Just occasionally all of us find the pleasure of motoring heightened by a drive through beautiful countryside on quiet roads, but most of the time we have to contend with other traffic, and an increasing quantity of it. Sometimes, however, you may be able to make what promises to be a congested journey more enjoyable by re-timing it (perhaps by leaving home before the rush hour or after it subsides) or by planning to by-pass towns wherever possible (by travelling on country roads as well as purpose-built bypasses). By carefully studying a map before a long journey, you may be able to avoid much of the traffic.
If your route leaves you no alternative to driving through congested areas, there are ways in which you can make life a little easier for yourself. For example, you can reduce the amount of concentration needed for navigation by getting a passenger to guide you along unfamiliar roads or through a strange town. The excellent large-format paperback road atlases now available are updated annually so that you can be sure all the new roads are shown if you have a recent copy, and many of these atlases also contain street maps for larger towns and cities.
If you are driving alone, it is a very good idea to plan your route in advance and write on a piece of paper all the important towns and road numbers to look for. By glancing at this at traffic lights you have an instant route-finder at your fingertips, thereby saving yourself the bother of frequent stops - and of finding somewhere safe to stop - in order to thumb through an atlas. A route card, perhaps written on the back of a postcard, might look like this:
At J14 (Hungerford) of M4 turn 1. onto A338
1 mile later turn r. onto B4000
7 miles later bear 1. onto A4, towards Newbury
At first roundabout in Newbury, turn 1. on Wantage
Almost immediately, turn 1. into Donnington Square.
With the aid of a good-scale map, such as the large-format paperback atlases mentioned above, you will be able to estimate distances fairly accurately. By keeping an eye on your car's mileage recorder, you can give yourself plenty of warning about when your next junction can be expected.
Since driving in traffic is a fact of motoring life, you must learn to live with it. You must gain the keen awareness which allows an advanced driver to handle his car in traffic confidently and safely, yet you must also guard against the dangerous over-confidence which some drivers seem to acquire as they become familiar with heavy traffic conditions.
Heavy main road and motorway traffic, with two or three lanes of traffic travelling along at anything up to 70mph, is usually the most daunting to the novice driver. At busy times of day you are likely to see only a few drivers maintaining a proper distance behind the vehicle in front, but you must try to stick to this safe rule at all times, even if it means that other drivers sometimes slot into the sensible space you have left. When this happens you must drop back to re-establish the safe distance: this proper sense of caution will make little difference to your journey time, but it could make all the difference in keeping you — and others — out of trouble if an accident happens ahead. Serious pile-ups on motorways or dual carriageways would not happen if every driver observed this basic rule of good driving.
When traffic in two or more lanes is flowing at similar speeds, you often see the type of hooligan driver who switches lanes to put himself in whichever seems the best one at any given moment. This behaviour occurs most frequently on urban dual carriageways, and it seems increasingly to be regarded as almost acceptable although it certainly raises the level of danger - on the busiest of them. The basic rule, of course, is that you stay in the left-hand lane unless you have a specific reason for occupying another one. On a very busy three-lane urban road with plenty of heavy lorries and buses occupying the left-hand lane, as well as the occasional driver intending to turn left, you will probably spend most, if not all, of your time in the centre lane, leaving the right-hand lane for drivers who are overtaking or planning to turn right. It is advisable to treat two-lane roads as though the right-hand and centre lanes were combined.
If everybody followed this pattern these roads would be more straightforward to cope with, but you will inevitably meet with a cut-and-thrust attitude. A typical example might come from the driver who has tried to make faster progress in the right-hand lane only to find that he wants a way back into the centre lane when he comes up behind someone turning right.
You should always stay in the inside lane, therefore, unless you have a good reason to move temporarily to another one. But do follow another basic principle of advanced driving by keeping an eye on what is going on well ahead, so that you have plenty of time to judge any change of lane. Apart from overtaking slower vehicles, a lane-change might become necessary because a three-lane road narrows down to two lanes, or because a left-turn filter allows vehicles to peel off early approaching a junction (especially those controlled by lights). If you find yourself in a left-hand filter lane when you wish to go straight on, it is best to make the turn and then return to your route by side roads or by finding somewhere safe to turn round. To make a sudden, unplanned lane-change is dangerous, and to sit at a green filter light blocking the path of other drivers is discourteous.
Very often you can find yourself driving in the left or centre lane as part of a flow of traffic which is moving more quickly than the stream to your right: in effect, you find yourself obliged to overtake on the inside, albeit usually at a speed which means that you pass the vehicle to your right quite gradually. This is permissible because modern traffic density has forced it to be so, but you must never step over the borderline (admittedly a slightly indistinct one) and start indulging in deliberate 'inside overtaking'. Not only is this illegal, but it is also highly dangerous because the driver you pass may be taken by surprise. It is also illegal, and equally stupid, to use the hard shoulder to pass other vehicles on a motorway.
It is permissible to overtake on the left along a one-way street, but remember that doing so can take other road users and pedestrians by surprise. You should keep to the left along a one-way street unless this lane is heading towards a left turn or you plan to make a right turn yourself.
Always take special care when coming up behind traffic waiting to turn right. The road lay-out may give you room to slip through if you have failed to anticipate the situation, but do so with great caution. A pedestrian might be about to step out between stationary vehicles without expecting to meet a moving car, or a driver in the queue waiting to turn right might suddenly decide to drive straight on and move into your path.
Pedestrian crossings on urban roads with two or more lanes are very dangerous places, for drivers as well as pedestrians. Stop in good time when you see someone wishing to cross, and always be prepared for the possibility of one of the drivers ahead of you making a sudden decision to stop for a pedestrian to cross. It is a serious offence to overtake anyone on the approach to a pedestrian crossing, that is in the area marked by zig-zag white lines at the side of the road.
