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The Happy Commuter

Not many people can say that they enjoy their daily commute with any degree of truth.

I am an exception to this rule.

Yesterday morning, I softly shut the front door, and swiftly double locked it. As I walked briskly to the car, I noticed that it was cloaked with water droplets from the previous night’s heavy rain, and they shimmered in the alabaster cold moonlight, ruffled gently by the almost imperceptible breeze.

I looked up the field, and could just about make out the old farmhouse through the light mist. The sky overhead was as black as tarmac, and the stars glittered like shards of broken glass.

I smiled to myself.

It was 0445, and I was about to drive from rural Hampshire to Heathrow Airport for my early shift.

The car was chilled as I started it up, and I decided to be very self-indulgent, and switch on the heated seats, as it was only 0.5°C. By the time I reached the tiny hamlet of Bramshott, the warmth was permeating my back nicely.

The back lanes had treated me like royalty this morning. First, an unscheduled stop to enable a family of Muntjac deer to slowly amble from one side of the road, to the nature reserve on the other.

A Muntjac deer, Shy and beautiful. Photo courtesy J J Harrison

A few minutes later, I found myself driving parallel with a barn owl, sweeping effortlessly along the field to my right.

Photo courtesy Peter K Buriam. Barn Owl in flight.

Fantastic!

Accelerating up the slip road to join the A3, a quick glance in the mirror showed that there was no evidence of other vehicles heading north – not even a headlight beam.

Once the car was comfortably at the legal limit, I engaged the cruise control, tuned in my favourite radio station (Greatest Hits Radio) and took a sip of coffee.

Oh, the joy of fast cruising on an empty highway. No vehicles, and just the occasional truck heading south to Portsmouth to dip my headlights for.

The tarmac was damp, but not slippery, and I managed to get all the way to Guildford, some 17 miles before I spotted another vehicle heading north.

By Ripley, his headlights were just bright dots in the mirror.

The M25 was equally quiet, relatively speaking. Busy with articulated lorries, many bound for the airport, and some diving off down the M3 to head to the docks at Southampton.

In some respects, this was a bit eerie. In the past, even at this early hour, the western segment of the M25 would be busy with cars; airport workers and passengers, all heading for the terminals.

Lockdown was having a huge effect. The airport was just about surviving, but with so few movements, staff were either on furlough, or redundant. On the upside, air pollution was significantly reduced, and my journey time was reduced by twenty minutes.

Once off the motorway, my drive takes me through Staines, Ashford, and Bedfont, all of which are pretty deserted.

At this time of day, the lunatics and muppets are not about – still asleep I guess. Most of those that I encounter are driving safely, at the limit, and are courteous and helpful.

This doesn’t happen at 0445 on the A3… All the loons are in bed.

I pass through the security checkpoint at work very quickly.

Well, to be fair, I am the only vehicle in the queue.

My shift start time is conveniently placed between the end of one shift and the beginning of another, so there is rarely a wait before driving through the massive security gates, and onwards to the staff car park.

Early shifts are a pleasure. Definitely the best time of the day.

According to my mother, I have been an early riser since I was an infant.

I went through a phase as a grumpy teenager when I would sleep in until lunchtime, but that was more as a result of imbibing vast quantities of alcohol with my friends, until late in the evening every Friday.

I would get home, and crash out, on many occasions still fully dressed, not to be seen again until the sun was very much over the yard arm.

Despite the amount of beer taken on board, I was lucky to have never had a hangover either!

Leaving my teenage years behind, I became an early riser once more.

Working in the aviation industry, for a major airline I was a shift worker, and enjoyed a variety of start times, varying from 0500 to 2200 starts, and other shift starts between these two extremes.

0500 starts have always been my favourite though.

Summer “early-earlies” would see me quietly leaving the house, walking down the garden path in the pre-dawn glow of a brand-new day.

At the time, I was living in West London, about 5 miles from the centre of London Heathrow Airport, so it was a short drive to the staff car park.

In Spring, I would revel in the cool stillness of the morning. The sun would be shyly peeking over the gardens to the east, gilding the slate roofs of Bedfont with a golden glow, doing far more for the houses than a complete renovation would achieve.

Summer would offer somnolent dawns, warm, dappled and filled with birdsong and I would drive the deserted roads around the perimeter of the airport, usually not seeing another vehicle until I was within the airport restricted area.

Standing at the staff car park bus stop, it always surprised me that so many of us early shifters looked so tired, disengaged and sleepy.

