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Saturday, 20 September 2014

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I’m the guy you’ll find doing 28 in a 30 zone, with 200 cars behind me. If somebody wants to go past I’m quite happy to let them, because I think ‘There’s another customer’

A few years ago I might have been here as a student rather than a reporter.

In 2004 a speed camera – or a safety camera as they’ve since become known – snapped me doing 80mph on a dual carriageway stretch of the A69 at Hexham.

In those days there was no alternative to a £60 fine and three points on my licence.

Today, if the police had thought it appropriate, I might have been offered the option of coming here, to this speed awareness course at Morton Community Centre on Wigton Road, Carlisle.

These courses were introduced just over a year ago. Motorists who stray a few miles over the limit are now frequently offered four hours of education instead of three points.

There’s no fine either. The course costs £70, so avoiding those dreaded points costs just an extra tenner and half a day.

No wonder almost everyone who is given the option gratefully seizes it.

But this is not an act of charity. Never mind the £70 – we are here to discover the real cost of speeding.

There are 21 people on this morning’s course. The course doesn’t happen in Scotland so about half are Scots who have come to Carlisle as their nearest centre. Courses are also held at Penrith, Workington and Whitehaven.

Only three of the 21 are women. Trainer Colin Johnston says this is an unusually low proportion, although there are usually a few more men than women.

The average age seems about 40. Colin says it’s very rare to have teenagers here. They either speed “properly”, in which case they are punished rather than educated, or they drive cautiously, thanks to increased education for today’s learners.

The speeders’ occupations include a taxi driver, a caterer and several lorry drivers.

One man usually drives a Golf GTI but came here in his wife’s Fiesta: “Which I couldn’t speed in if I tried to.”

Colin is a former policeman from west Cumbria. And, he declares, a reformed speeder.

“I was quite happy when I left the police driving around at 38 in a 30 zone because I knew I’d never get caught. I’ve done more than 100 on the motorway.”

But that was in the BC era – Before Cameras.

Colin asks if anyone has been fined for speeding before. Several hands go up.

“So fining people isn’t working,” he says.

The statistics back him up. Of speeders who have been fined, 9.5 per cent reoffend.

Of speeders who have been on a course like this, the figure is only 3.2 per cent.

Those who have been on a course like this include Colin himself.

In April last year he was due to lead his first speed awareness course. Three weeks earlier, he was caught driving at 46 in a 40 zone.

He smiles. “I offered to teach the course to myself, but they said that was unethical.”

Colin was sent to one in Lancashire, which he felt preached too aggressively. He has taught his own less table-banging version dozens of times.

“This course is designed to make you think,” he says.

We rattle through some facts and figures.

Only 22 per cent of crashes happen on rural roads, but these account for 62 per cent of fatal accidents.

The reason is speed. It might not be illegal to drive at 60 down a winding country lane, but is it a good idea?

Colin mentions the A6 between Carlisle and Penrith. A quiet road, and 17 people have died on it in the past three years.

“When you had congestion on the A6 before the M6 was built, you didn’t get the crashes. Now the road is quiet so speeds are higher. Think of the impacts. You don’t get out of that.”

Overall, the numbers killed and seriously injured in car crashes have been falling for the past few years. Courses such as this may be one factor.

Changes in car design have certainly had an effect, although today’s sleek beasts can lull drivers into not realising their speed.

Colin remembers how Ford Populars would shake, rattle and maybe even roll if forced beyond 45mph.

He suggests opening a window to stay alert, and help you feel how fast you’re travelling.

Why do we speed? Colin throws the question out. Back come responses like lack of concentration, good mood, bad mood, loud music, running late, empty roads, slow drivers in front, trying to get home for your tea, a belief that being slightly over the speed limit is ok.

“Here’s one I used to do when I was younger,” says one man. “See how fast the car will go.”

“Bad customers,” says the taxi driver.

“Feeling pressured by tailgaters.”

“Do you want to be a sheep or a shepherd?” asks Colin. “Why should I risk my licence for them?”

Colin wants to hear the consequences of speeding.

The group concludes that it’s all about loss. Of a job. A licence. A life.

