Hamish McRae: Imagine a world in which it was fun to drive again

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I know nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but there is one place where - for motoring that is - it just might be. It is the Isle of Man.

I know nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but there is one place where - for motoring that is - it just might be. It is the Isle of Man. For most people, the Isle of Man is bikes: the TT in May and the Grand Prix races at the end of August. But most especially it is the amazing Mountain Circuit, all 38 miles of it, scooting up to 1,400 feet, the greatest road-racing circuit on the planet.

For myself, having lived there between the ages of two and seven, it is perfume of Castrol R, the roar that filled the May evenings, and being allowed to watch them prepare an AJS Porcupine in the lock-up down the road. (I also remember seeing a racer coming off just above Onchan, which made a big impression: he limped away but I think my six-year-old brain decided that cars were clearly a wiser choice than bikes.)

At any rate, I went back last month, not to watch the racing, but to spend some time with friends who live there. Driving round the island it struck me that this is the only place in the British Isles where to drive is still a 1950s-style pleasure.

The Isle of Man, as a whole, is a bit of a 1950s experience, with its steam trains, and electric and horse-drawn trams, though with a 2004 offshore banking overlay. But the motoring experience is truly special nostalgia.

For a start, the ratio of cars to road is utterly different from anything in Britain or Ireland. There are empty roads up in Scotland but not as empty as on the Isle of Man. Yet these roads offer a huge variety: long clear straights, mountain bends, wooded valleys.

Next, there are no TIR lorries, supermarket delivery vans, or double parking. Outside Douglas there do not seem to be many yellow lines. And for the time being there are no speed limits outside built-up areas. There is a plan to bring them in but this is opposed by 80 per cent of the islanders.

Scale helps. The island is only 33 miles long and 10 miles wide. Because it takes less than an hour to go from one end to the other, no journey can take more than that. So you never sit in the car for long.

People fret if their commute is more than 10 minutes, and a parking space at work in Douglas is regarded as the most important single perk an employer can offer.

Of course, there is no road rage. There is road madness, when the Mountain Circuit is open to ordinary traffic but kept one-way, just after the races. So everyone whizzes round it and you really have to be quite careful if you venture out. Nanny society this is not - I am afraid people are killed at TT time. But that is different from rage.

In normal times drivers don't get annoyed with each other, because there is no need. Because driving is a pleasant experience, as it was in the 1950s, there is no need to get cross. That surely is the message we should take away.

How can driving be made more pleasant?

It is not realistic to try to replicate 1950s driving conditions, nor would anyone want to. But the idea that road design and motoring regulation should take into account the need to make driving a pleasant experience is not so silly.

When a council changes road design or parking restrictions, does it think: "Let's try to make driving nicer?" Of course not - indeed, it seems frequently to do the reverse, often in petty ways. Safety must be paramount.

The Isle of Man does need to think carefully about practical ways in which it can improve road safety, without damaging its reputation as a bikers' and motorists' paradise.

But anti-car policies do not necessarily make the world safer, and painting lines on roads or putting up tail-covering signs, as so many councils do, may actually make roads less safe.

What's wrong with making drivers' lives more pleasant, as the Isle of Man still manages to do?

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