I was, and still am, one of those awful people that are immediately ready for the day ahead as soon as their eyes are open.

Poor SWMBO, with whom I have shared my life for over 30 years, is a night owl, and doesn’t function correctly until the correct number of coffees have been emptied into her!

So, I would bask in the sunshine, waiting for the bus, whilst the others round me were slumped against the glass walls of the shelter.

The buses back then were a climate activist’s nightmare. Operated by the British Airports Authority, they were probably ten years old and to be frank, were knackered. Originally painted in bright traffic yellow, they were battered and grimy, both inside and out.

They rattled, creaked and generated more diesel smoke than an ocean liner, and would grind their way round the airport perimeter road, making only one stop at the staff bus stop in the central area.

I would then enjoy a brisk walk to Terminal 3 check in for work.

Autumn 0500s were enjoyable too, but in a more melancholy way. I would still leave the house at 0430, but now the sun was reluctant to welcome the day, and I would walk through the crispy leaves to the car in the half light, now needing to wear my light bomber jacket, thoughtfully provided by American Airlines.

As the seasons marched on, I would have to leave the house at 0420, to give me sufficient time clear the ice or snow from the windscreen.

Whilst I used a de-icing spray in the hardest weather, I often had to scrape the ice from the car, and the sounds would be amplified throughout the quiet residential street, reverberating and bouncing off the houses, and shattering the stillness.

I used to feel guilty about this, until I realised that most of my neighbours were shift workers as well, and we all took it in our stride.

I stopped working at the airport in 1997. I had been lucky enough whilst working with American Airlines to see many aspects of airline operations, Passenger Services, Passenger Security, Special Services, and Flight Operations.

I had sat in a deserted ops room, watching the flights departing the US, and plotted their arrival times, and planned the parking stands for the day.

I had sat with my heart in my mouth in the early hours of July 18th 1996, after hearing reports that an American aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic off the coast near New York.

It turned out to be TWA flight 800, and not one of “my” flights, but still a tragic loss of 230 human beings.

I had searched aircraft, operated security equipment, and interviewed suspect passengers.

I had escorted celebrities and VIP as they transited both Heathrow and Stansted airports.

Flight operations was my element though. It was what I was trained for, what I enjoyed, and what I understood.

However, promotion in the Flight Operations sector normally requires the transfer to a job that is no longer practical and hands on, but is more of a specialist desk job.

So, after many years with the mighty American Airlines, I started work with British Airways, working out of the fantastic Compass Centre.

The design of Compass Centre makes use of curved glass external walls on the south side, which overlooks the airfield. Curved glass walls were chosen as glass does not present a large radar signature, and the curved walls reflect radar energy onto the ground.

This reduces the building’s radar reflection on the ground movements radar used at the airport. The building is also thermally efficient, and summer afternoons caused the air conditioning to run at full power, despite the floor to ceiling blinds.

I was very privileged, as my department occupied the middle floor of the eastern-most block, and overlooked the runway. My desk was three feet from the glass windows, so my viewpoint was superb.

Compass Centre, My office was the middle floor of the module nearest the camera.

My job was now a standard day job, with working hours of 0800-1600. I now had to drive on roads that were filled with other commuters, some of whom appeared to have forgotten the most basic driving skills.

Luckily, this didn’t last too long, and I soon transferred to the Flight Training School, where I began working as a Flight Crew Instructor. Not only was the job hugely enjoyable, but luckily, I was back on a shift roster.

My office… I could never be an accountant!

Most of the instructors weren’t keen on early starts, so I happily swapped out their earlies, and off-loaded my late shifts. Every day was an 0630 arrival, so I was normally out of the doors at 1430, and was able to use the rest of the day for my pleasure when the rest of the world were slaving away in their offices.

I am now getting towards my personal Top of Descent, and I am thinking more and more about retirement.

If you ask people what they like most about their retirement, the most common response is “Not having to do the daily commute”.

I think that I will miss my enforced dawn patrols, when the day is new, and you can smell the freshness of the dawn.

What about you?

Categories
Driving English Culture Motoring Satire Society Transport Travel Uncategorized

The BMW Myth… Busted?

It was a long day at work, delivering two flight training sessions. I was in no real hurry, as the weather was a bit miserable, with wet roads, and poor visibility. It was just as well, as the A3 southbound was moving at a sedate 40 mph up the hill through the fifty limit at Guildford.

