Off limits

Off limits

The flash of a camera catching you when you exceeded the speed limit, the signal warning you of a speed radar: this is the least pleasant part of this issue’s theme of sound and light, but a subject still worthy of discussion

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Fernando Alonso has taken a firm position against the 110km/h speed limit currently proposed for Spain. At this speed, you get bored and distracted, and it’s dangerous. He has spoken.

It’s an assertion all the more true if one thinks that decisions on road safety seem to be made without considering the many changes that are taking place The roads and cars of 30 years ago were much less safe than those of today. But (and to me this is a point that can’t be ignored) cars are not only increasingly fitted with electronic accessories that help the driver but with ones that actually run the risk of distracting them. During a Grand Prix, Formula One drivers use the infinite functions of the steering wheel to achieve maximum performance. The difficult part is then switching their attention to using electronics. They are professionals and thus find the best solution for themselves within the limits of necessary safety. Despite this, they also grumble about the potential risk. This is also true for radio conversation: they talk about technical aspects or race strategy when necessary. And that’s that. However, in cars equipped with active and passive safety systems, travelling at 110 km/h or even 130km/h on three or four-lane motorways, with large-screen navigation systems crammed with information, with telephones and, very soon, computers connected to Google, Facebook and Twitter, how can one seriously believe the driver will not be tempted by distractions? Taking your eyes off the road becomes very easy. And, usually, when you raise your eyes again, everything is the same as before. You feel perfectly, and generally, safe.

Let your gaze linger a moment too long on a computer screen, and there would almost certainly be a more extreme reaction than necessary, if a small, unexpected event were to occur out on the road; a swerve or an unexpected braking manoeuvre could then trigger further reactions from the drivers behind or to the side. Since the introduction of a low speed limit, cars tend to move in slow, and potentially dangerous, formation, which only heightens the chances of distraction. So one asks oneself: don’t the people who make the rules travel? Or, if they do travel, how do they do it? The Romans used to say est modus in rebus, meaning, more or less, “there is a middle ground in all things”. So it seems strange that the only real mission of legislators seems to be reducing the speed limit. It’s too easy, too crowd pleasing and, as we have seen, potentially dangerous because it is out of tune with the times in which we live. In Germany, where the speed limits are strict where necessary but non-existent where conditions allow, the number of accidents is smaller than in those countries where draconian measures have been taken. The truth is that on the road we could and should do many things that we do not do.

One only has to look to the track where, even if the aim is to go as fast as possible, fatal accidents have been almost eliminated. Why? Because the on-track signage is now highly efficient, both in relation to the bends and the distance you are from them, and in terms of accidents, with the classic flags that are now giving way to lights. Road signage on the other hand, with the exception of just a few countries, is highly inadequate, badly positioned and difficult to read. A typical example has been provided by Italy, where thousands of roundabouts have been built to replace crossroads. Praiseworthy, indeed. It’s just that often these roundabouts are not properly signposted, with the result that there are now new types of accidents that didn’t happen before. This is the proof that a good idea must also have adequate implementation. So let’s not talk about obstacles. I hate to see the bunches of flowers or the number plates or little shrines in remembrance of the victims of road accidents. I hate to see them because of where they are. You understand perfectly the dynamics of the accident and the stupid cause of a death: a gatepost, a footpath, a badly signed bend. Causes that often could be sorted out with just a minimum of good will. It’s been done on the track and there have been good results, even in motorcycle racing. I’m not sure if I’m saying anything new. The way we use the car is changing, and not for the better. It’s a little like the way we use our memory: without it, the great literary works of antiquity would not have survived. Without memory, until a little time ago, we would not have known how to find, in our computers that have become our brains, the telephone numbers, places and streets, and all the rest. Today, we have abdicated: memory is now entrusted to our computers, to electronic diaries, to smartphones. We have changed.

And only apparently for the better. And driving? That extraordinary pleasure of being master of a vehicle, of asking it to obey by managing the controls and the steering wheel with our hands and feet, negotiating the bends, the climbs and the descents. Beautiful. Cars still allow us to do all this. Improvements in car technology have even raised the limits by dramatically increasing safety. And, as with our brains, we run the risk of abdicating here as well, giving up this power to look at screens and use our voices, at 110km/h. And on top of that, with the risk of doing ourselves an injury. Am I exaggerating?

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