From the moment I passed my test I felt that my driving licence would be a passport to adventure. Admittedly for the first handful of years these ‘adventures’ were really just exploring local roads, but as life changed and I started working as a motoring journalist, that long-held belief very much came to be.
Since that day of days in the summer of 1988 I’ve driven all kinds of cars in all kinds of places. Of course this includes regularly exploring the UK and charging through most of Europe, but I’ve also driven Scandinavia and hooned around frozen lakes in the Arctic Circle and rallied a Porsche Cayenne from Moscow to Mongolia. I’ve taken a Ferrari along remote sections of the Silk Road in north-western China, pinned the throttle of a Holden Monaro from the heart of the Australian Outback to Darwin on the tropical north coast, and explored Abu Dhabi in a McLaren P1. No two journeys the same, no two countries sharing the same motoring vibe.
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Driving overseas is a real education, for the roads are a reflection of the people who use them. Driving in France used to be a delight, because the smooth autoroutes were so fast and free-flowing, and took the burden from the glorious N roads, which offered a different kind of delight. Italy was always a more highly strung experience. Something akin to good-natured racing, without the need for Nomex clothing or a crash helmet. Germany meant order on the minor roads, but opportunities for intense and often sustained runs at very high speed on the Autobahnen. China? Chaotic, random and all a bit scary. Scandinavia? Sensible and heavily speed-limited in the more southerly areas, but a noticeable increase in pace coupled with hugely impressive skill and feel for treacherous conditions as you headed towards the Arctic Circle. Russia? Gruff, aggressive and crashy. The YouTube dashcam footage doesn’t exaggerate!
It’s been a while since I’ve driven in far-flung places, but so far as Europe is concerned I’ve noticed a marked dilution of the indigenous driving traits that mark each country as clearly as the border signs. France has been ruined by gendarmes hiding behind every shrub and bridge parapet. The autoroutes are still magnificently empty, but I now find them lethally soporific. Likewise the fight seems to have gone out of many Italians. Yes, they still like to grumpily honk their horns at the drop of a hat when you go door-to-door in traffic, but the autostradas are pale imitations of their former wild and mildly anarchic selves. Gone are the days when driving a Ferrari or Lamborghini along the A1 would have you mobbed by a flotilla of assorted Fiats, Alfas and other regular traffic, speeds rising until finally you’d leave them in your wake – only to be surrounded again by beaming faces and appreciative waves at the merest hint of backing-off the throttle.
Germany remains a stronghold of speed, but opportunities to stick your left-hand indicator on and crank whatever you’re in up as fast as it will go are being eroded by the year, either by the creeping scourge of new speed limits or sheer weight of traffic. Sadly the steadfast lane discipline on which those once-prevalent limit free stretches depended is beginning to wane as speed limits spread and concentration levels drop. As for the UK, there was a time when wherever I’d been travelling, coming home felt like I was returning to a nation of drivers. Now I’d say general driving standards are pretty woeful. Not as bad as Belgium, but not far off. Unfortunately the sad truth is we seem to be descending into an increasingly dystopian driving environment. One in which car makers are hellbent on weaning us off input and engagement via a de-skilling drip-drip-drip of semi-autonomous driving aids. Meanwhile legislators and law makers around the world embrace average speed cameras that further disengage us from the vital task in hand. Is it any wonder many drivers find scanning their phones more compelling than looking through the windscreen?
Fully autonomous technology will doubtless save lives as and when (if?) it’s introduced, just as seat belts, crumple zones, ABS and traction control did in the not-so-distant past. Until then, those of us who still regard driving as a skill and something to enjoy are being left to fend for ourselves. The direct effects of this dumbing-down can be seen whenever you hit the road. What depresses me further is it also appears to be taking the once colourful tapestry of divergent European driving styles and slowly homogenising them into one miserable, moronic morass of badly driven metal. Statistics will doubtless say the roads are getting safer, but it’s sad that we seem to be losing so much of ourselves in the process.