventure. In other words, they were static, rooted in one spot. Footpaths and narrow lanes could easily accommodate such traffic as they created.

Today their successors are constantly on the move, hurrying to work, ferrying children to school, rushing to catch a train, hurtling to the supermarket, the gym, the doctor. Everybody drives without a second thought. The result is that lanes are becoming increasingly dangerous and unpleasant, especially when commuters use them as rat-runs because main roads have become intolerably congested. Ugly new houses may disfigure villages, but it is fast-moving vehicles that make them hazardous.

When I was a boy, living in an isolated farmhouse, my sister and I used to ride or push our bikes a mile across country and leave them unsecured in a hollow beech tree beside the main road at the point where we caught the school bus. No parent today would countenance a scheme so fraught with every kind of peril: abduction, accident at pick-up point or on the highway, theft of cycles during the day.

The answer to the problem is not, as some authorities believe, to widen all lanes and turn them into A-roads. That would merely increase speeds still further, make life yet more perilous for locals, and remove a feature that contributes most strongly to our countryside's character. The real difficulty is to make people drive slower when the narrow and twisty nature of the road demands it. As Rural Hell clearly demonstrates, the slightest enforced deceleration is enough to precipitate road rage.

"You made me SLOW DOWN!" roared one motorist who, beside himself with fury, head-butted another after being impeded for a few seconds.

So what can be done? More speed limits would make little difference, as they are so widely ignored. Humps in the road render life intolerable for people who have to use lanes regularly. Cameras do act as a deterrent, but they cannot monitor every lane in the country.

What about making road rage a criminal offence, for which the penalty would be permanent disqualification from driving? That at least would remove from the roads people with a congenital inability to control their temper, whether in the country or in the town.

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