A style built for engaged drivers finding itself wanting on modern road structures.
Many moons ago, long before I was even a consideration to my grandparents the roads in Britain were starting to take shape, and driving was becoming something more than a jaunt done but royalty. The cars on the road were an eclectic mix of style with a huge variance in substance. Losing speed wasn’t something you did because you weren’t paying attention, it was a cardinal sin that would be met with a full minute of attempting to gain back your momentum. Meanwhile, a man in a brand new Jaguar would have bolted past with a ratio of power differential that could only be achieved today by laying out several million for the rarest of machines. Even a diesel Clio will hold the speed limit and sluggishly pull its pace in an acceptable manner. Fast cars back then meant being able to travel at speeds that today are expected as an absolute minimum on motorways.
With this came progressive driving, confident, safe and aware. The road wasn’t a race track, but instead, a place to move from A to B with as little fuss and unnecessary movements as possible. Smooth, but powerful, fast but razor edge aware. Today, this is still the advice you would get from an advanced driving course. Indecision is a stepping stone to calamity, acceleration is as much a safety feature as brakes. Incredible when you stop and think about it, today acceleration and speed are seen as the root of all evil, and slow dawdling is applauded (by some, not all). A real-life example of this was in Scandinavia a couple of years ago in a light snowstorm, by Scandi standards. Ahead was white, visibility down to 50 meters, 150 feet in old money. The hard shoulder was thick with snow, and a verge of snow had built up between the two lanes of the E1 highway, the only vehicle visible was a lorry, his rear lights just about breaking through the white-out ahead. I couldn’t have told you if it was a tanker or trailer on the back. So, what to do, follow at a steady speed, pulling over isn't an option, and the outside lane has settled fresh snow on it. Before I could think, we were on the fresh snow. The driver (Finnish) had crept the speed up by 20 kilometers. Two things to point out, just in case you ever think to replicate this action. The vehicle was fitted with winter tyres, as is mandatory in Sweden in the winter, and it was four-wheel drive. I asked after we had passed two lorries and showed no signs of slowing why we were overtaking, interested in the theory, but expecting the answer to be no more informative than general frustration.
“It was the safest thing to do”. Ahead was still white, visibility no better, and snow continued to fire toward the windscreen.
Modern roads don’t leave a lot open for progressive driving, their design is to flow us quickly, and it's more than matched by the power of all but the worst automotive efforts.
Later, having arrived in Stockholm and warming ourselves near a fire with a warm cider to hand there was time to pry into the theory. I needn’t had asked, the traffic news was already reporting a 4-hour delay to the E1 going into Stockholm. A domino of accidents had occurred, with a car skidding attempting to miss a truck ahead. The cars and lorries behind, all in line, ploughed into each other one after the other as the speed between them was too great to be wiped out in the few seconds between seeing brake lights and smashing into the rear.
“This happens all the time now. The safest place for cars is away from the trucks, we can travel together at a higher speed in the overtaking lane, as long as no one breaks the chain of confidence in their speed, everyone makes it home.”
Progressive driving, getting from A to B, is the often overlooked first step to every journey. A lack of confidence behind the wheel means there is no guarantee of this simple first step. Going quickly and safely without impeding the motorists around you is almost entirely forgotten. This isn’t to say that cruising along at the speed limit should be dissuaded. That’s the goal, but using speed a lot like a trigger is key. If it is safer to pass then get it done, if it is safer to stop then scrub as much speed as necessary, but whatever you do remain vigilant. That’s the message that chimes the loudest. Going fast in the snow isn’t supposed to be brave, it supposed to be deployed when absolutely necessary and not a moment longer. The same in the dark, driving rain or even a warm summers afternoon. Risks are plenty and modern road structures seem to assume zero driving ability, making us all lazy.
The problem with progressive driving is that it is rarely necessary. You wouldn’t drive on drag strip radials all year just because you wanted to visit Santa Pod raceway in June. We quickly forget, when and where to deploy it. Leading to indecision when it is actually needed.
So do we want more challenging roads to force driver awareness? Is this all pointless because we will be shoved into driverless or self-governed cars in the future? Or is progressive driving a skill akin to using a manual gearbox, useful to know but slowing being rendered useless as we switch to more automatics and cars with hefty safety features.