Off Roading

by Zoë Sharp


New Year turned into something of a mini adventure for us, as I mentioned in my blog over on my own website last week. And Rob’s almost Zen-like post of yesterday made me realise there was something about the whole experience of being out on the roads in bad conditions that struck me as really, really annoying.

Most people should not drive.



Most people, if truth be known, do not drive because it brings them any kind of enjoyment or satisfaction. They simply need to get from A to B, and the car has become the easiest way to do this. Particularly if you live in a rural or semi-rural area in the UK, when the buses run if they feel like it and regular local trains are something your granny talked about in the days before the Beeching Axe, while modern out-of-town shopping centres have killed the diversity of the high street.

 If you want anything, you’ve got to get in your car and drive to get it.



And nobody will admit to being a bad driver. They might say they play a little golf, but aren’t very good at it, but they will not say, “I drive a little – of course, I’m crap, but I drive a little.” And it’s worse over here where automatic cars are not the norm, so for some people clutches are a service item.



The other problem is the car has changed beyond all recognition in recent times. Years ago, when I was heavily involved in the classic scene, I used to drive all kinds of vehicles, including on one occasion a 1920s Bentley. Driving an open sports car from that era was a full-engagement exercise, with no power assistance of any kind on the steering or cable-operated brakes, plus it had a right-hand crash gearbox and reverse pedal layout. The skinny cross-ply tyres gripped every other Thursday, and the suspension was best described as agricultural.

But you had to concentrate on what you were doing, all the time.



Now, however, we sit in our squashy climate-controlled, heated-seat little boxes, listening to high-quality stereos, with our back-seat passengers watching DVDs, waiting for instructions from the sat-nav on what to do next. There’s no manual choke to keep an eye on until the engine warms through, while other niceties of car control are taken care of by cruise control, anti-lock brakes, four-wheel drive, auto-tiptronic gearboxes, and traction control. Much of the time, you don’t even have to remember to turn on your headlights or windscreen wipers, because the car will do it for you, and it will squeak at you if you forget to turn them off.



And, if the worst should happen, we’re held in place by our auto-tensioning seatbelts while a dozen airbags explode in our faces to cushion the impact. And once the dust has settled we whip out our mobile phones to call breakdown recovery. In fact, all aspects of the motor car have grown more sophisticated.



Except one.



The driver.



Drivers, if anything, have grown a whole lot less sophisticated, because now they expect to put less into the experience and still walk away. They’re distracted by their mobile phones (yes, Rob) and their texts, and their email, or surfing the web on their iPhone, or their drive-thru coffee, or burger, or fishing in the passenger footwell for their cigarettes (as the driver admitted to doing when he knocked two friends of mine through a dry stone wall) or even trying to stop their dogs getting to the meat in the cooler on the rear seat (as the guy who knocked down Stephen King admitted to doing).



We recently saw a typical White Van Man on the motorway not only yacking on his phone, but taking an order on a clipboard resting on the steering wheel while working out a quote on a calculator at the same time. Gawd alone knows what he was using to steer … (And WVM, by the way, is not a racist statement. There are just a lot of guys who drive round in white vans – usually Mercedes Sprinters – doing 100+mph in the outside lane of the motorway. It’s a recognised phenomenon.)



But I digress slightly.

One thing that New Year showed us was the people in the UK cannot drive in snow. The first thing they do is turn on their fog lights. Why? WHY? In the hundreds of thousands of miles we’ve driven over the last twenty-plus years, we’ve encountered severe conditions where rear fog lights were actually necessary, maybe half a dozen times. If you can see my headlights behind you, you can turn off the fog lights because I can sure as hell see you, and having that damn bright light shining in my eyes is not only asking for road rage, it also distracts me from seeing your brake lights come on.



So stop it. Stop it now. Do not make me open a can of whup-ass on you.



So, there we were last weekend, sliding around in the increasing levels of snow on one of the highest roads in Britain, watching people slithering off the tarmac and wheelspinning, and I wondered how many times bad driving has featured as a plot device in a crime novel. Or a character’s been rammed at an intersection just when they’ve had an epiphany about the case, which prevents them from telling anyone or catching the bad guy.

Any examples spring to mind?



And what about you, ‘Rati – any driving woes you want to share?