I spotted the headlights first, weaving crazily in and out of the traffic, and then rapidly accelerating up the nearside lane as I was overtaking a slower van. The white car swerved out in front of me, cutting into my lane with scant inches to spare.

I was ready for this and was already braking, my sixth sense warning me of the potential accident heading my way.

As the car rocketed past me, I sighed as I glimpsed the badge on the boot lid.

Yes, just as I thought, it was another appallingly driven BMW.

I watched the car continue to weave in and out of the traffic, crossing lanes with no apparent understanding of risk. The frequent illumination of brake lights was not accompanied by any appearance of functioning indicators.

Par for the course?

I drove home without further incident, wondering if there was any statistical evidence to support the urban legend that all BMW drivers were aggressive and inconsiderate.

So, I sat down and started researching this to see what I could find.

It didn’t take long to discover that GoCompare, the insurance comparison website had conducted an analysis of their customer database, and had some interesting results.

Un-surprisingly, the urban legend was true!

It appears that more than 17.1% of BMW 4 series drivers have at least one conviction, which is about twice the average rate for all other BMW models!  A staggering 21% of 4 series drivers have also made an at-fault claim on their insurance.

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Further checking revealed that Audi A5 drivers are also up there in the top ten for convictions and at-fault claims, along with Mercedes C220 and E220 pilots, closely followed by Jaguar and Landrover owners.

DD392844-435F-4D2F-AE1D-4D1445EEFA0Bcf7a1092-a1db-46f9-a13c-13276131e7a2.png

This all seems to tie in with my own un-scientific perceptions, honed as they are with a 450 mile  weekly commute.

Interestingly, Admiral Insurance has also analysed the data returned from their telematics systems – the Little Black Box fitted into the boot that monitors driving behaviour. It seems that drivers of Audis, Mercedes and Landrovers are again flagging up as the worst drivers in the UK.

But there is good news. Drivers of smaller, lower-powered cars such as Vauxhall Agilas, Hyundai i10s, and Nissan Micras are least likely to have been convicted of an offence, but they are also less likely to have made at-fault claims.

Maybe the lack of a big, tough metal box to sit in, a less commanding road position, and dare I say it, a low performance engine makes them less attractive to those with a more competitive and thrusting driving style?

These are facts released by insurance companies, and whilst they do seem to reinforce the image that motorists owning German-built cars are bad drivers, they don’t explain why drivers with poorer driving records seem to be attracted to such vehicles.

I guess I will have to dig for some more facts…

Until then – drive safely!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Climate change Ecological Environment Motorcycling Motoring Politics Science Society Technology Transport Travel Uncategorized

Tyres – The Invisible Ecological Menace

We have all heard almost to the point of frustration about climate change, pollution and how bad cars powered by fossil fuels are.

We are all exhorted to consider using an electric vehicle, or a hybrid so as to cut our carbon footprint, and stop climate change.

Obviously, all of this is deserving of support, and climate change is a very real threat, as is the increase in health problems as a result of the toxic gases in vehicle exhausts.

However, there is a sinister, yet little-publicised threat which may prove to be even more injurious to health and the marine environment, even if it has little impact on greenhouse gases and climate change.

Tyres.

CE914D82-F424-4259-B7CE-D3E02D29218E

Yes, you did read correctly. Tyres are in the top ten of nasty pollutants that contaminate the world with micro-particles.

Tyres. Those innocuous black things attached to the wheel rims of your car, van, motorcycle, truck or bus.

We all know that tyres wear out – as we all have to buy them now and again, if we are to stay safe and legal.

So, what happens to the worn bits of tyre?  Well, they are eroded by the road surface and are released as micro-fibres, particulates that are fine enough to form as a dust on the road surface.

Subsequently, rain water washes these microfibres into the drains and sewage systems, where they ultimately make their way into the maritime environment – yes, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and oceans.

Screenshot 2020-01-20 at 18.10.01

Much publicity is generated around single use plastics in the oceans, but little publicity is around related to this almost invisible pollution.

Some of the particles are small enough and light enough to be dragged up off the road surface by the aerodynamic wake of passing vehicles, and may be suspended for periods of time, allowing them to be blown by the wind over quite large distances.

It is estimated that annually 68,000 tonnes of microplastics are generated by tyre tread erosion in the UK alone, with 7,000 to 19,000 tonnes entering the surface water system[1]. Research is currently being undertaken in the UK to deepen our understanding of the migration of tyre generated microparticles into the maritime environment.[2]

It may not be common knowledge but tyres are not constructed from pure natural rubber, but consist of 60-70% synthetic rubber – made with our old friends, the hydrocarbons, so the emitted micro-particles are not readily biodegradable.

