Say goodbye to speed

There's no escape. The new generation of speed cameras spells the end for putting your foot down. Poop poop, says Michael Bywater, as he enjoys the open road for one last time
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Indy Lifestyle Online

he only time I ever blew up a car engine, it was not in the quest for speed but for the sort of deceleration that has you straining against the seatbelt, eyes bulging, passengers screaming, soundtrack - John Williams, probably; trumpets and squealing strings - blasting in burned-rubber quadrophonic.

he only time I ever blew up a car engine, it was not in the quest for speed but for the sort of deceleration that has you straining against the seatbelt, eyes bulging, passengers screaming, soundtrack - John Williams, probably; trumpets and squealing strings - blasting in burned-rubber quadrophonic.

In my mind was the curiously erotic shriek of four Rolls-Royce turbojets pushed through the thrust-reverser notch and cranked up to 105 per cent N1 with the afterburners kicked in ...which is the technical way of saying apocalyptic, smoke-and-flame-blasting, Richter shuddering, yes, yes, YES.

It was a Triumph Toledo. Triumph Toledos (Toledoides?) didn't do acceleration, though I knew what acceleration was like. Acceleration was like the TR4A IRS my father wouldn't let me buy, perhaps because although IRS stood for Independent Rear Suspension, what they didn't tell you was that it was independent from the entire rest of the car, so that when, on the test drive, I put my foot flat to the floor as the lights turned green on a greasy road, the car shot into motion like a cannonball, not in a straight line but a balletic pirouette.

I loved it. But I knew the limitations of the lesser, sedate, safe, yellow - not yellow like a Ferrari, but yellow like custard - Toledo and, instead, went for deceleration from 75mph, simultaneously flooring clutch, brake and accelerator in imitation of the wrench and shriek of a fast jet landing on a short runway. And the engine blew up.

As an intellectual, I might say that I was investigating a Saussurean performative text, a Derridan binary opposition, deconstructing by différence the privileging of speed over stasis. As a crazed, cackling 19-year-old, I might more truthfully say I was venting testosterone in much the same way that a crippled jet dumps kerosene, in a toxic mist so that I might perhaps return to ground level safely; or, alternatively, break through the Sex Barrier between the anxiously-clenched thighs of my unimpressed companion.

"Now look," she said. "You've blown up the engine. Your mother will be furious."

My mother was furious. And - may she rest in peace - she won. Now we live beneath the iron tongue of the universal Mother; and the world is grown but garish with signs and warnings and tickings-off, minatory with fines and penalty-points, glittering with thousands of pinpricks of light from thousands of cameras that monitor our behaviour because, damn it, we'll have someone's eye out if we're not careful, we'll fall over, we'll hurt someone, we'll be a nuisance, there'll be a nasty accident, the actual world will blow up, better safe than sorry, and if you don't agree we'll by God make you sorry, in advance.

Poop poop, says Mister Toad; oh, poop poop. Flash says the camera; click says the camera; gotcha! says the camera; and before you've even seen it, before you know it's there, your number has been registered and checked with the DVLA and passed to the police and thence the courts and then back to the DVLA and guess what? They've got your money and you're in trouble.

You really are in trouble. Vans with cameras are poised on the M4 motorway bridges and they can see you half a mile away; accelerate to get past the lorry which is overtaking the other lorry with a speed differential of about one-tenth of a mile per hour, clip through the speed limit briefly, and something hideously called "The Swindon and Wiltshire Safety Camera Partnership" will get you.

And there will be no appeal; not just because Wiltshire is, in so many ways, the dog's behind of Britain, nor because Swindon so hates drivers that it hired a man who could not drive a car to engineer its monstrous, Porton Down-style traffic schemes, including the infamous "magic roundabout", a system so confusing that drivers will sit there, immobilised, staring at one another, before all, by some sort of creepy morphic resonance, shooting forward simultaneously and having a massive pile-up at five miles an hour.

No; there will be no appeal because appeals require judgment (79 mph late at night on a clear empty road, visibility limitless? No! The law is the law!) and we no longer do judgment. We do rules. We do rules; and we do money.

The safety arguments would bore you rigid - so much so that you might be tempted to get in your car and drive somewhere, warming the globe and possibly exceeding the speed limit - but it's not really about safety. Safety is the new smoking. The ascendant class in 21st Century Britain - the ticking-off class, the ones who want us not actually to have no fun, but to have just enough fun to be told off and punished for having it - are bored with smoking now.

The new thing is safety; and in the name of safety, anything is possible. The fact that motorways are five times safer (per driver mile) than average roads, and eight times safer than A-roads, is beside the point. People on motorways think that motorways are fast roads, and so they think that they can drive fast, and driving fast counts as having big ideas and, as we all know (because our mother told us), people who have big ideas come to no good.

As do people who encourage others to have big ideas, which is why Jeremy Clarkson keeps copping it from something called "road safety campaigners".

