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‘If only lane assist could steer these plonkers to the inside lane’

Driving in Germany has reminded Meaden how bad UK drivers are

Dickie Meaden opinion

The last few months have seen me travel to Germany for work on a number of occasions. Following my own advice – as dispensed some months ago in this column – I’ve opted to drive rather than fly. Barring the morning of chaos caused by two protestors climbing up the busiest bridge in the UK and ruining everyone’s day, I’m pleased to say wheels comfortably beat wings every time.

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Driving in Europe, and specifically in Germany, has been bliss. Much as I hate to knock the UK, it’s fair to say the state of our roads and the standard of our driving have been a source of annoyance for some time. Leaving these shores has provided some welcome respite, but the flipside is that returning to our crumbling roads and terrible driving is profoundly depressing. I’m not sure what happened during the Covid lockdowns, but the vast majority of motorists (I use the term as a derogatory label for the mass murmuration of morons that seem to populate our roads) appear to have forgotten what meagre skills they possessed before the world stood still.

What we’re left with are people with a frankly shocking lack of awareness. Lane discipline is now almost non-existent, the middle and inside lanes of our motorways deserted while a snake of increasingly infuriated traffic sits behind someone doing 60mph in the outside lane. I’ve never bothered to follow any of them, but I’d wager they are the same people who sit at 40mph on a country road, flash their lights furiously when you safely overtake them, only to catch you up through the next village as they continue at the same speed.

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> ‘I’ve been trying to really engage with and enjoy the act of driving very slowly’

I’ve begun to think it’s symptomatic of the slow creep towards autonomous cars. The first thing I do in most new cars is disable all the various lane assist, park assist, smart cruise controls and emergency brake assist systems. I can’t bloody stand them. But there are millions of people who are only too pleased to have the process of driving reduced to pointing their car in a vague direction and waiting for some warning chime, flashing light or polite nudge of the steering wheel to tell them what to do. If only lane assist could evolve to the point where it steers these plonkers to the inside lane, or preferably off a cliff. 

When it comes to awareness, discipline, consideration and all-round capability, driving in Germany seems light years ahead of the UK. Why is this? I don’t doubt the driving test in Germany prepares new drivers better than most, but I’m pretty sure Germany’s high driving standards are due to the one thing that separates it from every other nation: the limit-free autobahn.

Everyone should have the opportunity to drive on the autobahn. Yes, we all tend to fetishise the fact that you are perfectly at liberty to go very fast indeed perfectly legally, but there’s much more to the autobahn than chasing your car’s V-max. It’s arguably the last place on earth where we’re left to judge for ourselves what constitutes an appropriate speed for the conditions.    

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I’ve always struggled with having a clear motorway ahead of me and having to stick to a speed limit introduced when cars wore cross-ply tyres and had drum brakes. The 70mph limit is immensely frustrating when you know you and your car are perfectly able to sit at 85 or 90 without putting anyone in danger. Bluntly it’s why most UK motorways can flow along quite nicely at 80-85mph. Unless you’ve got a clot sitting in the outside lane, that is.

The last two trips to Germany both involved a limit-free autobahn, and each time I was able to exceed 180mph for short periods. I’d be lying if I said the novelty of that wasn’t deeply enjoyable. Indeed, there are few things better than going very fast in a very fast car on a perfect piece of road. Yet the more impressive aspect of these motorway stints was being able to sit at a steady 100-120mph cruise. Not only do you make fabulous progress, but you witness a rare kind of harmony. One where a road network and its users are perfectly in tune. 

You quickly understand that you don’t have to drive at three-figure speeds, but those who are content to sit at 60 or 70mph drive with an awareness, consideration and respect for those who do wish to go fast. Likewise, those drivers travelling at serious pace instinctively look way ahead, read the traffic, judge closing speeds and blend in and out of the throttle so as not to need to apply the brakes. It’s an art, not the hair-raising game of Out Run most braindead motorists might imagine it to be. 

Short of upping sticks and moving to Germany (a modest house with a massive garage, somewhere between Stuttgart and Nürburg would do nicely, thank you) I’m not sure what the answer is. Stop caring? Have a 2CV as a daily driver? Employ a chauffeur? Answers on a postcard, please…

This story was first featured in evo issue 304.

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