Thursday, November 09, 2006

Teenage kicks

It's that time of year again. My car insurance is up for renewal.

I've been with the same insurance company for 5 years now - so they reward my loyalty by hiking the cost of my insurance up by around £120 to nearly £500. Of course, I'd expect to pay £500 a year for my car insurance if I will buy these fast sports cars.

But I don't have a fast sports car. It's a very modest, 5 year old family saloon in which I cover less than 4000 miles a year. I've been driving for more than a quarter of a century during which time I have never made an insurance claim. Yet, year after year after year my insurance goes up until I decide to find a new provider.

I've now switched insurance companies and cut the bill by almost half. I know that five years down the line I'll be doing the same thing. When I first insured a car it cost me £45 TPFT. I bought it from a local broker with whom I stayed for the next 15 years. While I kept a car the insurance would only ever go down. The second year, my insurance - on the same car - was £38. If I changed car it would usually go up, but that's understandable when you buy a newer, quicker car. Loyalty isn't rewarded these days - it's taken advantage of.

Why am I posting about this? Well, a couple of days ago, there were several news items and TV/radio reports about the number of young people being killed or injured on our roads. Something like 1 teenager an hour is killed or seriously injured in accidents from what I understand.

There were lots of reasons given for this, most of which came down to lack of training. They pass their test without any experience of night driving, motorway driving, driving with loaded cars, driving with other teenagers - and on and on. The answer has to be more education, doesn't it? Does it? We passed our tests with the bare minimum of training - but it didn't result in slaughter.

Despite the many reasons cited by various experts, the one obvious one was missed. The fact that modern cars are very fast and affordable.

After I passed my test, my first car set me back the massive sum of £240. Doesn't sound like a lot, but back in 1978 that was the equivalent today of around £1000. The car was 10 year old Riley Elf. It had a top speed (supposedly) of around 85mph and would zip from 0-60 in about 20 seconds. Sounds rather pathetic by todays standards, but that sort of car was par for the course for young men who had just passed their driving test back then.

When I was searching around for my first car I settled on the Elf after considering a Fiat 850 (too rusty), an ancient Austin A40 Farina (too old), a Morris Minor (too old fashioned). a Triumph Herald (too much) and a Mini 850. It came down to a choice between The Mini and the Elf. The Mini was newer than the Elf, but had much higher mileage - and the Elf had a 1000cc engine, leather seats and a wooden dashboard. The Elf won the day and I spent the first two years of my driving career zipping around Slough and the surrounding areas in my gorgeous grey Riley. By the time I graduated to my first quick(ish) car I had been driving for almost 5 years.

On the news reports they wondered why accidents had increased while cars had got safer. Modern cars are safer, but they are also a whole lot faster. Even modest cars can do over 100 mph and a 0-60 time of around 10 seconds is normal. And they stay fast a lot longer than they stay safe. By the time an 18 year old fresh from passing his test is buying his first car it will be 10-12 years old. The tyres will be cheap and worn, the brakes will be poorly maintained and the steering will be worn and indirect. It will still do more than 100 mph and reach 60 mph in around 10 seconds, but it won't be safe anymore.

The other thing to consider is that this is likely to be his first road vehicle. By the time I bought my first car, I had spent some 10 years as a cyclist followed by a couple of years on motorcycles. At 16 I was flying around on a Yamaha FS1E moped at speeds up to 55mph. After I passed my driving test I funded my first car by selling my Kawasaki KH250. For younger readers, if I have any, a KH250 was a learner legal superbike - a 2 stroke, 3 cylinder, 100mph plus speed machine (see pic. above).

Back then, this was the normal route for a teenage boy to car ownership. Virtually every teenage boy I knew at that time went the same route. They had mostly all owned mopeds at 16 and most had gone onto motorcycles before getting their first car. The technical college car park was full of them. FS1Es, AP50s, Fantics, Yamaha RD125s and 250s, Honda CB200s and 250s, Kawasaki KH125s and 250s and lots and lots of Suzuki GT125, GT185 and GT250s.

There is nothing that hones your road sense more sharply than riding motorcycles. You learn how to spot dangers. You learn how to stretch your vision, to aniticipate rather than react. You learn to stay alive.

The modern day equivalent are scooters, but they are nothing like as prevalent as the moped and motorcycle were in my day. And they are dreadfully limited. Twist and go scooters are beautifully simple, but they do not teach you to multitask the way the old mopeds and motorcycles did - skills you will need once you are in a car. And, of course, learner scooters are slow. The average learner legal 125cc scooter is barely as fast as the 16 year old learner legal FS1E or AP50 was.

My suggestion to end this carnage on our roads is two stage. First of all, everyone has to go through a CBT test - requiring several hours of two wheeler training on proper motorcycles - before obtaining a provisional driving licence. Secondly, limit newly qualified and drivers aged 23 and under to a vehicle with a maximum power output of 50bhp for two years after their test.

In addition, I'd also scrap the restriction of mopeds to 30mph (instead, have a maximum power output limit which would allow then to reach around 50mph) and I'd scrap the restriction of motorcycle learners to 125cc - allowing learners to ride anything up to 250cc with a maximum power output of 23bhp.

It's too easy for a young lad today to pass his test and then go and buy a car with a performance comparable with the sort of thing that was the preserve of experienced, established drivers back in the seventies. But even though they will be quick they will be badly maintained and far from safe. It's a given that young lads are loaded with testosterone, will drive as fast as they can get away with and will compete with other teenage boys. If all they have to do that in is a Riley Elf, chances are they won't wrap themselves round a lamp post. If, on the other hand, they have Golf GTi, it's pretty near certain they will.

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