A little motorway bonding with old Butterfly Brakes

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AT THE weekend I was privileged to be present at the annual Ernest Marple lecture on Motorway Behaviour, given by the motorway psychologist Dr Ernest Matters. Ernest Marples, of course, was the Transport Minister in the Sixties who managed to combine dictating Britain's motorway policy with running a large construction company, thus ensuring that what was good for British roads was good for his pocket - which is said by some experts to be as near as the Tory party has come to a real transport policy.

'I began to study motorway behaviour,' Dr Matters began, 'because it was the last remaining area in which the public is allowed to evolve its own code of behaviour, and its own rituals. Beyond the broad injunction for fast traffic to drive on the right and slow on the left, there are no guidelines at all.

'I want to draw to your attention today a phenomenon that is only just beginning to be understood, and that is the process of motorway bonding. It happens like this: say that you are driving along the M4 in a blue saloon car. Say you are doing a constant 60-70 mph. Say that you overtake a white van that is in the middle lane.'

We all nodded. The position was too banal to be true.

'You then relax into a cruising speed near 70mph. Which side of 70mph I shall not say. There may be unmarked police observers present.'

Polite laughter.

'After about a mile you are overtaken by a white van. On the side of the white van says something like 'Butterfly Brake Linings of Bristol and Avonmouth'. It is the same van you recently overtook. He speeds away from you and you unconsciously accelerate because you feel that for him to overtake you, you must be slowing down. Within a mile or two you have overtaken him again, and you relax, because you now feel that the status quo has been restored. This leads to your undoing because long before you get to the next exit, he has increased his speed and gone past you again. Have we not all been in situations like this?'

We all nodded. It was true. You do keep overtaking the same vehicle again and again on motorways.

'It is not always, or even ever, a white van from 'Butterfly Brake Linings of Bristol and Avonmouth'. It may be a smooth salesman in a red saloon with his suit hanging up. It may be football supporters with scarves trailing from the windows. Whatever it is, you have established a relationship without a word being spoken, a sort of bonding in which you think to yourself, 'Oh, there's old Butterfly Brakes again, better get a move on', and the Butterfly driver says to himself, 'Blimey, that's the bloke in the blue saloon, can't let him get away with it'.'

We nodded again, wondering what on earth he was driving at.

'Bonding with old Butterfly Brakes is a bit like meeting someone at a party. In the anonymity of the motorway traffic, you cling on to a bit of familiarity. Everyone on the motorway is a stranger. No eye contact on motorways. But if you single out one familiar vehicle, that vehicle immediately becomes a sort of talisman. The same thing happens at Wimbledon.'

Wimbledon? We all looked at each other. What on earth was the old fool talking about?

'Wimbledon is a very interesting tennis tournament for an observer because it is one at which no home-grown player can hope to do well, therefore the crowd is not swayed by patriotic sentiments. In America, they will root for an American, in Australia, for an Aussie boy or girl. Here, we have to decide who we want to win from a list of outsiders - and it is, I think, noteworthy that we all do find ourselves backing someone. But why?

'Well, I venture to suggest that motorway psychology can provide an answer. The reason we support Steffi Graf is not far from the reason we enter a temporary relationship with a large German saloon car - not, of course, that I am suggesting Steffi Graf is physically reminiscent of a large German saloon car, although there are points of similarity . . .'

More polite laughter. I only wish I had more space to bring you the rest of this fascinating lecture. Copies of the full text are available on request from Milton Keynes University, where Ernest Matters is the resident Professor of Motorway Behaviour.