I hope you like the pix I found for this blog, by the way, and I make no comments WHATSOEVER about male versus female drivers. Uh-uh.



This week’s Word of the Week is catastrophe, which not only has the usual accepted meaning of a sudden disaster or misfortune, or a sudden violent upheaval in some part of the earth’s surface (geol) but also a final event or the climax of action of the plot in a play or novel.



39 thoughts on “Off Roading

  1. JD Rhoades

    I immediately thought of this video, especially since it’s supposed to snow tonight. One inch, but this is North Carolina, so it’ll probably paralyze the state.

    Love the pix! And is it time to declare Pet Peeves Week on Murderati?

  2. Rae

    Those photos are fabulous, and love the video, too.

    Driving pet peeves? Oh, there are so many šŸ˜‰ Drivers who don’t use their turn signal. Drivers who think using their turn signal erases the laws of physics, i.e. will magically make the car in the next lane disappear. Tourists who plant their cars in the middle of a busy intersection while they consult their map. Giant tour buses on narrow streets (with tour guides on loudspeakers telling stories that are completely, 100%, absolutely WRONG).

  3. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Yeah, I saw that one earlier this week. Why did those people think that jumping out of a moving car was a good idea, unless they were heading towards a river or a cliff? OK, so they may not have had much control while they were in there, but once they’d got out, it just become an unguided missile …

  4. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Rae

    The only people more annoying than the ones who don’t use their indicators, are ones who leave their turn signal going, mile after mile, when they have no intention of turning off.

    The tour bus one is good, though. We did a trolley-bus tour in Boston one time when we were there, hopping on and off at different stops. And every time we got onto a new bus, the driver’s commentary started off by pointing out the parts of the city where the British massacred yet more brave American patriots, then turned to us and asked, "So, where are you from?"

    Is this the point where we apologise for colonial oppression again?

  5. Karen in Ohio

    Goodness. Don’t you wonder how some of those crazy accidents happened? I can’t work out a few of them.

    Just last night I witnessed two drivers–both young, one of each sex–nearly plowing into the cars in front of them because they were either texting or dialing and were not paying attention to the road. It was dark, so I could clearly see that they were looking down at what they were holding because their phones illuminated their faces. Both times I was nearly stopped, and what caught my attention was the cars to one side of my zooming by, despite the light ahead having changed to red.

    It’s snowing like crazy here today, so I plan to stay home. There are too many people, especially in big SUVs with four-wheel drive, who feel safe in their cars but who are menaces to everyone else.

    PS When we taught our three daughters to drive they all learned in manual shift cars. It’s a good skill to have, and I think it made them better drivers because shifting forced them to pay attention, and it occupied both hands. When I was in the market for a new car last spring I could not find a manual shift Honda any more. That was a sad day for me, after 35 years of driving a stick.

  6. Karen in Ohio

    PPS Apropos of Rob’s post yesterday: I’m sorry, but just because YOU want to move forward does NOT mean that I am "in your way". Rob, I have just as much right to the road as you do. Don’t be so damned impatient, and stop running up my tailpipe, just because you’re too rude to slow down while I make a simple turn. Thank you.

  7. Becky LeJeune

    Oh, I know I’m not the best driver in the world. I will admit also to being a totally paranoid driver (not a granny driver, mind you, but paranoid) every car out there is potentially there just to run into me. I have discovered that drivers are way too self-centered and only concerned with themselves, everyone else on the road be damned because you are just a roadblock in their way to wherever it is they are going.

    And my biggest pet peeves, roundabouts and people who don’t know how to use a yield sign! I don’t need an aesthetic crash inducing roundabout simply because a tree in the middle of an intersection is pretty (which is why ours are here) and seeing as how everyone ignores yield signs, I’m stuck waiting on the outside into perpetuity OR get the finger when I am driving the roundabout and someone else ignores their yield.

    Do they not explain the yield sign in drivers ed anymore?

  8. Louise Ure

    Wonderful pics, Zoe! Like you, I still relish those remembered moments driving an old Shelby Mustang … power steering by Arm Strong.

    My weirdest car crash was the painter’s van that smacked into me on the drivers’ side door, his extended ladders coming in through the window at head height. I ducked just in time.

