By Peter Rhodes (Express & Star, Thursday April 2 1998)
The good news is that we are all millionaires. The bad news is you have to die in a road crash to prove it.
According to the experts, every fatality on Britain’s roads costs about £1 million in lost income and insurance settlements. About 4,000 folk perish on Britain’s roads every year. Last year, 105 died in the West Midlands.
“We’ve got safer cars and safer roads than ever before”, says traffic cop Inspector Ray Hartshorne. “What’s missing, and what nobody has really addressed until now, is safer drivers.”
That’s why the West Midlands is becoming the first metropolitan district in Britain to offer the Driver Improvement Course as an alternative to prosecution.
“Under normal circumstances,” says the inspector, “a PC would see that a driver could have avoided an accident, but made a mistake, and the driver might be prosecuted for driving without due care and attention.
“But now, rather than going through the courts, we might recommend that they go on one of these courses instead.”
Not all erring drivers will be invited. Those with poor driving records and anyone awaiting trial for more serious offences will have to take their chance with the courts, with the inevitable fine, or even disqualification, and penalty points.
Those invited on the Driver Improvement Course, run by Walsall, Birmingham and Dudley councils in conjunction with the police and local driving schools, will have to pay a fee of £100 for the day-and-a-half session.
Says Walsall’s road-safety officer Mark Rickard: “The thing that we haven’t so far tackled is the key to all these accidents – the driver.
“Time after time, we go out to the scene of fatal accidents, and the road itself is entirely innocent. You can’t understand why anyone should lose their lives there. It’s just driver error.
“This scheme is the best way for us to get in touch with those most likely to be involved in accidents.”
So far, so good. But how will the men and women of the West Midlands react to shelling out £100, sitting in a car with a driving instructor and being told they are not the world’s greatest driver?
Ray Hartshorne admits that the course, pioneered in Devon seven years ago, can cause some initial resentment.
“Some courses begin with people asking, why should I be here? But within 30 minutes they are won over by the instructors. They usually go away full of the course, talking about how much they have learned. It’s an opportunity that not many people get.”
Walsall Council’s cycling office, Anthea Jones, got a chance as a guinea pig before the course was launched. Her normal conveyance is a bike but she has also been driving for 10 years. How did she feel about being assessed and criticised?
“I was very nervous. It was rather like being on your test again, being very aware of everything you’re doing.
“Over the years you do pick up bad driving habits. I found I wasn’t using the mirrors enough. I suppose I was a bit indignant at first, but the instructor was in the right.”
The scheme, hailed as “a partnership aimed at educating rather than punishing,” includes classroom sessions on avoiding hazards as well as several hours of practical instruction by qualified driving instructors.
The evil hour can be postponed no longer Colin Barnett, an instructor with The Learner Driving Centre in Erdington, escorts me to a J-reg Toyota Corolla.
It has an automatic gearbox and has been fitted with special adaptations for disabled drivers. Not the ideal vehicle for showing off your expertise. Hesitantly, I pull into Birmingham’s Pershore Road for a closely monitored spin through the one-way streets and bus lanes of Edgbaston and Selly Oak.
His verdict? Modesty forbids. Oh, all right then:
“Very, very good,” he says. “Apart from . . . “Somehow you knew there would be an “apart from . . .”
“The bus coming towards us back there,” says Barnett, an instructor with 15 years’ experience. “You left a bit of a narrow gap. If the car on the nearside had opened his door, it could have been very tricky.
“And that one-way street. You didn’t really pick up the fact it was a one-way street, did you? And you didn’t make much use of the left-hand mirror, which is very useful for spotting cyclists (so that’s what it’s for). Apart from that, fine.”
Some small, sensitive part of my psyche sulks briefly. But if the choice is between a prosecution, a fine and three penalty points on the licence or a brisk talking to by Colin Barnett and his colleagues, there really is no choice.