Car Magazine, Issue 491,July 2003, pg. 57, Michael Stahl
Somebody on a whole other continent asked me recently about the speed limit on motorways in Europe. Given that I travel around a bit, and like to think I know approximately everything about everything, I was happy to give him a concise and immediate answer.
"The autoroute limit in France is 80mph, but everybody does 105mph. Whereas, in Italy, the limit is also 80mph, which they're about to raise to 95, but only in some places, although it doesn't really matter where, because everyone does 125. And in Germany, on a lot of autobahns you can go absolutely flat as a maggot, fast as you want. Most people go about 105."
Shackled, like Britons, to an eagerly policed speed limit on his country's motorways, my friend couldn't believe his ears. And the hardest for him to hear was the bit about Germany. He'd been so comprehensively browbeaten by his government's anti-speed message, he was convinced that taking away the speed limit could only result in every vehicle rasping on its rev-limiter in top (cue sfx: Stuka dive-bomber) until it either ran out of fuel, disintegrated, or until everyone inside just sort-of spontaneously, umm, died for no evident reason.
"Well, uhh, no," I said. "People just seem to drive at whatever speed they feel safe, comfortable and in control."
It was spooky to realize that his government's 'road safety' electrode/testicle-interfacing had even managed to overwrite humanity's strongest instinct: survival. He seemed to be convinced that, although he is a father of two, he could no longer be trusted as an arbiter of his own, or anyone else's safety. "Phew, thanks for pulling me over, officer. I hadn't realized that I was currently in the grip of blood-curdling terror."
I was thinking about this earlier this year, when... You know what? I wasn't thinking about this at all earlier this year, when I raised my personal top-speed record to 190mph. My previous best had been 177-mph in a Porsche 928 GTS automatic, recorded during a motoring magazine's fast-fest almost 11 years earlier. I know that my 928 record would have been accurate enough to stand up in court because it was verified by radar - for once, actually being used in an educational capacity.
Can't say the same for my new record of 190mph, which was set in a Ferrari 575M Maranello. I hadn't set out to break any records, nor - need I convince you? - to try and kill my recently married, adequately paid and spiritually whole self, or anyone else. It was just a matter of everything coming into alignment for a few minutes, y'know? No big deal to anyone except myself.
As I said, I wasn't thinking too much about arbitrary numbers on signposts or what some chauffeur-driven, shiny-bum transport minister might have decreed in the sole interest of getting his melon on the telly. I wasn't debating the difference between 8omph and 95mph while I was doing 190mph.
I wasn't thinking about that, because I was thinking about driving the car. About the cool, lightly overcast skies above, the dry, wide and relatively smooth surface beneath me, the long and uninterrupted straight ahead, the wealth of information coming to me through sound and sensation, the lightness and delicacy of my inputs as kinetic energy and aerodynamics operated in another realm...
Basically, I was more focused than would be my friend, who must spend all his traveling time studying the speedometer and worrying about speed signs, fixed cameras, mobile cameras, marked patrol cars, unmarked patrol cars and whatever other intelligence-insulting terror tactics are being employed in his country.
So I've now got my personal, top-speed telltale set at 190mph, and I'm not going to say in which country I did it. And that's the whole point I'm making. If I told you that this straight, dry, near-deserted stretch of road were a motorway in Britain, chances are that you'd be appalled and outraged. If these very same conditions were repeated on an Italian autostrada, you'd think me a bit irresponsible, but probably not exactly the spawn of Satan. And if it were on a German autobahn, you'd just go, "Yeah, so why didn't you get the 200, nancy boy?"
Years ago I saw one of those piss-poor television programs, The World's Worst Drivers, or some such. It was about half-an-hour of car chases, people driving the wrong way around roundabouts. Jack Russell terriers tied to the rear bumper doing 70, that sort of thing. Either way, it looked like a value-added proposition for the traffic police, who chased after the motorists, fined them and then sold the footage to a TV production company.
