None of us are immune it seems. No matter how speed aware you are, and you may consider yourself a veritable Murray Walker, there comes a point in everyone’s lives when, at the request of the Metropolitan Police, they must be re-acquainted with the concept. They must submit to a 6-hour course in the William Pitt room at the Bromley Court Hotel, for a conversation about the inappropriate velocity at which they travel.
Come on, it’s nothing! It is a modern day rite of passage. My boss has done it about 3 times, yet continues to hurtle through suburban hamlets in her prius seeming never to gain any speed awareness at all.
This was my turn. Me and about 24 other reckless drivers congregated in the lobby waiting for the most boring afternoon of our lives to kick off and not making eye contact. As soon as Speed Instructor Paul arrived, an internal klaxon in my head sounded, I overtook them all and was first into the room.
We file in slowly, dragging our heels. A back-of-schoolbus, chair-swinging, curb-kicking mentality becomes the majority vibe. Immediately people set to work trying to find out what speed you were doing, and the level of injustice to which they are being comparatively subjected. Valerie, who never removes her voluminous leopard print fur, was doing 45. She doesn’t say in what situation, and instead shrugs her top lip and settles back into her chair with t-rex arms folded across her front, thoughts quite clearly turned to a vogue menthol and a bottle of chenin blanc.
Christ this is interminably dull. And, unbelievably, the clock is slow. What kind of sick joke is that?
One man, Jonathan, is late and isn’t allowed in. Poor bastard! What irony. If only he’d had the presence of mind to put his foot down. Paul is surprisingly harsh in the dismissal, and assures us that in spite of Jonathan being a “nice bloke” we have to carry on without him. “If you can’t do the crime, I mean if you can’t make the time, I mean, don’t do the crime, in so much time…oh whatever”
It soon becomes apparent that Paul is a star, and that this is the role he was born to play. This, or Alan Partridge. He is a showman. All jazz hands, vamping, Harry Hill sideways looks to camera, and panto style set-pieces with audience participation. Even his stories of being Dad Taxi (at the appropriate speed) to his two daughters are delivered with a wink and tap dance shuffle. He is going to whip us into a frenzy of pragmatic, speed-aware law-abiders! He tells us not to dare taking our phones out of our pockets. On this point he is incredibly firm. If you so much as imagine your phone filing up with texts and notifications of the fascinating things happening in the world outside of the William Pitt room, you’re out. If you reached your hand slowly into your inside jacket pocket whilst maintaining eye contact, so help you, you better be pulling out a gun because if it’s just your phone and you feel like texting your mate something snide about how badly informed on UK road laws you feel, you will get 3 points on your license and fail the course. Or in other words; “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
It begins. We in our groups are charged with identifying the speed limits on a variety of laminated roads. Everyone undercuts each other in a ridiculous game of onedownmanship, offering up slower and slower limits as if saying 20 for a dual carriageway will persuade us all they weren’t hurtling through a town-centre at 90 listening to David Guetta. Each round table has its own class clowns shouting out bollocks, answering back, and practically poking each other in the ribs. We have Bismah, cocooned in swathes of ribbed aubergine knitwear, who drives very slowly at all times – “20 – if that – most of the time I just stay parked up”, and Karen who agrees loudly and relentlessly with everything Paul says in a sorrowful monotone, has to be told with infinite patience that the “wanker” hand gesture is not in the Highway Code and is almost perfomatively contrite about her real life speeding crimes, even before we’ve undergone a roleplay exercise in which we assume the characters of onlookers and family members at her fictional hit and run.
This exercise, which on paper seems like an a shockingly bad idea, in practise, is. Paul wants to us to empathise with the “victims” of the “crash” and brainstorm what kind of things they might be feeling. Collectively, our table of women (+ 1 silent and bored-rigid teenage boy called Derrick who could have just walked out of the Arsenal youth team and clearly felt he had indeed been benched), decide we are so distraught and stressed out by having been eyewitnesses, we can no longer leave the house to go to work, lie on the sofa crying, only able to mournfully shovel cheese into our mouths and eventually succumb to gout. Bismah almost looks quite into it. Karen is now acting for the prosecution at her own trial.
Paul, clearly pleased to have made an impact with her but slightly disapproving at having been upstaged, moves us on quickly. He appears to be ticking off squares on his eye-rollable cliché bingo card one by one; “Our system is so efficient even the Germans ate looking at it! – you know what they’re like” and “No on ever admits to towing a caravan” and “the thing with physics is it’s never wrong” and “you need Funnel Vision not Tunnel Vision” and so on and so forth until eventually – upon hearing one of our number still resisting the idea that “streetlights means 30” – he loses patience and sighs, “I can only help you so far.” Have we broken him? Perhaps we cannot be made aware! At this moment it’s incredible to learn that by EU stats, the UK has some of the safest roads in Europe. Presumably none of these were being used by any of us at the time of recording.
We hate to let Paul down. He is just trying to make us more mindful! We run through some of the reasons why people speed, and a lot of it comes down to stress, anxiety, and feeling pressurised by our surroundings. Keith, a giggly Jamaican guy in a checked hat who could be any literally age from 35-65 speeds when he’s tired and on his way home for lunch, ie can’t really be arsed to self-police. Bismah was late to pick up her kids. Karen was speeding because her Dad was dying in hospital. I certainly have in the past experienced a murderous fury rising in my chest when a big white van can’t give me just one second to move forward as the lights turn green. And in that moment I have sped. Why? To get away from them, or to show them I’m not shit and slow. In either way, I just comply with their unreasonable needs, and it’s ridiculous .
We have compiled a pretty tragic list by the end and It becomes clear that we are all extremely wound up and operating as though under high tension, although I’m not sure many of us could claim to be holding the keys to a nuclear reactor. I can see one man furtively cracking open pistachios under the table.
Paul asks us to partner up to unpack these stressors further. I turn to Derrick on my left, encased in red down-quilting, who so far has managed an impressive feat of passive resistance and has not uttered a single word.
“What makes you feel pressure Derrick?” I ask brightly
“[darkly] No one”
He leans back, giving me a moment to absorb this and then, from under his hood, with all the gravitas of a Christopher Lee mystic:
“I do not feel pressure”
I love Derrick.
Next we are shown harrowing videos of a family of white plastic mannequins with targets on their foreheads being smashed into a million pieces by a car travelling at 22mph when it shouldn’t be. And again at 33. And again at 44. There is no reason to be the cause of this. No stress or lateness could possibly justify it. UK road rules are as complicated, contradictory and irregular as the English language, with every rule being undermined and footnoted by another conflicting scenario. But, if my ability to save a real-life plastic mannequin is hinged upon my ability to tolerate or deflect a wanker in a Mercedes Sprinter then I vow to stop kicking my heels about contradictions and the non-rhyming aphorism (“more signage, more carnage”) and become that tolerant deflector. At least there will be one of us. And Derrick, I guess.
There really is no reason to speed. Paul tells us that motorway workers have been decapitated by errant traffic cones knocked by speeding cars, and that the greater the age of the person hit – the more chance they’ll die as; “the elderly don’t bounce so well”. By this point it’s all very bleak. Karen is close to topping herself. The pistachio-snacker is grimly silent. Valerie looks like she may be about seek out a manager to complain to. Derrick is possibly asleep.
At the end, we must write down our resolution to speed less and come up with a mantra to help us overcome the stress that can invade your brain and push you into incomprehensible action. I vow to block out the protestations of van drivers. Be better prepared, more watchful, pay attention. Take my time, not feel pressured. Be More like Derrick.