Last year 30 people died in road accidents in Cumbria.

But none of the people here was responsible for that. All they’ve done is edge a few miles an hour over the limit. Give the boy racers a lesson, certainly, but why lecture these borderline offenders?

Colin hits any doubters with statistics which make a big impression.

Only five per cent of pedestrians hit at 20mph will die.

At 30mph, 20 per cent will die.

And at 40 mph? Ninety per cent will die.

The sound of air being sucked in though teeth whistles around the room.

“We didn’t have those figures in years gone by,” says Colin. “At five miles an hour over the 30 speed limit, it takes another 21 feet to stop.

“You can do nothing about the kid running out. But you can drop your speed in case something happens.”

Another discussion: what distracts us when we’re driving and stops us concentrating on our speed?

Passengers talking. Staring at a Sat Nav screen. Mobile phones.

One man admits that he could remember nothing of a 15-mile journey, because he spent it sending texts.

The word ‘COAST’ appears on the screen.

Concentration, Observation, Anticipation, Space, Time.

As with Dr Who, space and time are closely linked. More of one gives you more of the other.

“If there’s one thing you take away from this course – leave space. Space doesn’t hurt you.”

Some of those here did not realise the speed limit of the road they were caught on; a common complaint among speeders.

Colin explains the signs to look for in the absence of... signs.

One thing many drivers don’t realise is that street lights indicate a 30mph limit.

We’re nearing the end. Colin puts photographs and videos of roads on his screen and asks for comments on how to negotiate them safely.

“Give that cyclist room,” he says. “If you hit him, it makes such a mess and it ruins your day.”

One final film. You may have seen this one on TV. It’s a public information film.

A man goes to work, goes for a walk, sits at his computer. And everywhere he looks he sees the dead body of the boy he ran over.

‘Kill your speed. Or live with it.’

And Colin’s summing up and saying it’s important to concentrate and observe and anticipate.

And then he says: “I ran over a boy when I was 19. I crippled him. It wasn’t my fault – he ran out in front of me. But the guilt lives with me.”

Colin has been driving to his girlfriend’s house in Whitehaven one afternoon at about half past three.

“A kiddy ran out. He was about six. On the course, I talk about what you can do in that split second. I did nothing. I hit him. His head went on top of the bonnet and he slid under the car. I’d broken his leg, his hip and his collarbone.

“The police didn’t blame me. The parents didn’t blame me. I wasn’t speeding. But my mind was on my girlfriend. I could have had the speed lower.

“Seven years later there was a lad walking past with a limp. I remembered him. I crippled him.”

Time’s up. Colin’s saying goodbye. And if you want to come on this course again – although not within three years – it can be arranged all too easily.

“I’m the guy you’ll find doing 28 in a 30 zone, with 200 cars behind me. If somebody wants to go past I’m quite happy to let them, because I think ‘There’s another customer.’”

Jane Hegedus lives in Carlisle and is a schools advisor in Lancashire.

“I was going through roadworks at junction 41 on the M6. I was doing 59 and the limit was 50.

“I was quite pleased to get the chance to come on the course. It’s definitely made me think about changing my habits.

“In the past when you’ve spotted a speed camera and slowed down, you don’t think ‘I need to change my habits.’ You just keep going.

“You get into bad habits. It’s familiarity. You stop noticing the things you should notice.”

Neil Fisher is a solicitor from Carlisle who now lives in Greater Manchester.

“I was caught by a camera doing 81 on the M6 over Shap.

“I’ve sometimes thought about going on a driving course, although I wasn’t expecting it to be in these circumstances.

“It’s almost 40 years since I passed my test and I’ve had no driver training in that time. Road conditions and cars have changed so much.

“The course helps you lose some of the bad habits you’ve developed over the years and encourages you to concentrate a lot more. I think everybody should come on one.”

Colin Johnston’s Words of Wisdom:

“A speed limit is not a target.”

“A lot of cars don’t like doing 30. They’re straining to go faster. If you’re in fourth gear, drop down into third.”

“If you’re driving in the country, look out for church spires and rooftops in the distance. They’ll tell you you’re coming towards a town and you should prepare to slow down.”

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