Anyway, on this show they had footage of some guy going for V-max in a Corvette somewhere in the United States. He was going so fast, and was so far out in the desert, that they were having to film him from a helicopter. The narrator said something like, This driver, surely one of the world's worst, was chased by our chopper at 160mph!' Just as he was saying that, I was thinking that to drive a piece of crap like a Corvette at 160mph, he must be pretty good.
Car Magazine, Issue 493, September 2003, pg. 51, Gavin Green
I was flicking through The Times the other day when I spotted a photo of a convicted man, handcuffed to a burly copper, being led away to jail. The wrong-doer had a bull neck, short hair, guilty eyes, snub nose and was wearing a black sweat shirt and dirty jeans.
The story occupied more than half a page, at the top of page five. This was a high-profile offence, obviously. As I was dwelling on the dastardly deeds and fate of Jason McAllister, 27, a car dealer from Aberdeen, it hit me. If he's guilty, then maybe so am I. McAllister was jailed for doing 156mph. It was the fastest-ever recorded car speeding offence in Britain, eclipsing the previous record - 155mph by a Porsche driver in 1990.
The Times' story was full of pious pundits sounding off, including the police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. "This level of speed is absolutely outrageous and puts at risk every other person and user of the road at the time," said Sheriff Kevin Veal, who handed out the sentence.
McAllister, who was driving a BMW M3, was jailed for five months and banned from driving for four years.
It happened on the dual carriageway A90 between Aberdeen and Dundee, in the evening. I do not know this road well, but a Scottish friend who uses it most days tells me: "It is a superb road, full of long straights where you can see for miles." There was clearly little or no other traffic, otherwise McAllister would have been unable to do 156. And if he had been swerving around slower cars, I have little doubt The Times' man would have told me.
Like McAllister, I have driven at 156mph on the public road. Unlike him, I did it legally. I could do it again tomorrow, and get little more than a smile and a friendly wave from any German policeman that I happened to pass.
Many of my journalistic friends have exceeded 150 on German autobahns, too. Responsible car companies frequently launch high-powered vehicles to responsible journalists, representing responsible newspapers and magazines, in Germany so that we scribblers can legally test cars at such 'absolutely outrageous' speeds. The Germans, as far as I know, have just as much respect for health and safety as Britons. Most German drivers live to ripe old ages. German autobahns, incidentally, have a better safety record than 65mph-limited US interstates.
Let's assume that McAllister is as skilled behind the wheel as an average British motoring hack (not hard) or an average German. Let's assume his M3 was in good condition. These cars, after all, are designed to do 156mph legally and safely in their country of manufacture and design.
Let's also acknowledge that McAllister knowingly and irresponsibly broke the law, while we motoring writers (and Germans) do 156mph on autobahns with a clear conscience and clean licenses.
But, morally, what is the difference? Was he driving any more dangerously than I was - and surely 'danger' is the only priority in motoring law enforcement? Was McAllister's 156mph 'absolutely outrageous', while my 156mph was lawful and socially responsible?
Speed is a funny old thing. One man's dash is another man's dawdle. Some of us feel safe at 150mph; some of us do not. I do not favor a German-style speed free-for-all on our motorways. I make no excuses for McAllister's behavior. He flagrantly broke the law. (He was also clocked doing 120mph in a temporary 40mph 'road work' zone. He was also driving while banned for an earlier speeding offence.)
Equally, the UK 70mph national limit is a joke. Everybody does 80-90mph on the motorway, and every cop knows that it is safe and reasonable to do so. The situation is fine now, where sensible British police officers turn a blind eye to the over-70s and under-90s. But when motorway digital speed cameras start to pry, then what?
At about the same time as McAllister's conviction. Ken Livingstone called for the limit on residential streets in the UK capital to be cut from 30 to 20mph. He is right
It is more dangerous to drive (legally) at 3omph down a narrow urban street than it is for a good driver to do 156mph on a deserted dual carriageway in a BMW M3.
The law, on speeding, is an ass. The pity is that no politician, senior policeman, Scottish sheriff, newspaper or road safety group has got the guts or gumption to challenge it.