  9. Jim Winter

    Zoe, I am sitting here at home today not because the roads are bad. I could have driven 80 mph into work today. I didn’t go because, by 4 PM, there will be 2-4 inches on the ground, and not only do I want to sit for 2 hours in traffic on a normally 20 minute commute, but I don’t want my tiny little car smashed up by the texting jackass in a full-size SUV who thinks his 4WD is not only invincible, but allows him to text, talk, and surf the web all at once on his cell phone.

  10. pari noskin taichert

    Ah, yes, Zoe . . .

    No one in New Mexico knows how to drive on snow unless they’ve lived somewhere else (I was at college in the Midwest when I got my first car and had to learn the hard way). One inch on the road is all it takes for accidents galore — half the drivers speed up and the other half go 20 miles below the limit. It’s a true recipe for disaster.

    Driving pet peeves?
    1. People who play "beat the guillotine" — weaving in between cars on the freeway while going 90 mph.

    2. People who "take cuts" in construction zones — the ones who think that those signs warning that a lane is going to end are for everyone else. They’re the ones who drive as far on that lane as they can and then cut in front of the other poor folks who’ve been waiting for the damn red light to change. These people so tick me off that I’ve taken to moving my car over the lane line to prohibit them from doing it. (Yeah, I know, it’s bitchy . . .)

    3. This one is for all the major speeders, impatient folks out there: The speed limit is there for a reason. Yes. It really is. So, when I’m going 25 in a residential area (where children play in the streets and pets are want to cross at inconvenient times) — please don’t ride up my tailpipe or — heaven forbid — *pass* me because you have to get to Starbucks a little faster.

  11. Gar Haywood

    Great post, Zoe. You should write for CAR AND DRIVER magazine.

    Of course, I know how knuckleheads can create these seemingly impossible vehicular accidents first hand, because I have on occasion been such a knucklehead myself.

    On a recent trip to Mexico, I drove the family’s rental car over a low curb down into a pedestrian plaza, mistaking it for the parking lot to a bank. The wife had to go find us some wooden planks to set across the five step staircase so I could drive the car back out. Man, the looks we got. The kids, naturally, thought Daddy’s dumb mistake was very funny.

    Luckily, there were no photographers around…

  12. JT Ellison

    I LOVE to drive. I think I’m a good driver, though possibly a bit reckless at times as I love to go fast.

    I wrecked my first car at 16 while trying to master braking with my left foot while accelerating with my right – like racecar drivers do. I was rocking it, on a curvy road in McLean, Virginia, and I barreled around one particularly nasty curve and lost it – right into another vehicle. Totaled his car, mine was dented up pretty good. That should have taught me a lesson, but it didn’t. One of my dearest wishes is to take a few laps at Daytona, going like a bat out of hell.

    I KNOW you can appreciate that, Z.

  13. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Karen

    Learning to drive a stick-shift manual gearbox is indeed a very useful skill, and a lot of places over here only have them, although I did hear about one American tourist who took his rental car back after a few days complaining it was very very slow and the engine was getting very hot. When they asked him to demonstrate how he’d been driving it, he got in, rammed the manual gearlever into second, and put his foot down. No wonder the poor car was protesting.

    Anyway, since they made it a traffic offence to drive and talk on your cellphone without a hands-free kit over here, most people have swapped to texting instead. Oh yeah, that’s MUCH safer … ;-]

    I’m sorry that you can’t find a manual Honda any more. We still have a Honda CRX in the garage that – one day – will become a project car of some description. Either that or it’s VTEC engine will end up in a Mini project car …

  14. Zoƫ Sharp

    And regards your PPS, Karen, perhaps Rob is simply a talented auto mechanic who thinks he may be able to adjust the tappets in your engine via the exhaust pipe …?

  15. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Becky

    Your ‘everyone’s out to get me’ theory sounds like the one I used to work with when I was out on my motorcycle. If you assume you are invisible and everyone is indeed a) out to get you and b) blind and stupid, you survive much better, I’ve found. I think everybody should be made to go out on the roads on a bike before they get a driver’s licence. It would teach them so much about vulnerability and road conditions.

