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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Unwritten rules of the motorway
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

To some it's about freedom, the unbridled thrill of the open road. Yet to others the mere thought of an encounter is enough to induce paralysing anxiety. Life on the motorway is like nowhere else.

Anyone who chooses to tough-out the holiday month of August by planting their feet firmly under the office desk and cranking up the air conditioner will be unaware of the frenetic activity that engulfs Britain's motorways at this time of year.

While pressure on urban arteries tends to ease during the peak summer period, it's a different story on motorways. August is the busiest month for motorway traffic, as holiday-makers and day-trippers criss-cross the country.

But for millions of motorists the drive itself warrants another holiday altogether. Research this week shows more than a third of drivers suffer anxiety when driving, or thinking about driving, on motorways.

Symptoms may include racing heart rate, shortness of breath, stomach cramps and excessive sweating.

Top of the worriers league are younger and older female drivers, while middle-aged professional men are so confident behind the wheel they almost seem to harness the negative energy of their fretting fellow drivers.

Eddir Stobart lorry
No matter what motorists think the real king of the motorway is the HGV driver who governs by 'right of weight'
Transport psychologist Steve Stradling
In proving that bright, confident folk can be reduced to quivering wrecks, the RAC Foundation findings help crystallise a notion many of us have long sensed - that motorways are an entirely separate entity to the real world.

In general, says psychologist Professor Steve Stradling, "roads are one of the most democratic forums in which public life is acted out.

"Seventy percent of UK households have cars and most of the time we share the roads with all sorts of people."

Only when one ventures on to the motorway slip road does one cross the Rubicon to a strange and altered state.

"Motorways are governed by economically active males in relatively large cars," says Mr Stradling, an expert in driver behaviour. In other words: Mondeo Man.

The archetypal travelling salesman/middle manager eschews the Highway Code for a set of unwritten, at times unfathomable, rules of motorway driving.

Chief among these is that size matters most. The bigger the vehicle, the greater its right to be on the motorway. And in this belief, every long distance lorry driver is a kindred spirit.

Invariably, size is matched by speed - the bigger the car, the bigger the engine, the faster it goes. The need for speed is complex, governed by a series of motives, says Mr Stradling. But one of the key factors is simply that people drive fast "because they can".

'Carcooned'

"Cars today are well designed, they are driving on well-engineered roads, with no traffic lights or roundabouts."

Picture courtesy of FreeFoto.com
Sheep-like behaviour can also be found on the M25 says Conrad King
Mondeo Man and his ilk have, says Mr Stradling, become "carcooned": hermetically sealed from the plight of all those nervous souls who vie for a share of the Tarmac; unaware sometimes of their intimidatory presence.

Nervous drivers are more likely to make mistakes, according to the RAC, which ups the ante even more. It helps explain "middle laners" - those disenfranchised motorists who cling to the belief that as long as they stay out of the "slow lane" they at least have some stake in the motorway social hierarchy.

Furthermore, different motorways have different codes, says motoring psychologist Conrad King. On London's M25 orbital road, motorists are more content to be "sheep-like".

"Consciously or unconsciously drivers are joining a ring road, not a linear road. They stay in the same lane, people drive closer together and there's a lot more undertaking [overtaking on inside lanes] than on a linear motorway."

Motorway behaviour is an "intricate dance," says Mr King, who also believes Britain's take on it is unique. On the famed German Autobahn, where there are no speed limits, drivers are faster but more considerate, he says.

Beat the country

In contrast, the American system is more "disengaged... like driving on valium," says Mr King, who recalls spotting the driver of a Porsche 911 ambling along the Washington beltway, reading a broadsheet newspaper at the wheel.

Spaghetti Junction
Motorway driving: Easy when you know how
"Here, if you've got a Porsche, you're going to be gunning it in the outside lane."

Britain's unwritten motorway code is dictated by the modest size of our island. "It's theoretically possible to straddle the furthest points of the country by car in one day. Because we feel we should be able to do that, our driving is more frenetic," says Mr King.

Yet for petrol-heads the joyous prospect of putting foot to floor grows ever more distant as growing traffic levels choke the once open road and speed cameras seek to tame the instincts of Mondeo Man.

Which offers hope for that substantial minority of anxious drivers who for years made do on the margins of motorway society.

"The more motorways get castrated," says Mr King, "the more comfortable they will be for those scared by speed."


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