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Column: Slow down, Loeb

2010-03-09 12:05

Lance Branquinho

Population density and speed are the two incommensurate ends of urban planning.

As population density increases in an urban area, unfortunately, traffic dictates that driving speeds need to decrease. It’s a fait accompli.

This thread of logic does not apply to all motor vehicle owners though. The dreadful evidence of which was all too gruesomely displayed for anybody driving via Mdlalose Street in Protea North, Soweto, on Monday afternoon.

Two cars, both Mini Coopers, were dicing each other. Mdlalose Street is not a dual carriageway and, considering the similar performance of the cars in question, matters were always going to end with one driver swerving out to avoid the inevitable – oncoming traffic.

When the dice reached its critical tipping point, the driver motoring at speed in the other lane executed an emergency avoidance manoeuvre to evade oncoming traffic. But while swerving back into the correct lane he clipped the other Mini and both cars careered off the road onto the pavement as a result.

Despite the Mini Cooper’s short wheelbase, low mass, ABS-boosted brakes and ESP system, these cars still managed to mow down four schoolboys walking home.

Beyond the four boys who tragically died on the scene, another two are in hospital with serious injuries. Police have arrested the two drivers.

So what’s my point? Judgement. Good judgement, which seems to be very much lacking.

Admittedly, we all love driving like this. Does someone's five-year old on a bicycle have to become a victim of your inability to wind off lock when drifting in an urban area though?

Great cars, average drivers

Contemporary cars are fast. They also come equipped with a raft of driver aids and safety features which do much to flatter driving ability, lulling most people into a false sense of security concerning their driving abilities.

The occupants of the two Mini Coopers walked away (which is unfortunate). I am hardly going to blame the cars or BMW’s engineers for building cars of such robust quality. The Mini Cooper is an excellent car and you can hardly hold the brand at emotional ransom because of two owners.

Back to the issue at hand - how seriously do you take your driving?

I am part of a high-school lift club. The responsibility of transporting other peoples’ kids weighs much heavier on my conscience than setting startlingly competitive lap times at new vehicle launches.

When I am on the N1 - with kids chatting on about Mxit issues - I constantly scan my field of vision. ”Where is the safest runoff area, right or left?” or “if a truck bursts through the oncoming lane safety barrier, remember - small steering corrections, you’re not at second-gear drifting speed…”

I can never recall which songs played over the radio or what the cricket score was by the time I get home. Driving with kids in the car is serious business to me.

Kids are supposed to be thrilled by cars at track days, with a helmet chin-strap fastened and a skilled driver at the helm. They’re not supposed to be killed by them walking home from school…

Look in the mirror, have a reality check

You’re not as good a driver as you think you are, believe me. No matter how many times you play a WRC-themed Playstation game, you'll never be Sebastien Loeb. Not even close.

I’ve driven on race tracks. I’ve been chaperoned by world class racing drivers. I’ve even crashed – never on a public road though.

The myriad of potential driving "challenges" presented by an urban environment makes driving at speed simply suicidal.

Lamp posts, bridge supports, stationary trucks, walls without cushioning tyre barriers (they’ve saved my life once on track) and volumes of oncoming traffic. These are the hazards you have to contend with if you foolishly over-commit and run out of driving talent in an urban environment.

Pedestrians on a pavement are not driving hazards. It is their right to be there.

I lived in the US for a year, of which the first stint was in Miami. If you’re into supercars, well, Miami is pretty stocked up with Porsches, Ferraris, Astons, Bentleys and Lamborghinis.

Strangely, despite the raging egos, there was an absence of stupid behaviour from these Miami supercar owners. Walking downtown I was amazed, time and again, as they dutifully came to an entirely civil halt when I was ambling within 5m of a pedestrian crossing.

In South Africa you use pedestrian crossings at your peril…

Drifting madness in a controlled enviromment. Pure class.

Pandering to the hooligans

What to do then? Well, I am not going to tell you to sell your performance car. I enjoy driving swiftly.

Occasionally, very early on a weekend morning, when a choice stretch of secondary road presents itself, I do up the pace a bit. I don’t take racing lines though. I don’t drive at 10/10th and I do rein in the pace when sighting the first cyclist or jogger off in the distance.

When I was of pre-driving age, the term "track day" was even a term of jargon in any local petrolhead’s frame of reference.

The concept of driving your roadcar at a track, in a controlled environment at cornering speeds unimaginable on public roads, was decidedly foreign.

Fortunately, there are track day events for non-competition drivers at most circuits around the country now. It would appear the perfect solution – allowing keen drivers to bleed off the adrenaline.

Local Ford owners during their record breaking 586 car parade run at Phakisa raceway two weeks ago. A choice venue to extend your car's abilities too...

Endulge yourself, far away from traffic lights

My advice? Join a local car club.

Get organised. Buy a helmet, perhaps two (one for you partner) and a small in-car digital video recorder too, if you like.

Then go to a track day, scare yourself stupid and record it all for posterity on your video camera. I certainly hope you have a staggeringly good time.

Just don’t come barrelling along a suburban street, drawing a racing line on the ragged edge, and expect me to magically develop Giniel de Villiers levels of car control and salvage the situation by manoeuvring out of your way. 

If you do suffer from an obnoxious inferiority complex when out in public, slip your performance car into neutral and blip the throttle to get some attention, if you must.

Just don’t try and convert 7 000 r/min worth of engine speed to second gear traction near my house.

Those boys walking home after school on Monday should have been debating whether Spain will actually shape at this year’s World Cup – not scampering for their lives due to some driver’s intentional ill-judgement…


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