    And as for roundabouts, you should try driving in Milton Keynes – Roundabout City. There’s one approx every ten yards. We once came to a roundabout driving in southern Ireland, and the car in front of us went to the right while we went to the left and we met again at the other side, waving.

    They do things differently there.

  16. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Yeah, I used to have a Triumph which I ran on very wide wheels because it was the only way to get it to go round corners, but no power steering meant you needed big muscles to park it, although it did have a brilliant turning circle.

    Andy had something similar to your experience happen to him. He was following a milk tanker with no brake lights. By the time he realised this (and no, he was not texting at the time) he’d run under the back of it and, the delivery nozzle came in through the front screen. The whole of the front end of the car was undamaged apart from that.

    And years ago I went to interview Brit steeplejack, Fred Dibnah and he told me the story of carrying long ladders in his Land Rover pickup, and not stopping soon enough at a junction as a bus went past. The ladders took out all the windows on the top deck.

  17. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hey Jim

    Have you thought of driving a bigger car?

    We once got stopped by a traffic cop driving up into New Hampshire from Boston, driving a Dodge Neon rental, doing about 70mph on what would be to us a fast A-road. We were using a smaller CRX as our daily driver at home, and tried not to laugh when the cop leaned in through the window and said, "You don’t wanna be goin’ so fast in such a little car…"

    We didn’t tell him about the 187mph in a Skyline GT-R we’d done on the M23 past Gatwick Airport … erm, alledgedly.

  18. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Pari

    I hate those last-minute-Larry people in roadworks, too, but I did read the other day that apparently the best way to avoid congestion is to keep driving in your lane until you have to pull over. I can see the logic in theory, but I know in practice it pisses people off so much I’d never do it.

    As for the speeders, I’m not against speed per say. As my Other Half pointed out on his recent Speed Awareness course, if you don’t think anyone should drive fast, be sure to mention that to the ambulance driver next time you need rushing to the hospital ;-]

    BUT, inappropriate speed is another thing altogether. Doing 140mph on a deserted dry motorway at three in the morning is perfectly OK by me, but doing 30mph outside a school at three in the afternoon is lunacy. The only thing is, in the eyes of the law the former will get you locked up and sent for psychological evaluation, and the latter will not bat an eyelid, unless you actually start hitting pedestrians.

    And we’ve driven in Florida during torrential downpours, and people are just as lethal in that as they are in snow!

  19. toni mcgee causey

    Great post, ZoĆ«. And JT and I would have to race on that track, because man, that would be a dream of a lifetime. I learned on a stick and prefer it, though I don’t have a fun car right now. I got to the point where I knew the gears so well, I could shit sans clutch, through fourth, based on sound and feel. Man, I miss that.

    Driving pet peeves? The people who are in denial that they will have to merge, like everyone else. This isn’t a popularity contest, people. This isn’t a litmus test to see if you will be the top of the species because you were two seconds faster to your destination. You do not get extra brownie points for smiling and waving a thanks as you nearly force me into oncoming traffic to keep you from sideswiping my car.

    I always picture a great big spatula coming out of my car and scooping them up and splatting them over on the side of the road, a la The Road Runner cartoons. It’s a very satisfying splat.

  20. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Gar

    I started writing for the motoring magazines in 1988, so I’ve done bit of that, thanks ;-]

    And such mistakes are sometimes easily made, although they’re much funnier if they happen to somebody else – hence the pic of the guy in the Audi halfway down the steps into the subway. I knew a motoring writer years ago who decided to see how much power a Dodge Viper really had. He booted it, only to discover that the Viper is actually four-wheel steer – the front two on the steering wheel, and the rear two on the throttle. He ended up driving through a cafĆ© and down into the London Underground.

  21. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi JT

    Glad you escaped from your accident intact, even if your cars didn’t.

    Since I moved over from writing about cars to photographing them, I’ve been round most of the race circuits in the UK, but usually hanging out of the open passenger door with my camera. This year, we hope to make it to the NĆ¼rburgring in Germany, but I’ll be staying firmly inside the car for that one.

    I’m sure they used to do courses at the Charlotte Motor Speedway where you could learn to drive the oval and end up lapping at 200mph. Now THAT would be a blast, and definitely worth putting in a book. Like Pari, I hope you manage to do it. And if you get anything lined up, let us know – we’ll work out a flight …

    I did some very high-speed driving across Germany for HARD KNOCKS (the arduous slog we have to go through in the name of research). Things happen a LOT faster over 100mph, I can tell you!