Stopping in traffic
Keep checking your mirror when you are at a standstill, even at traffic lights. If a driver in your mirror appears to be coming up too quickly, a few dabs on the brake pedal will flash your brake lights to alert him to your presence.
When you stop at traffic lights, you should apply the handbrake and put the gear lever into neutral. As soon as you see the amber to green sequence, engage first gear and prepare to release the handbrake ready to move off when the green light appears. Many motorists waste their own time and that of other road-users — as well as reducing the number of vehicles able to pass through a busy junction in each sequence — by delaying these actions until the green light actually appears. Rather than gazing around, watch the lights while you are waiting so that you are ready to move off smartly; it is a good idea, if you can see them, to watch the lights controlling other streams of traffic so that you have a few seconds' warning of when your lights will change.
Oil accumulates on the road at any places where vehicles regularly stop, so allow for the possibility of greatly reduced tyre grip, whether you are braking to a stop or accelerating away again. The coating of oil and rubber on city streets tends to become polished by constant traffic, so remember that urban road surfaces can be very slippery in wet weather.
Pay special attention to pedestrians when negotiating junctions in towns, especially where they cross at traffic lights. People can quite easily step into the road without glancing to see whether it is clear, and if a large number of pedestrians is streaming across in front of you it is quite possible that a few tail-enders following the flock will cross as your lights are changing to green. Beware of the cyclist who emerges from a side street without looking, and never forget that any cyclist is entitled to his wobble, as a High Court ruling has confirmed. It is the motorist's responsibility to avoid a cyclist.
It should go without saying that nipping through traffic lights as the signal changes from amber to red is terribly dangerous; just as risky is anticipating the green by moving away when you see the amber. You can imagine the dangerous consequences when two 'amber gamblers' meet in the middle of a junction. Remember that the green light should be taken as permission to continue with caution, not an instruction to proceed.
If you have stopped on a hill, always allow a little extra room in case the vehicle in front should roll back. The driver may not have applied the handbrake firmly enough, or may make such a clumsy start that his vehicle rolls back a couple of feet before it moves forward. A warning toot on the horn will probably prevent a gentle impact if you see this start to happen, but if you leave it too late, or if you have not left those extra few feet as a margin, the vehicle may hit your car. Easing off your own brake a fraction can ease the impact, but take care not to roll back yourself. The fact that learners — and some more experienced drivers — have been known to select reverse instead of first emphasises the value of leaving that extra gap when you have to wait in traffic on a hill.
Another point to remember when stopping on a hill is that you should never hold the car on the clutch: always use the handbrake. Apart from the danger of stalling the engine and letting the car roll back, or even of a sudden surge forward if your foot slips, using the clutch in this way will wear it out rapidly.
There are two important rules concerning parking. First, observe the law, even if you feel that it seems unreasonable (remember that parking restrictions are intended to ease the flow of traffic, and sometimes to discourage people from bringing their cars into town centres). Second, be thoughtful about the safety and convenience of other drivers and pedestrians. This consideration will mean that you avoid parking close to junctions, a common problem which inconveniences drivers making a turn and gives a dangerously restricted view for any driver trying to pull out into the traffic. You should also avoid parking in front of someone's drive, or at a popular crossing point where pedestrians would have to funnel round your car.
The technique of parking is extremely simple, yet it seems to evade many people throughout their motoring lives. The golden rule is not to enter a space nose first, unless it is a really large space. You should drive alongside a chosen space, assessing whether it is long enough to take your car, and stop when your own car's rear wheels are alongside the back of the parked car ahead of your space, keeping about two feet out. Reverse slowly on full left-lock (for a space on the left-hand side of the road), switching to full right-lock as the front of your car clears the one ahead. It helps, of course, to have a very clear idea of the exact position of the invisible front extremities of your car. Perform this manoeuvre correctly with one smooth movement and you will end up with all four wheels neatly adjacent to the kerb. It then remains only to edge forward a few feet with the steering wheel centred to place your car in the middle of the space. With practice, you will be able to park your car in surprisingly small gaps.
Before we leave the subject of traffic, it is worth observing that people used to driving in the very dense, sometimes swift-moving traffic of large cities are generally more confident. London drivers, in particular, seem to have a decisive style which seems almost foolhardy to drivers from quieter parts of the country, but by and large it works well because they know what they are doing and where they are going. The press-on approach helps to move large volumes of traffic through some very congested road systems.
Applying the same decisive style on a provincial town's roads can seem aggressive, even downright dangerous, partly because it is out of place. In the same way, someone driving warily in London for the first time must try not to be intimidated by the cut-and-thrust of somewhere like Hyde Park Corner in the rush hour. Each type of driving is right for the conditions, so it can be dangerous if you do not - or even feel that you cannot conform to the traffic pattern around you. The advice can really only be this: 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'.
- If you plan to make a journey along unfamiliar roads, prepare a route card to ease the task of navigation.
- Always maintain the required braking distance when traffic is very heavy, even if this means dropping back when another vehicle nips into the space you have left.
- Use all your powers of observation on a busy two- or three-lane road so that you are never caught in the wrong lane: look out for traffic turning left or right; prepare to overtake a slow-moving vehicle well in advance; avoid becoming obliged to take an unwanted left-hand filter lane.
- Treat traffic lights responsibly; when traffic is heavy, you should help the flow through a junction by being ready to move off smartly when the green light appears.
- Teach yourself to park properly: a good parking technique helps you and causes less delay to other drivers.