Autumn has arrived, and it’s business as usual. The grand plans I hatched during the summer holidays are forgotten as the emails stack up in my inbox and our normal family timetable resumes. For the boys, the new school year means a return to the habitual round of birthday parties and supervised sporting activities, many of which require lifts to places inaccessible by public transport. And for me, there’s a feeling of dread as I resume my position behind the wheel of our recently-purchased car.
I passed my driving test at eighteen, and the summer jobs I took as a student often demanded the use of a vehicle. I accepted whatever jobs were available – late waitressing shifts that ended long after the last bus had gone, and early mornings packing boxes on an out-of-town industrial estate. I hated the driving almost as much as I loathed the work. Then I graduated and moved to London, and didn’t drive for twenty years.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I began to realise that most people take driving for granted. In my ante-natal class, the other expectant parents discussed makes of child car-seat and the importance of choosing a pram that folded up neatly into the boot of the family saloon. It was assumed that if you had small children, you had to drive. In a gesture of defiance, I spurned the collapsible Maclaren stroller recommended by my new friends and bought the SUV of the perambulator world: a giant contraption designed for off-road yomping, with an undercarriage that easily held a week’s food shopping.
In the months that followed, I’d arrive at toddler group pushing my beast of a buggy, to find myself surrounded by immaculate women carrying sleeping infants in rear-facing car seats. These mothers appeared to drive everywhere. They’d arrive toting Mulberry handbags the size of small holdalls and dangling the keys to their BMWs from their manicured fingers. I gravitated towards the only other woman who turned up on foot. Call me shallow and judgmental, but by virtue of that fact alone she became instantly more interesting to me.
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that I felt alienated. I have never identified with motorists. The word calls to mind RAC membership, leather driving gloves and those wooden-beaded seat covers, the purpose of which has always eluded me. In fact, I hold car ownership responsible for all the worst features of modern life: depressing out-of-town retail parks; ugly housing estates marketed on the basis of their proximity to motorway junctions; and my inability to find a decent pair of shoes that doesn’t let in water. Nobody makes proper footwear any more; there’s no need for it. When it rains, people just grab a pair of flip-flops and jump into their 4x4s.
I admit that I’m a nervous driver, sticking slavishly to the speed limit and giving cyclists and pedestrians an extremely wide berth. In doing so, I’m compensating for my inability to judge my position on the road. Whenever I get behind the wheel, I’m struck by the sheer impossibility of navigating a huge metal hulk (okay, then – a small hatchback) down a narrow city street without repeatedly pranging it on kerbs, lamp posts and other vehicles. I’m told that the only way to develop the necessary spatial awareness is by trial and error – but when you’re in charge of a killing-machine, the consequences of error seem too dire to justify taking the risk. This is real life, not a Wacky Races cartoon.
I may be cautious and incompetent, but I genuinely think that other people underestimate the dangers of driving. Like a mob of identikit Jeremy Clarksons, they bang on about small children who step into the road (who’d have guessed that toddlers could be so irrational?) and lawless cyclists who ignore traffic signals. While I would never condone a cyclist breaking the law, I have yet to meet one who has caused serious injury by jumping a red light. Motorists seem incapable of acknowledging that they, by virtue of the sheer size and speed of their vehicles, create a far greater hazard.
The truth is, most motorists break the speed limit with impunity on a daily basis and behave as though it somehow doesn’t count as a criminal offence. No matter how good a driver you think you are, occasionally a cyclist will swerve to avoid a pothole, or a distracted pedestrian will step out without looking. Look up the statistics for yourself: compared with a person hit by a car travelling at under thirty miles per hour, a pedestrian struck at thirty to forty miles per hour is between 3.5 and 5.5 times more likely to be killed.
Modern technology hasn’t helped. Most cars are now so large and over-engineered, it’s no surprise that the driver feels invincible. Power-assisted steering, sat-nav and parking sensors reinforce the illusion of self-propulsion, while air-bags and other safety features are designed to protect the vehicle’s occupants rather than other road-users.
These modern machines bear little resemblance to the second-hand car I drove as a student, with its temperamental throttle and wonky gearstick. The heater was broken and the suspension shot to pieces; the rusty metal frame juddered and shook; and in winter I had to scrape ice off the inside of the windscreen. Driving was an intensely physical experience that reinforced my connection with the world outside, making me acutely aware that a false move might result in serious injury or death.
All of these factors have combined to make me averse to driving. And now, after holding out for many years, we own a car. The car’s main purpose, it turns out, is to ferry the children around to their various activities. Why do I do it? Well, I want the boys to get some exercise and mix with other children, but it isn’t safe for them to play outside on their own… because of selfish motorists like me.
No doubt this makes me a steaming hypocrite but there’s still a line I will not cross. I will not participate in conversations about the roadworks on the A4174 or the quickest route to the M4, because I really don’t give a stuff. You won’t hear me belly-aching about twenty-mile-per-hour residential speed limits, controlled parking zones or congestion charging: bring them on. I won’t become irate if the car gets bumped or scraped in our narrow street; I am more likely to be found sheepishly knocking on my neighbour’s door, explaining that I’ve dented her car with my clumsy manoeuvring.
And I try to limit my hypocrisy. Unlike some parents I know, I don’t fret about my child being abducted from the school playground by a predatory paedophile, while failing to recognise that my journey there by car poses a far greater risk, if not to my own offspring, then certainly to everyone else’s. In fact, I do not drive my boys to school or to their friends’ nearby houses. I will happily make an hour’s round trip across town on foot and not once will it occur to me that it would have been better if I’d driven. Not even if it’s raining and my shoes are leaking.
My lifestyle choices are dictated by my attitude towards driving. I will not drive to a supermarket to do a weekly shop, nor will I ever move to the countryside, where driving would become a daily necessity. And when I travel to another city, I always take the train, regardless of the extortionate fares, last-minute cancellations and cramped carriages. I don’t mind the inconvenience: all that matters to me is that I’m not hurtling along a grey stretch of motorway with my heart in my mouth and a moron in a jeep driving aggressively close to my rear bumper.
Still, I know I’ve lost the moral high ground since we bought a car. There was a time when I waited for people to reveal their assumption that I had access to a vehicle, just so I could smugly point out that I didn’t and refuse their hasty offer of a lift. I used to rage inwardly at parents who unthinkingly arranged children’s parties at out-of-town venues inaccessible by bus. Now I’m one of them.
These days I feel increasingly like the punctilious, moralising Keith in Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May, who, having delivered a patronising lecture on passive smoking, is challenged about the pollution caused by his car and responds breezily, ‘Oh, I only use it for getting from A to B.’ Does it make it any more excusable that I’m doing it for the kids? I don’t think so. Let’s just say that, when the time comes, they’ll be paying for their own driving lessons.