  22. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Toni

    You see – telling everyone not to merge until they need to in the interests of traffic flow management would just NOT WORK. They’re not taking human nature into account here ;-]

    There used to be a brilliant device you could attach to your steering wheel for just such occasions, that when you pressed the buttons it made machinegun sound-effects. It’s the perfect antidote for road rage.

    Short of fitting your car with real .50 cals, of course. Or a GE Minigun. Now THERE’S a thought …

  23. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hm, interesting that everyone so far has come up with their pet hates on the road, rather than examples from fiction …

    Maybe real life is just much more entertaining in this instance?

  24. pari noskin taichert

    I don’t have any fiction examples except, maybe, that movie with Micheal Douglas Jr.

    On the whole speed thing, I agree. If the highway is deserted — as many are in NM at any time of day/night — it’s groovy.

    But when there’s real traffic and people are trying to keep decent distances for safety and someone sees those small spaces as an opportunity to weave in and out at super-speeds, it’s damn dangerous. In those cases, if one person even touches her brakes because of trash on the road, her reasonable action becomes deadly due to the speeder’s recklessness.

    It’s the totally preventable dangers that upset me.

  25. JT Ellison

    Toni said:

    "I got to the point where I knew the gears so well, I could shit sans clutch, through fourth, based on sound and feel. Man, I miss that."


  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Note to self: Do NOT let JT drive. Anywhere.

    Z, this was hilarious. If it weren’t so scary. I am for sure not driving anywhere else today. And Dusty’s right, this should be an official Murderati bitch week.

    My pet peeve is Pari’s, and I do EXACTLY the same thing:

    "The ones who drive as far on that (construction) lane as they can and then cut in front of the other poor folks who’ve been waiting for the damn red light to change. These people so tick me off that I’ve taken to moving my car over the lane line to prohibit them from doing it. (Yeah, I know, it’s bitchy . . "

  27. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Can’t bring the movie you mention to mind, although if the prison bus driver at the start of The Fugitive had been a bit more careful, it would have been a very short movie.

    Those who weave through traffic are exceptionally annoying, as you point out, as are the people who cut in front of you, narrowly avoiding scraping paint off your front wing with their rear end, for NO REASON other than to prove how good their lane discipline is. Argh!

  28. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi JT

    "Toni said:

    "I got to the point where I knew the gears so well, I could shit sans clutch, through fourth, based on sound and feel. Man, I miss that."


    That was a typo? I assumed Toni was just sharing … and how ELSE do you do it?

  29. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Hey, if you had two angry cats in the car with you, you’d be in a hurry, too. Oh, wait a moment …

    A friend of mine once had to take his cat to the vet and it just wasn’t happy in a carrier in the car, so he let the cat roam loose. The cat eventually curled up on his knee and was quite happy, until he had to make a right turn off a main road (and remember we’re driving on the left here). The cat, with the kind of timing felines everywhere have perfected, waited until a small gap in traffic and then stuck its head through the steering wheel, just as he began to make the turn. Havoc prevailed.

    As for people who cut in during roadworks, in South Africa, you can get either a machete blade or a flamethrower to operate out from underneath the side of your car. It’s actually a method of preventing car-jacking robberies, but still …

  30. Rob Gregory Browne

    Great post, Zoe! Love those photos.

    Karen, if you turn in front of me and go slow when there’s ample room BEHIND me (as I said in my post), rest assured I will be on that tailpipe. But if you’re gracious enough to be a courteous driver and wait until I pass before you turn, then I’ll be happy to be courteous when it’s my turn. It goes both ways.

    Hugs and kisses.


  31. Karen in Ohio

    Rob, now I understand; I hate that, too!

    What I thought you meant was don’t stop and make a turn in front of you, when both you and the other party are going in the same direction.

    Oh, well. Clearly, I need more antioxidants.

  32. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Rob – ah, courtesy. Not that IS a dying art.

    And I regret to say that the worst culprits in the UK are young female drivers. You can just about guarantee they’re not going to let you out into traffic. I wonder why that is?


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