In the Media

Why are male drivers always boy racers at heart?

PUBLISHED September 14, 2012

Begging pardon of those of you in HMP Ford or the Scrubs for the lazy stereotyping to come - but I would bet the monthly mortgage repayment that you, being a Daily Telegraph reader, are a law-abiding soul with no time for those who blithely disobey criminal legislation.

I would stake the same, meanwhile, that those of you in the demographic known in the jargonistic argot of the marketing world as "men" were close to apoplexy by the front page report on Thursday headlined "Beware the speed camera comeback".

I certainly was. On what possible grounds, I harrumphed, do the police have any right to increase their efforts - in this case by investing the proceeds of speed awareness courses in new digital cameras - to enforce the law of the land? The Hillsborough cover-up was bad enough, but this…

Buried in the above lies the hint of a paradox, and one begging this time-honoured question: what is it about a gear stick that transforms intelligent and reasonable people, almost invariably with Adam's apples, into fools, maniacs and raging hypocrites?

Take Jeremy Clarkson. This most welcome guest at any Cotswold country supper table came to our attention a while ago as a health and safety champion, after damage to property abutting his Isle of Man home. "Whoever ripped up the fence posts and gate protecting the cliff edge," ran a top-level communiqué jointly issued with his wife, "clearly had no thought for the safety of others." Who could pick a fight with that? Yet put this same altruistic sweety-pie in a Bugatti, and he will later brag about having driven across Europe at 240mph.

I write with no sense of moral superiority. That my licence is currently clean, after years of being filthied by mounted motorway Lord Lichfields and yellow A-road Mario Testini (and that is the correct plural), is a miracle. Recently on the A303 in Wiltshire, "County Of Unmarked Police Cars", a BMW overtook, and in its rear window the words "Follow Me" began to flash. We middle-aged schlumps being easily flattered by attention, I did as bidden by what I guessed would prove a willowy Teutonic blonde, forgetting that these days British coppers drive foreign cars. The ensuing Socratic dialogue centred on the shaming fact that his radar gun had zapped me at 97mph. The saintliest officer in Christendom, he accepted that I was desperate to get away from the lunatic in a VW Golf who had been zig-zagging homicidally across the lanes, perhaps because it was the truth. "I'm giving you a break," he said, "but whatever the provocation you're too old to be driving like that. Next time, slow down and let him go, eh?"

There has been a dramatic behavioural improvement since, though whether it will endure is another matter. Something strange and terrible happens in the male brain when presented with a steering wheel… some psychochemical reaction so primal and animalistic that it trumps not just any sense painstakingly acquired over the decades, but the instinct for self-preservation. It is as if some atavistic echo from the jungle reverses all the millennia of evolution. "It doesn't matter that I have three small children in the back I'm putting at risk," confesses a colleague, "if some lane-hopping scumbag undertakes me, I'm going to speed right up to the next car in my lane to stop him nipping in."

This is a familiar reaction. The moment another car draws level on an inside lane, a line must be drawn in the Tarmac that he shall not pass. But why? Could it be less important? And what is it about the estimated time of arrival on a satnav that strikes one as less a prediction than a challenge to the machismo, as if cleaving a few minutes off the ETA is a matter of life and death (though this may become a self-fulfilling misconception)?

Those arguing with all that on the basis that almost a ton on a dual carriageway is rather different from 35mph in a built-up area are right, of course, and they are wrong. Some cameras may be a fund-raising racket, but the statistics on the sharply diminished survival chances of a pedestrian hit at that speed compared with 30mph brook no debate.

Besides, the law of the land is hardly something from which one can pick and choose according to taste. No doubt all the casino bankers reading this in jug believe they deserved impunity from criminal prosec… Ah, not a great example, perhaps, but the general point stands. Either you accept that a crime is a crime, or you do not. Once you confuse breaking a law you dislike with a noble act of civil disobedience, and confuse duncery of the kind confessed above with being the Rosa Parks of the A303, the moral authority to demand the banging-up of foolish adolescents who thieve Evian bottles during riots glugs down the plughole.

Half a century ago, people saw drink-driving laws as an affront to personal freedom, and later the same civil liberty argument was advanced against mandatory seat belts. Attitudes develop over time. Yet the male conjugation of the verb "to speed" as "I drive very fast because I have brilliant reflexes / You drive too quickly, for your capabilities / He is a reckless madman who is going to kill us all" seems likely to endure. Men like me, as the better half of the motoring gender divide rightly keep reminding us, are immature beasts, and will never truly appreciate that the only fitting cliché in this context is not that the law is an ass, but that the camera never lies.