Unfortunately, the qualities that makes tyres suitable, such as good grip, good braking qualities, and good car handling qualities rely on the tyre gripping the road surface through friction.

Friction between the road surface and the tyre tread actually causes the erosion of the rubber, and leads to the problem. The interaction also erodes the road surface, and any road marking paint on it too – but that’s another story!

Tyre particles vary in size and composition, so it would challenge even Agatha Christie’s Poirot to identify and track how these particles behave, and where they go once they have been shed.

Such particles will be dispersed widely around roads and byways, drifted by winds and the effects of vehicle aerodynamics, washed into various drains, culverts and waterways by rain.

Once in the water system the particles will exhibit different levels of buoyancy, and some will float onwards into estuaries and ultimately into oceans, and others will sink to the bottom and become part of the estuary sediment.

It is estimated that up to 10% of tyre wear particulate matter is released as airborne particles, which will settle over land masses, thus polluting them too.

What can we, the driving public do to minimise the effects of this?

Firstly, we can modify our driving behaviour to reduce the loads that our tyres are under.

We can make efforts to accelerate and decelerate gently and progressively, we can make sure the tyres are correctly inflated and remove un-necessary loads from the vehicle. This would help.

We could operate a smaller vehicle with a smaller engine and a lower mass.

This is a pipe dream, and we all know it. Unless governments intervene to legally force the use of smaller vehicles, we won’t trade our “Executive Urban Assault Vehicles” to sit in a minicar capable of reaching only 60 miles an hour with a following wind!

On my daily commute to work, I pass Farnborough Airport. This is the home to many ecologically-unfriendly executive private jet aircraft. The main A road that passes adjacent to it has recently had a new 50 mph speed limit imposed upon it, reduced from its previous 70 mph limit.

Screenshot 2020-01-20 at 17.52.54

It seems that the local council are keen to reduce emissions in the local area!

Regardless of this, vehicles still charge past me doing well excess of the new limit, and the police don’t seem to be enforcing the new limit.

Maybe we should drive less distances?  Maybe we should alter our fundamental mind set to become more locally focused, and adopty a new philosophy of not commuting longer distances?

I don’t think human nature is going to fix this particular problem.

It appears that the main thrust of the ecological argument is to initiate a societal shift from driving hydro-carbon powered vehicles to electrically powered cars.

However, this only addresses a part of the problem. Even if there is a global adoption of battery driven vehicles, the problems associated with the pneumatic tyre remain.

Until we have mastered an alternative to the conventional tyre we are still in trouble.

The auto industry faces a parallel challenge. What do we use as an alternative to the conventional vehicle tyre?

Answers on a postcard please…

 

[1] Friends of the Earth Report “Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution 11/2018

[2] UK Government Funding for Research into Tyre Tread Erosion and Pollution

 

Categories
Civil liberties Elderly Electric Transport English Culture Motoring Nostalgia Politics Science Society Transport Travel Uncategorized

Elderly Drivers – Good or Bad – I Hope To End Up As One! (Or – Are They Safe?)

I parked the car, nonchalantly locking it with the keyfob, as I do every evening when I return from work.

It was a blustery, rainy late afternoon, and my journey home a relative nightmare. All of the major routes west of Heathrow Airport were in chaos. It seems that the average Brit is breathtakingly incompetent in wet conditions, despite bemoaning that its always raining here.

Either driving lunatically fast, or crawling along far too slowly, the result is multiple accidents, and long holdups. The delays were only made marginally tolerable by listening to the radio.

I decided that the solution to my grumpy mood was to pull my bicycle out of the. garage, and cycle the mile and a half to my alternate refuge, the Passfield Club.

It was only five past five when I arrived, and the place was almost deserted.

I ordered a pint of Fossil Fuel, and went at sat at a table at the far end of the room.

I was thinking about driving. Despite my journey, I knew that I was fortunate to be in a position to drive.

I have held a full licence since February 1977, almost 43 years. The car and motorcycle have become an intrinsic part of my life, and as a relatively fit man, I rarely think of the time when I too will have to hang up my car keys for the final time.

Before that time, I may have to downgrade my vehicle from the small SUV that I drive to a smaller vehicle. Maybe electric?  Who knows.

