27 February 2013

Designed for Speed

I am interested in the prevalence of speeding amongst motorists, particularly in the light of statistics and common sense relating to potential harm and the dangers inherent in this activity. Many people, including myself, have previously highlighted the role played by the design of the highway environment itself. I am a firm believer that arbitrarily low speed limits applied to urban motorway-style highways rely almost exclusively on motorists internal "moral compass" for compliance. Obeying the law is one thing, but doing it in the face of constant temptation is quite another. Others have discussed a cultural desire for speed and the power of marketing to create and then reinforce this.

I seem to be test driving a considerable variety of cars at the moment. Not because I have a cool Top Gear type of job (that is cool, right?) but rather because I have a building on site at present and I need to lug a large amount of drawings and PPE around with me when I visit. It is also a 500 mile round trip. I get a different hire car each time, and so I am able to compare and contrast in some detail.

This ad-hoc experiment of dubious scientific quality has clearly demonstrated another conclusion we need to add to the motorist's woes when it comes to controlling the need for speed. The design of the car cockpit itself is quite terribly poor when it comes to communicating to the driver basic information about how fast they are going.

Our everyday family car is a Honda Civic. Actually, "everyday" is a misnomer, as it mostly spends its days quietly depreciating outside the house, stationary. But no matter - the key point here is that it has a "heads-up" type digital speedometer that sits in a binnacle (see, I've got the terminology sorted too) above the steering wheel. This is not why we got this car, but is turns out to be a brilliant feature - knowing how fast you are actually going. This is important, as modern cars seems to go nicely just above 35mph in 4th gear. You can hardly hear the engine at 40mph. The road you are on in the centre of town is barely discernible from the 70mph M25, but has a 30mph limit. In other words, the sensory information and feedback from the car and the environment is providing a false reading which makes the speedo a useful point of reference, bearing in mind the damage a speeding car can do.

Interesting therefore that the vast majority of hire cars I drive have the standard rotating needle-type speedo. Unchanged probably since Herr Benz thought it would be amusing to see how fast he could go, and stuck an adapted pressure gauge next to the steering wheel. They truly are appalling. They are inaccurate, illegible and mostly stuck BEHIND the steering wheel - which themselves have become bloated with paraphernalia, making it even harder to see through them to the vital information beyond. Looking frequently down behind the steering wheel isn't much of a safety feature either. A final ignominy is that the speedo is often the same size as the rev counter, despite most normal people having no use for this information whatsoever.

It is almost as if car designers would prefer not to remind their eager customers that they are actually just crawling along in a massive traffic jam at a snails pace, rather than bowling along in the manner beloved by car advertisements worldwide.

I am intrigued why this issue has not been more consistently addressed, as a vital safety feature. Maybe fewer drivers would then zoom past me in an unholy rush as I pedal serenely onwards.