Driving at moderate speed on a twisting country road recently with a white van up my exhaust, I was torn between the usual contrasting impul-ses – speed up on a road I knew well to show he wasn’t the only idiot who could corner at speed or slow down to irritate him more.
Instead, I eased to the side at the first opportunity and ushered him past with a cheery wave, motivated by two things. One was a recent holiday in the west of Scotland that involved miles at low speeds of single track, passing places, roads where – once clear of the Loch Lomond rat run – almost every driver showed good road manners and patience.
The other was a Piet Hein aphorism: “Here lies extinguished in his prime/ A victim of modernity/But yesterday he hadn’t time/Now he has eternity”.
It must be more than 40 years since I first read that, when roads were less crowded, cars less powerful and lorries, tractors, combines and farm machinery much smaller than they are now.
No surprise that I have ignored that concise warning on many occasions when on farming or journalistic duty – rush, rush, stress, stress, spare parts or copy needed –but it makes me think often enough to keep speed and irritation with other road users under control. Statistics show that is particularly important on rural roads, the most dangerous per mile travelled for every type of road user and, I’d bet, most dangerous when it’s a road a driver knows well and another driver doesn’t.
The same statistics indicate that car occupants were almost twice as likely to be killed on a rural road than an urban one, motorcyclists more than twice as likely and cyclists more than three times as likely. The suggested solution to high death and accident rates – almost 900 killed, more than 6,500 injured on roads in “non built-up areas” last year – is lower speed limits of 50, 40, even 30mph.
I’ve driven in parts of rural Vermont with a speed limit of 25mph and once used to it, it was a relaxing way to drive.
But that was on holiday, not a daily commute or as a tradesman with a job to get to or a delivery to make. Americans also seem better at all sticking to the limit, whatever it is, rather than seeing how far above it they can drive without getting caught. The relevance of all this to farmers and contractors especially at this harvesting, baling, cultivating, sowing, spraying, frantic time of year is not a speed limit as applied to farm machinery, because even the fastest on-road tractors have trouble reaching 40mph, but the part played in rural road accidents by such machines in frustration for drivers behind.
There is no doubt that frustration factor on rural roads has become worse in recent years, for several reasons. At one time a driver stuck behind a farm machine could expect that it would not be going far on that road. Now contractors with big equipment, such as sprayers, work over big areas and can be on the same road for miles; farm businesses of several thousand hectares work it with fewer, much bigger, machines that travel the roads sometimes, when stuck behind, seemingly for ever; even when the road ahead is clear it’s not easy to squeeze past machines taking up what looks like two thirds of the road.
Having been on the other end of driver impatience, with the intellectually challenged coming past and cutting in front of a tractor within yards of a roundabout, and bearing Piet Hein’s aphorism in mind, I always try to be patient when stuck behind farm machinery. Not least because I know the driver is only doing his job by getting from A to B as quickly as possible.
Many such drivers are also aware of queues forming behind and pull in where possible. But some don’t and it’s the frustration that can cause that can lead to accidents and the claims by Brake, the road safety charity, that in a survey almost 20 per cent of drivers admitted breaking rural road speed limits, 15 per cent admitted taking corners and hill brows too fast, 5 per cent admitted unsafe overtaking. As we all think we’re better, safer drivers than we actually are higher percentages said they had been passengers when another driver had committed the above offences.
As with all statistics, they can be inverted. So 80 per cent stick to speed limits, 85 per cent don’t corner too fast, 95 per cent don’t risk unsafe overtaking. So they say. The fact remains that when it comes to what we do rather than claim, hundreds are killed and thousands injured on rural roads every year and farm machinery is one of the factors. Time might be short, but we don’t want to make it any shorter.