Spot fines and safety on the roads: Confessions of a chastened petrol head

With new penalties looming Jamie Merrill decides it’s time to check his driving habits

In the passenger seat to my left is Steve George, an examiner from the Institute of Advanced Motorists. He has a clipboard in hand and is watching my every mirror, signal and manoeuvre.

I’m being assessed on the roads outside Sevenoaks in Kent the week the Government announced on-the-spot fines of £100 for careless drivers who put other roads users at risk by tailgating, middle-lane hogging and using their mobile phones on the go.

The idea, according to the Road Safety minister, Stephen Hammond, is to make it easier for police to tackle the “menace” of careless drivers without “having to take every case to court.” Surely I don’t need to worry, though? I’m The Independent’s car reviewer and all-round petrol head. I might occasionally drive a little too fast or pressure the car in front to move over, and I certainly don’t ten-to-two the steering wheel as the IAM recommends, but I don’t think I’m a lane hogger or get up the backside of the car in front.

The afternoon school run is in full swing, and having my driving scrutinised so closely is more nerve-racking than I imagine. It doesn’t help that the car I’m testing this week is a bright yellow Porsche Cayman.

Steve agrees it’s a great-looking sports car, but it isn’t exactly ideal for keeping my speed down during our hour-long driving standards assessment. And it only takes him a hundred yards to find fault with my driving.

“What did you do wrong just then?” It turns out I’d taken my hand off the wheel while going too quickly on a roundabout before changing gear in the middle of a sharp bend. I try to take this reprimand in my stride, but I soon start to sweat.

“In my experience most drivers think their skills behind the wheel are far greater than they actually are,” says Steve. It seems I’m guilty as charged but after a few miles I start to settle down. Thanks to his coaching I’m soon paying more attention to potential threats in the far distance and checking my mirror more frequently.

As we hit a stretch of derestricted road Steve explains how the IAM broadly welcomes the new measures, but worries “about how the police are actually going to be able to enforce them.” He has a point. Traffic police numbers have fallen by 29 per cent in the last 10 years to just 4,868 officers, according to Home Office figures. “Today you can drive hundreds of miles without seeing a traffic officer and the truth is that until tailgaters and road hogs get caught they won’t change their ways.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, many petrol heads agree. Dan Trent edits PistonHeads.com, a popular motoring website more usually associated with brake horsepower than safe stopping distances. “Middle-lane sitters and tailgaters are pretty high on the pet-hate list of our readers,” he says. “So anything that is proposed to tackle that is welcome. At the same time there’s a fair level of cynicism out there in the motoring enthusiast community that the police actually have the ability to enforce these changes.”

Back on the road Steve is trying to instil some advanced driving techniques in me before we hit the motorway and soon has me looking for the limit point – the spot at which you lose visibility around a bend. Once on the motorway he questions my every manoeuvre, forcing me to consider every steering input and dab on the throttle. “In my experience most lane hoggers lack confidence. They feel safer in the middle of the road and don’t have the training to realise how they should be scanning ahead,” he says.

“On the motorway you always need to be asking yourself why you’re in a particular lane. Are you gaining on the car in front? If not, it’s time to pull back over. There is also a great deal of ignorance about what the three lanes on a motorway are for. They are not the slow, medium and fast lane. They all have the same speed limit.”

After a nervous hour we pull off the motorway and I’m relieved to hear Steve tell me that I’m “generally a safe driver” and that my “mirror work and observation are good”. But I do need to watch my speed, he says, and scan harder for threats ahead. “A car is a lethal machine. It’s only as safe as the person behind the wheel,” he warns me as I head off, leaving more space than usual before the car in front.

COMMON MISTAKES

Hogging the middle lane

This leaves the inside lane of a motorway under-used and can provoke dangerous manoeuvres.

Tailgating

Half of all drivers admit to this but, apparently, middle-aged men are the most likely culprits.

Looking but not seeing

Two in five accidents occur when the driver isn’t “looking properly”  or isn’t “paying attention to the road ahead”.

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