It must be pretty rough to be Jeremy Clarkson and have to be so utterly bloody butch all the time, so brrm-brrm and shouty when, perhaps, all he wants to do is have a nice sit down and a cuddle and perhaps a bon-bon; but how much worse to be a "road safety campaigner" who thinks Clarkson's ultra-brrm programme, Top Gear should be replaced by a sensible programme promoting sensible driving in sensible vehicles.

A "spokesman" for the campaigners (who call themselves, quaintly, Transport 2000) said "everyone is talking about how to reduce car use, cut climate change emissions and make the roads safer" but, of course, everyone is doing nothing of the sort. Some people may be - and, merciful heavens, how dreadful it must be to go to their houses for supper: Martha with her armpits flourishing, Graeme and Martin comparing notes on the sprout wine ("Only in moderation, of course, Graeme" "Quite so, Martin"), a nourishing organic Latvian Potato Bake (topped with crunchy vegan cheese) roasting in the eco-friendly dung-burning oven, and little Aurangzeb ("Indian culture is so, like, pure") exposing himself to Sidney the three-legged rescue dog.

The rest of us know it's all over.

We know the jig is up. We know there's no fun to be had in speed any more, and if we secretly suspect a few thousand people mutilated or massacred on the roads (the odd pharmaceutical salesman shredded through his windscreen, the occasional White Van Man compressed into a block of wet pemmican as his Transit folds around him, a handful of truckers transformed, haemorrhoids and all, into scorched loukaniki in a jack-knife inferno, a busload of liquidised pensioners here, a few dull holiday-making families blended indistinguishably in the centrifuge of their people-carrier) it's an acceptable price to pay for the primitive, savage, transcendent joy of going fast.

Because it's not about speed, any more than the prim purse-lipped posturing of the camera tax enthusiasts is about safety. It's altogether more atavistic. Beneath the unarguable aesthetic of a beautiful, powerful car (or, for me, the altogether more potent allure of an even faster aeroplane) lies the ancient and crucial desire for dominion.

The more ground we can cover, the more territory we have marked; the lesser creatures vanishing behind us ("Objects in the mirror may be closer than you think"? Not when I'm at the wheel, baby) reassure us of our own superiority; the perfect line through the impossible curve persuades us of our mortal power and our immortal invulnerability.

At speed, the imperfect world blurs and recedes; the road uncoils in perfect flow; our thoughts move with the effortless purr of the engine; daily life, with its silliness, its irritations, its rules and cameras and campaigners, shades into insignificance.

And afterwards? Afterwards, it's about - like everything that's bad is about - sex. No woman ever said (eyes shining, palms damp) "Oh, he's such a safe driver! In such a sensible, average car!" The man in the Ferrari knows (or at least believes, which is the same thing at the time) that he will not return home to a scanty supper and, later, sullen negotiations for a peremptory handjob. That privilege is reserved for Mondeo Man, if the Mondeo still exists. The only exception, perhaps, is the Citroën 2CV: the automobile equivalent of a beard, the advertising of a different form of virility, cranky and eccentric rather than potently smooth but still virility.

It's the virility of dominion - the virility, if you like, of speed (because speed is still primarily a male preserve) - that has made our world. If history had been in the hands of the vegans, the aromatherapy cranks, the cycling-holiday Gore-Tex® bunch, there would be no history. Nothing would have happened. The sensible driver in the sensible vehicle would have no sensible vehicle to drive sensibly in because nobody would have ever invented the car or smelted the ore or drilled for the oil or even killed killed! the cow for those wonderful, sexy, bodyhugging leather seats that grip you so firmly as the 600BHP tucks you into the corner and the woman beside you reaches across and lightly strokes ... you know the rest.

Fantasy? Possibly. But so is everything else in your life, and my life too. We are creatures made of words and those words inspire wild desires and sometimes we have to stop it! Stop it now! Before someone gets hurt! or you'll go to bed without any money! But the desires do not stop. The absolutist calculus of the campaigners and those who want everything to be nice and lovely for ever and ever (and, as Peter Cook said, "no more nasty spindly insects" either), is that nothing is worth the cost of a human life.

That is itself an arguable proposition, and even if we accept it in the case of driving, it's not driving fast that kills or maims; it's driving stupidly. The ditherer. The dodderer. The one who pulls out without looking or indicating; the one in the tweed hat with his wife in the back who drives along the crown of the road. The one who sits in the overtaking lane doing precisely 69.9mph ("It's the law and if it's good enough for me it's good enough for everyone").

The tailgating artics. The bewildered old ladies, wondering how they got onto the Wiltshire section of the M4, and how they're ever going to get off again. The drunk. The half-blind. The head-nodders, decerebrated by their sub-woofers punching air at 160dB. But you can't get them with cameras.

It's over. The truth is, it's been over for a while. Our great-grandchildren will look back on our lives with amazement; not just how fast we drove (or flew), but that we drove (or flew) at all. This has been a brief window of madness and delight, when bacteria didn't kill us and neither did sex, when we smoked and drove fast and flew cheap. The new world is coming: safe, slow, kindly, and perhaps - do you think - maybe just the tiniest bit dull?

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