ONE of my jobs for The Times is to write a weekly UK hotel column. The role involves getting about a lot. I’m well acquainted with many of the best places to acquire a bacon buttie and a cup of tea at train stations up and down the nation – from Carlisle to Crewe (sharing a caff with trainspotters clutching notebooks), Doncaster to Dundee (lovely views from the Tay Bridge on the way in), Paddington to Penzance (one of my favourite rides).
There’s a fair bit of time spent on motorways, too – and it is on the road that I have noticed something.
Tailgaters. Lots of tailgaters. So many tailgaters . . . far more than ever before. Double the number of five years ago. On any two-hour journey I can expect three or four run-ins.
I have driven in many far-flung corners of the globe.
In America drivers are, for the most part, polite. On road trips in the US I have often pondered this. Why so nice? My conclusion is that, if you are not, you might be shot. People have guns, after all.
Elsewhere, those in Nordic countries are just too pleasant, usually, to tailgate.
Yes, in Italy there are many (very) crazy drivers, but that’s just because they’re in a rush to have a cappuccino, or whatever. It’s the same scenario in most Asian countries. There may be madness, but it’s a happy everyday acceptable madness. Nothing personal.
In Britain it is definitely personal. On one recent occasion I was almost forced off the road by tiny silver car of the sort that grannies use for the weekly shop (the driver was, I noticed as it flashed by, a hulking figure who might pass for a Lithuanian hit man).
Another time, on the way to a review in the West Country, I pulled up to some traffic lights, where I found myself side by side with my latest tailgating friend. A dreadlocked man opened the driver’s door, shook his fist and went to his boot to collect something (perhaps a weapon). Fortunately the lights changed before I was able to find out.
The safety group Brake along with Insurers Direct recently conducted a survey of 1,000 drivers and found that 57 per cent of respondents admitted to tailgating, although – somewhat hypocritically – 95 per cent were concerned about tailgating. The practice is responsible for many of the deaths and serious injuries on the road; in 2012 there were 88 deaths and 654 serious injuries.
Sections of the M25 are regularly closed due to crashes caused by tailgaters, prompting tens of thousands to beat their fists on dashboards in despair. “Tailgating precipitates road rages and should be targeted by the police more frequently . . . police forces only concentrate on speeding,” said a spokesman for the RAC Foundation, adding that tailgating is a “growing trend”.
I say all of this not to declare that I’ve discovered a new problem in Britain, but to add that I’ve noticed a worrying development. Tailgating seems to have entered our psyches to such a degree now that we have begun . . . tail-walking.
On the pavements of London I have become increasingly accustomed of the need to glance over my shoulder to see whether a speedwalker is about to barge by. What is especially annoying about these speeders is their assumption of right of way. I don’t mind fast walking per se. It’s the sheer aggression – a new, motorway-inspired walking way.
In 2007, the British Council conducted a study that found that people were walking 10 per cent faster than they had been in the early 1990s. Professor Richard Wiseman, who was involved in the research, said: “The key conclusion is the world is speeding up. We’re just moving faster and getting back to people as quickly as we can – and that’s minutes and not hours. That’s driving us to think everything has to happen now.”
We are walking faster because everything is faster: our feet seem to be rushing to keep pace with our over-stimulated lifestyles. But when you throw in another factor – smartphones (not prevalent when Professor Wiseman collected his stats) – all hell is let loose.
While some people are clearly walking faster, many others are going slower as they’re fiddling on little screens reading messages. This means the average walker has to avoid the slow-coasters, thus upsetting the “fast lane” crowd: the tail-walkers.
On London’s Oxford Street, the busiest for pedestrians in Britain, there have been periodic talks in recent years about having a “fast lane” for those who are not window shopping and dawdling. Those behind the scheme suggested a ban on the use of mobile phones in this fast lane.
I’m not sure what all of this means for the future of humanity . . . one day a walker’s highway code?
Crowds on Oxford Street: