Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Moving Out : Stanley Johnson

Published in The Spectator 14th August 2010

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When I opened the long brown envelope, my jaw dropped. As P.G. Wodehouse used to put it, you could hear the noise as it hit the floor. The letter had been sent by the Metropolitan Police. Apparently my car had been caught on camera in Chiselhurst, Kent, one Saturday morning in May. The vehicle had been travelling at 36 miles an hour in a 30 mph zone.

“Chiselhurst!” I exclaimed to my wife. “Why on earth would I have been in Chiselhurst?”

When I checked my diary, the penny dropped. I saw that I had written against the date May 1 the words: “10.30 a.m. Morrisons, Orpington.”

“Oh-ho!” I said. It all came back to me. My third son Jo was fighting Orpington for the Conservatives in the upcoming General Election and I had volunteered to canvass for him. Morrisons on the last Saturday morning before the election had been chosen as a likely starting point.

My wife pointed out that I had been photographed in Chislehurst, not Orpington.

“Why were you in Chiselhurst? And why were you speeding? You set off with hours to spare.”

“I got wildly lost south of the river” I told her. “Beckenham, Bromley, Chiselhurst – I drove all over the place. And I could well have been speeding by the end. I didn’t want to keep the team waiting.”

Given that Jo and his loyal team actually increased the Conservative majority in Orpington from 4000 to over 17,000, it could be argued, I suppose, that putting three points on one’s driving licence was a small price to pay. I would certainly have been ready to see things that way if I hadn’t noticed, as I read the police’s letter more carefully, that I was actually being offered the option of avoiding the mandatory three-point penalty altogether, provided I agreed to take a ‘speed awareness course.’ It would cost me £95 and would take up three hours of my time. It wasn’t a question of passing or failing. All I had to do was show up on time and stay there till the bell.

If I decided not to take up the offer, then justice would take its course.

I thought hard about whether or not to accept the deal. It wasn’t, it seemed to me, totally obvious. How much was three hours of my time worth? As I understand it, clever barristers charge over £1000 an hour for their services. I’m a journalist nowadays so that obviously wasn’t my situation. But still my time was worth something, surely. On the other hand, there were those penalty points to be considered…

I dithered for a day or so and then signed up for the course. Looking back, I consider this to be one of the best decisions I have ever taken. Let me explain why.

When I first arrived at the London training centre just off Clerkenwell Road, London EC1, I was in a fairly sceptical frame of mind. I imagined we were in for some kind of group therapy session, like Alcoholics Anonymous or whatever.

Well, it wasn’t like that at all.

There were 22 of us on the course altogether: three women and 19 men. I would put the average age of the group at somewhere between 40 and 50. I didn’t make a systematic survey, but from conversations I held with my fellow-attendees both before the session stared and in the half-time break, I gained the impression that their offenses were analogous to mine. They didn’t – at least as far as I knew - have sons or daughters standing for Parliament in London’s outer suburbs, but their reasons for hurrying were surely as valid, or as invalid, as mine.

“I started out late. I was doing 48 in a 40 mile an hour zone” the lady on my right whispered as we sat down at our desks in a class-room.

“I was only doing 36 mph!” I replied.

Knowing what I now know post-Clerkenwell, I deeply regret those words. Only 36 miles per hour! How crass can you get?

We met three instructors that day: Bryan, Alan and Phil. Bryan and Phil did most of the talking.

Bryan, solid, fiftyish, led off. He took us rapidly through the statistics: “Nationally, there are 26,000 serious injuries a year; in London, there are 3057. Between now and the Olympics, a serious injury will affect at least one person in this room.”

I found myself glancing furtively around. Which one of us would it be?

Phil, younger, but just as punchy, took over from Bryan after half-time. We looked at the large screen in front of us. The photograph showed a suburban road, pretty much, I imagined, like the road in Chiselhurst where my speeding offense had taken place.

“You know it’s a 30-mph zone, don’t you” Phil told us, “because you can see the street lighting.” He pointed out, in the photograph’s middle distance, two policemen standing beside a car which had slewed to the left. There were skid marks in the road.

“At 30 mph you are going to travel 30 feet in a second,” Phil said. “Your reaction time is the length of a bus.”

He showed us a close-up of the crumpled bonnet of the car. “The boy came out from the parked car. He was crossing to the island. He didn’t make it, I’m afraid.’

Phil admitted that the photos were some years old. Nowadays, he said, cars had better braking systems. “Today with ABS (automatic braking systems) you can brake and steer. Also, they’ve built a crumple element into the bonnets. But this kid was propelled over the bonnet in such a way that his head hit the A-pillar on the driver’s side. Then he was thrown up into the air. How do you think he landed?”

There weren’t any points for guessing the right answer.

“On his head of course,” Phil informed us.

The clincher, from my point of view, came when Phil showed us the Thames Valley police video. The video depicted a police-driver heading at different speeds towards a card-board cut-out of a pretty girl with short dark hair, standing with arms akimbo, facing the oncoming vehicle.

“The driver knows he’s going to make an emergency stop, so we’ve eliminated reaction time,” Phil explained. “If he’s driving at 32 miles an hour, he’s going to hit that young lady with an impact speed of 11 mph – that means serious injury. At 35 miles an hour, the impact speed will be 18 mph. And at 40 miles an hour, the impact speed will be 26 mph. If you want to know what a 26 mph impact feels like, go home tonight and run up the stairs, then throw yourself out of the bedroom window!”

Every time the car thumped the cardboard cut-out, I imagined it was one of my daughters standing there.

According to the Transport for London statistics, people who attend the speed awareness courses are far less likely to reoffend than people who turn the offer down. I can well believe it. Indeed, if I was the Metropolitan Police Authority, I would offer the ‘speed awareness course’ as a stand-alone item, even without the link to penalty points. At £95 a throw, I bet there would be some takers.


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