Country Life: On a road to nowhere

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The Independent Online

A paradox of leaving the city to set up home in the country is that you cheerfully leave traffic jams behind, and exhaust fumes, and red routes, and parking meters, only to find that you are utterly dependent on the car.

A paradox of leaving the city to set up home in the country is that you cheerfully leave traffic jams behind, and exhaust fumes, and red routes, and parking meters, only to find that you are utterly dependent on the car. Here in north Herefordshire, our dependence on the car is absolute. Without motorised transport we could not get our children to and from school, or even fetch a loaf of bread. Without being able to drive, if only to a railway station, I would be unable to function as a journalist.

That was the essence of the case my solicitor and I presented to the West Mercia magistrates in Hereford a fortnight ago today. I already had nine penalty points on my driving licence, and shortly before Christmas got the dreaded flash from a speed camera on the Bromyard bypass. That meant another three points, taking me to 12, the point at which magistrates dish out disqualifications for six months or more.

Since reaching nine points, I had driven as anyone would with the sword of Damocles hanging over them; like an 88-year-old myopic vicar (retired). But there we were on our way to see Annie at Malvern Theatre, with the children squabbling on the back seat, and me at the wheel, reading the riot act, and suddenly there was a horrible, unequivocal flash.

My heart lurched. I had crept up to 35mph in a 30mph zone. I duly sat through Annie, wondering whether Miss Hannigan, the heartless superintendent of the orphanage, would throttle the ringleted little wretch before I did.

Now, as my colleague John Walsh recently discovered, nothing unleashes the forces of righteousness quite like a newspaper columnist complaining that he - it is invariably the male of the species - has been unjustly prosecuted for speeding. I ventured into the same choppy waters about a year ago and was vehemently abused by letter and e-mail, some of them quite alarmingly unpleasant.

At the risk of getting the same people fired up all over again, I will reiterate my belief that being clocked for speeding four times in three years, once on a bypass and three times on an empty dual carriageway late at night, not in residential areas and never at more than 37mph, should not have landed me before the beaks, facing a driving ban.

On the other hand, I frequently see cars being driven at breakneck speeds along the A44 and A49, recklessly overtaking just before bends, and I'm all for those drivers being disqualified on the spot. But there's no point arguing that there should be one law for the 22-year-old idiot trying to impress his mates and another for the fairly respectable family man taking his children to a Christmas show. Speeding is speeding, the law is the law, and, let me say this before anyone else does, a child killed by a car travelling at 37mph, as improbable as it might be on a dual carriageway at 11pm, is a tragedy.

Anyway, whether you think that penalties for speeding are absurdly draconian or not draconian enough, there I was, in my best bib and tucker, in court. I'm a pretty law-abiding chap, or at least have been ever since I stopped shoplifting cans of Cresta in my early teens, and the prospect of a court appearance had filled me with dread for weeks beforehand.

The summons said Brian Viner vs the Chief Constable of West Mercia, which seemed worryingly one-sided, like Dagenham & Redbridge vs Chelsea. Worse than anything, though, was the likelihood of losing my licence. Many of my responsibilities as a husband and a father involve driving; just the idea that I might be legally prevented from doing so was emasculating. I developed eczema on my shin and a stomach ailment that were plainly both stress-related.

Then there were the mechanics of the court appearance itself. Should I hire legal representation, hopefully by Hereford's answer to Perry Mason? Some people advised me that I should, that it would show the magistrates I was treating the business seriously. Others told me that magistrates are impressed by people who represent themselves, if they are eloquent and persuasive. Feeling certain that my eloquence would give way to huge racking sobs if I tried to talk myself about the impact a ban would have on my wife and kids, I took the Perry Mason option.

It was almost as much of an ordeal as I thought it would be. I was cross-examined by a chap who asked me a few questions and then said: "That's all, thank you", with a satisfied smile, as though I had just fallen into a massive trap and implicated myself in the Birmingham pub bombings, the Brinks-Mat bullion robbery and the murder of Lord Lucan's nanny. And while the magistrates were out considering their decision, which seemed to take hours, the eczema galloped from my shin to my thigh.

The law says that anyone who has 12 points on their driving licence must be disqualified for at least six months, unless such a ban will cause them or others "exceptional hardship".

Happily, the magistrates decided that in my case it would. I was fined £80 and given a further endorsement, but no ban. Now I must go back to driving like that myopic vicar. I don't want to be back in court in a hurry. Hell, I won't be going anywhere in a hurry.