Saturday, 27 April 2013

Life in the Fast Lane

Driving a Hyundai Getz, a little car with even littler wheels, is not usually synonymous with an image of life in the fast lane. But somehow, while feeling every bump in the road, I still manage to outdrive most vehicles on the Hume Highway. Being red makes any car go faster, of course.

Lest you get the wrong idea, so far I've had a long driving record (50 years) with only one police demerit action - back in the 90s, in Melbourne, caught by a camera for exceeding the speed limit by 3km per hour.

Certainly, as I'm buffeted by sidewinds in my Getz, I often hanker for my old silver Mitsubishi Lancer, that well-known rally winner with its long wheel base, much heavier body, comfortable driving position and easy ride, but it recently reached its use-by date, after 311,000 km of trouble-free driving. When an oil leak from the head gasket developed in Sydney, I deemed the expense of fixing it to be unjustified. Reckoning that no backyard tinkerer in Sydney would buy an interstate-registered car, I watched it disappear from sight on the back of a wrecker's tow truck. At least its replacement (my mother's zippy little car) is easy on the petrol.

Cars have always been part of my life. As a five year old I was carted off by my Dad and uncles to the dust-bowl of the Bathurst car races in the early 50s. Since becoming a driver myself, my personal parade of vehicles reads like a 'who's who' of the car history of Australia, save for the dreaded Toyota Corolla - I've never even driven one.

I can't say that I've had a Rolls-Royce existence as a driver, except perhaps for the large Mercedes sedan I once drove, back in the 90s. Luxury be damned - it was like riding in a mobile arm chair, being very heavy and slow to wind up to cruising speed. Not much fun. Of course, that other luxury car of 'the good old days' was at the other extreme - a Porsche. What fantastic acceleration! The 90s also saw frequent trips from Melbourne to a farm at Yea in that most archetypal Aussie car, the Holden Commodore, along that well-known death road, the Melba Highway. Safety was also an issue as we traversed hilly farm paddocks in a Mazda ute and an old Land Rover.

The late 80s saw trips every weekend from Melbourne to a holiday cottage at Mount Buller in a Ford Fairlane V8. Earlier in the 80s there were numerous weekend trips from Sydney to Canberra in its stablemate, a Ford Laser - sometimes making the return trip in a day, at a time well before the roads reached today's high standard.

In the 70s I drove a Fiat 124 coupe for five years - good for zipping around Port Moresby, where I lived, but there was nowhere much to drive on weekends except to the Moresby end of the Kokoda track and the car proved impractical for family use when we returned to Sydney.

Way back in the 60s there was the old Mayflower, my boyfriend's mother's car on which I learned to drive. Our young male friends had MGBs and Minis but we opted for a trusty V-Dub, which took me from Sydney to Cairns and back on my (first) honeymoon and which, for the next two years, ran up and down a very dangerous road between Dubbo and Sydney every month. That car retains a special place in my heart. It was red too.

Looking back there's been so much driving, so much of it long-distance, that I can't quite believe it. There have been no smashes, touch wood, and only one slight bingle that was my fault, during my first year of driving when I was seventeen. I merged lanes incorrectly and side-swiped a Sydney bus which I hadn't noticed! Hmmm! It was a useful lesson - from then onwards, the notion of defensive driving struck a permanent chord.

Of course, our vast distances mean that the hardest part of highway driving in Australia is concentrating. My current car has a manual drive and no cruise control, so the necessity of driving it every inch of the way certainly helps me to focus. More importantly, I've long since learned the lesson of dressing warmly in the car, in order to keep cold air blowing in my face, with the fresh air intake vent wide open. I'm convinced that many single vehicle accidents on country roads are caused by warm stale air recirculating inside the car and creating a drowsy driver.

For example, some years back, on a busy stretch of highway near Melbourne, the solo driver in the 'slow lane' beside me went to sleep at the wheel and drifted across into my lane. Trying to avoid a collision, I kept on moving to my right and he kept on coming at me, until the right hand verge was inches away. In both lanes we had cars in front and cars behind, all doing 100kph, and I ended up driving a short distance with his car bumping against mine. I managed to keep both of us on the bitumen tarmac until he shook himself awake and we could pull over. He was lucky (as was his wife and young family at home) that my trusty Lancer stopped him from running off the road at 100kph and hitting the trees.

Keeping calm in the face of provocation is another hazard of the open road. I still can't understand why drivers with the whole Hume Highway stretching before them will pass a car and then chop straight back in, barely a car length in front at 110kph, instead of staying out in the fast lane until well clear of an overtaken vehicle. Back in the 60s we were always taught to wait until that slower car is visible in your own rear-vision mirror before you change lanes, but too many people are using those distance-distorting side-vision mirrors, mirrors which are clearly an invitation to road rage.

I've driven a fair bit in the UK too, where driver attitudes in general are streets ahead of ours. For example, when incoming traffic is merging into a motorway, it is almost an automatic reflex for UK drivers already on the motorway to foresee the potential for collision and move across one lane, thereby clearing the left lane entry point. That instinctive form of defensive driving is much rarer here. I often wish that I was a member of a road safety committee, as our current media campaigns do very little to improve defensive driving attitudes and skills.

(P.S. I know this 'post' does not have much relevance to the life of a writer, but my present obligations to the welfare of my mother involve frequent trips up and down the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney. It diverts me to think these thoughts as I drive along.)