I don’t want this posting to become a rant about how bad driving on British motorways is compared with Continental ones, though it might veer towards that I suspect. Fact is though that I have being driving 50k miles a year in this country for the last 20 years and now spend a lot of time on French, Swiss and, mostly, Italian motorways. So I reckon I’m well-placed to comment generally. And in general I find motorway driving increasingly painful, especially in the UK.
For years I’ve been able to put up with the boredom and problems on or motorways but it seems to have become markedly worse in the last few years. Maybe that’s me getting older and less tolerant but I don’t think that’s the entire reason. These are my major beefs:
– traffic levels are just rising all the time. We regularly visit my daughter in Brighton which means travelling half way round the M25 in either direction. We mostly travel in daylight and it’s hard to remember when we were last able to exceed the speed limit – it’s not the cameras, the traffic is so heavy now that it’s almost impossible to get beyond 70mph. A report in 2002 showed that traffic was rising rapidly – the AA’s spokesperson at the time said that motorway traffic had increased 80% in 10 years. Of course the road system hadn’t increased anything like as quickly to cope with it. So now our M-roads are full most of the time and any shunt causes massive delays.
– driving standards have fallen I’m sure. Cars are now so capable that they can cruise at 70 -90mph all day. So that’s we tend to do – in the 3rd lane. It’s usually full all the time. The 1st lane’s really empty apart from lorries and old buggers and in the 2nd lane hog are the saddos. They can’t face the stress of the 3rd lane tail-gaters but simply will not pull into the inside lane because of those damned lorry drivers. So there they sit holding up more traffic as they insist on driving at precisely 62 mph. PULL OVER you pricks.
– overhead signs. My particular bete noire. They must have cost a fortune to install (and that’s our licence fees, petrol duty and tax that’s paid for them) and they are capable of displaying really helpful information. But what do they tell me. ‘Queue Caution 40mph’. It’s too late now, I’m already inching forward at the rate of 200 yds every 50 minutes and I’m not only going to miss that critical business appointment in Manchester but also my daughter’s carol concert later where she’s performing solo for the first time. What I would have liked is a system which advised me as follows: ’20 miles ahead, class A problem (ie over 1 hour delay – grade them easily), suggest take A45 at next junction or A325 at junction 23 and pick -up M1 again at Junctions 28 and 29. Time saved c. 40 minutes’. Or more dramatically ‘just turn back at next junction if the love of your daughter means everything to you’.
Why can’t the jolly Highways Agency do that? They’ve got the bloody technology. Go onto their website and you’ll learn about the Crichel Down rules for acquiring their surplus land. Ah right. And you can be reassured by their FAQ’s section which helpfully asks ‘what is being done about eradicating ragwort on motorways?’ You think I’m kidding don’t you? Go look. There’s a protocol for dealing with animals such as chickens which stray onto the motorway. We drivers have one as well. It’s called road-kill. What on earth are their priorities? It’s like it’s written by the Ministry for Terribly Humane and Understanding Political Correctness. And I miss my daughter’s concert performance.
– Speed limit. Cars can cruise at 70mph in bloody 3rd. Please make it 85 or something realistic, by having fourth lanes if need be to accommodate.
– Why are all of our motorways apart from the M6 north of Carnforth and the M62 east of Manchester built through areas of natural boringness and ugliness. For mile after mile there’s nothing to look at but when you hit the afore-mentioned sections it feels like your driving through the Rockies or something. I know they can’t impose mountains around the M25 but why not have stuff to deliberately attract the drivers’ attention and keep them alert? i’m not hung up on the ‘no advertising law’. if i can drive through a town with its many distractions I’m sure I can handle some occasional brillinat advertising.
– speed cameras. They are f*cking everywhere. Have you driven along the M42 up past the NEC towards the M6? There must be a camera every 100 yds. It’s like entering the Stasi police state of E Shirley. And there are traffic lights above every slip lane to allow or deny traffic to flow onto the motorway. Traffic lights! What the hell?
– UK service stations. MR wouldn’t agree with me but they are dire. As fuel/toilet stops they’re ok but as refreshment centres they are abject. And who are those grown men who occupy those game/slot machine kind of areas. They should video capture everyone entering those places and resolve most perv crime at a stroke.
– road works/contra flows/ lane restrictions/road widenning. Seemingly endless road works. How long has that stuff been going on around Enfield – since Ozzie Ardiles was playing at the Lane? And what about the stuff on the M1 running up to Luton. Have you ever been in a hurry for a plane from LA? – forget it.
– ghost works/jams. When there’s actual work going on or a 5 car shunt, you can understand it when delays occur and accept that it’s gonna take some time to get through. But when you see nobody working on that coned -off section for weeks on end or the accident had cleared hours ago and people are rubber necking the broken indicator glass in the hard shoulder, I get very angry.
OK that’s the UK experience. And I just can’t help but notice how bad the traffic’s getting here. These are my thoughts about the French motorway system:
– you pay a heavy toll for virtually every bloody mile you travel along it
– but it’s the best motorway system I’ve experienced in the world. They re-direct the funds to produce the most carefully-built motorways that last years before they need repair. They produce lots of miles of them to ensure they are relatively well-capable of handling the traffic load especially at peak times. In non-peak hours you hardly ever need to get beyond the second lane for over-taking (slight exaggeration I know). Only rarely are you held up by roadworks. I’ve been stopped and fined for speeding but they are relatively free of speed/fining cameras because of the tolls so there’s a healthy respect for allowing cars that can motor, to do just that.
Switzerland. They hate cars and drivers; their motorways are shit and full of road works and contra-flow systems that run for frigging miles which are completely unnecessary and un-policed. The border controls are only concerned with charging you 25 Euro for a motorway tax certificate. You could be smuggling gold-encrusted spliffs they wouldn’t care so long as you have the 25 E disk on your windscreen. But nobody ever has 25E in change so you give then a 50 E note and they give you change in Swiss francs, which are only acceptable in …Switzerland. Although you’re only in the country for 1.5 hours you stop unnecessarily for a break to spend your otherwise-useless 37 francs and find that the equivalent of a penny-chew cost 40 francs. So 3 Big Mac meals costs 249 francs which you pay for in your readily- acceptable Euros. Bloody Swizzling Swiss. I hate the place, as a car driver.
– Upside. They build frigging good tunnels through the Alps. Most attract a toll of course. Aim for the Gothard!
– One day we aimed for the Gothard and 20 miles before reaching it we saw an overhead sign saying it was closed. It took us 5 hours to effect a detour. I hate inadequate and untimely motorway signage. Why is it so hard?
– Great scenery.
– umm. You pay for tolls like France but the road construction and maintenance standards are nowhere near as good. But it still all works. The best bit? All service stations are real food centres. You can get freshly-prepared, hot, great value food in virtually ever service station. Every place is packed out and the trick is to pay at a desk and collect your ticket first. It’s barking but seems to work. Just experiencing the crush is great fun. You feel refreshed because of the inevitable interaction with your fellow man/woman. And the women look great.
– downside? They can drive like lunatics. Don’t hog that 3rd lane. One minute you’re cruising along in the 3rd lane gently pushing past the Fiat Puntos and then you look in you mirror and some guys is up your arse at 85 mph – literally 2 inches from your rear bumper and within a sneeze of taking you, your beloved family and he and his family into the flimsy central reservation to be crushed by that car transporter coming in the opposite direction. They drive like Felipe Massa with a hangover after he’s just found out his girlfriend’s kn*bbing Nigel Mansell. Keep your eye on that rear view mirror constantly and use that 3rd lane only if you have machismo.
As you can tell perhaps I think it works better almost everywhere than here. We must have the worst road congestion and systems of any country in the G8. Prescott’s f*cking legacy.