I recall hearing somewhere that many older people bought an automatic car after maybe decades of driving a manual gearbox car, and subsequently had an accident as a result of confusion over the foot pedals and their location.

 

Also, that older drivers were as dangerous as the young due to their worsening driving abilities.

I wondered if this really was an issue, so I decided to do some research, and here is what I discovered.

According to AXA Insurance’s Technical Director David Williams[1] drivers may face rises in insurance premiums as a result higher compensation claims being awarded following vehicle collisions and accidents.

The two age groups that will be affected most by this will be younger drivers in the 17-24 age group, and those over 75.

That surprised me a little.

Further digging revealed that there are an estimated 2.7 million drivers under the age of 25. Of that figure, 1.3 million are under 22. Combined, these groups make up about 7% of all UK drivers.

Drivers aged 17 -19 represent 1.5% of the driver population, yet they are involved in 9% of all fatal accidents in which they are the driver! Altogether, the under 25 age group are responsible for 85% of all serious injury accidents.

So where does this leave the older driver.

Bizarrely, a quick check of the stats[2] instantly confirms that drivers in the 17-24 category have a very high accident rate comparatively speaking, with 1,912 collisions per billion vehicle miles (CPBVM) travelled. The accident rate then progressively reduces as age increases, reaching its lowest point between the ages of 66 – 70 dropping to just 367 accidents CPBVM.

So, I am, in theory, becoming statistically less likely to have an accident, due to my relentless march into decrepitude.

The accident rate rises slightly thereafter, but peaks to its highest for the 81 – 85 age group – at a massive 2,168 CPBVM.

So, in overall terms, from age 60 to 70, not a bad record.

Some of the reduction may well be inked to the fact that older drivers travel less than other adults, with about half the average mileage covered.

 

Demographically, the older population is forecast to expand and the number of people aged over 65 in the EU is predicted to double between 2010 and 2050.

Now a quick look at the science.

Aging brings with it several inescapable changes, including sensory, psychomotor and cognitive reductions – failing eyesight and hearing, slowing reactions, and slower and impaired judgement.

The higher reported fatality rate for older drivers is due to increasing frailty leading to death in a collision that would have potentially only injured a much younger driver.

Current UK legislation requires that driving licences are renewed when an individual reaches 70, and are valid for three years before requiring to be renewed again. This is a sensible approach.

When combined with requirements placed on medical practitioners to advise the UK Driver Vehicle Licencing Agency of any medical condition which would require the revocation of a driver’s licence.

But us oldies are fighting back!

It would appear from several studies that there is an almost compensatory mechanism at work, and older drivers are good at making sensible adjustments to their driving, and adapt their driving to reduce their exposure to higher risk driving conditions.

Many will stop driving at night, or will adjust the times of day or the days of week on which they travel.

Now – back to my original thoughts.

As an individual with no formalised forensic vehicle accident training, I accepted at face value the statement that elderly drivers should not drive cars with an automatic gearbox.

road-safety-character-elderly-driver

Surprisingly, my research seems to indicate the opposite, and a number of reports actually suggest that older drivers should use an automatic car.

In fact, a Dutch study was conducted by the University of Groningen using a professional driving simulator. The research placed young and older drivers in both an automatic transmission car and a car with a manual gearbox. The subjects were then required to drive several routes, including rural roads, rural roads with random varied intersections and finally a route that necessitated joining a busy motorway, overtaking vehicles and then exiting safely at a junction.

The results were interesting, in that the older drivers performed better in an automatic gearbox car than a manual.

This is possibly because the time lag induced by the age-diminished psycho-motor skills to both brake and shift down the gearbox simultaneously impaired driver performance. This was discussed as far back as 2002[3], where research suggested that older drivers should, in fact switch to driving an automatic car.

Interestingly, even the younger drivers in the sample also performed better when driving an automatic.

I accept that there needs to be a safe transition period, so maybe when drivers get to 65, when they are statistically at their safest, they should change to an automatic car, so that they have a few years to adapt to the differences, so that they may benefit from the additional levels of safety that a car with an automatic gearbox provides.

Manual-Transmissions  0009e2bb5fd7-3095-4bef-8

So, in six years, I will get my electric car, which will not only be cleaner in terms of emissions, but may even help me to stay alive a bit longer!

Mark Charlwood© January 2020

[1] Article Click4Reg April 2017

[2] Older Car Drivers Road Safety Factsheet (2016 data) Published May 2018

 

[3] Warshawsky-Livine & Shinar (2002)