Dom Joly: No need for speed

Hear more from Dom in next month's magazine

Hear more from Dom in next month's magazine - Credit: Archant

I haven’t been in this sort of classroom environment since I sulked my way through the compulsory team-building sessions that the BBC used to make everyone go on

I know nothing about cars. Well, nothing technological that is. I know whether I like one or not. I know whether one is ‘naff’ or ‘wide’ or ‘too much’. I know that a personalised number plate can never, ever be excused. But I know nothing about spark plugs or camshafts; I’m not a mechanic, I’m a user.

Weirdly The Sunday Times ask me to review cars on a fairly regular basis. I’ve tried hard to explain to them my lack of knowledge but they think I’m being modest and just appear even keener for my stuff. This is a good thing as I get to drive all sorts of extraordinarily ‘naff’, ‘wide’ and ‘too much’ cars without the stigma of actually owning them. I will still always refuse to get into any car with a personalised number plate. You have to draw the line somewhere.

This does mean that I occasionally am tempted to put these cars through their paces. The long arm of the law enjoys these moments so much that they send me photographs of the occasions in the post. I got one the other day from a policeman in Wales who had spotted me driving through Cardiff in a car and thought he should make me a souvenir. Enclosed with the photo was an invitation to attend a ‘Speed Awareness Course’ that he said would allow me to avoid getting points on my licence. How could I refuse?

Three weeks later I parked up at a shabby hotel in Banbury and joined my fellow attendees in the ‘Garden Suite’. It was a little like attending an AA meeting (so I’m told). Everybody looked slightly resentful at having to be there. It was as though, in their particular case, there had been some annoying clerical error that meant that they didn’t really belong.

The course was run by two people: one was a chirpy, affable ex truck driver. The other appeared to have commuted in from the late Nineteenth Century. He was all pinstripe suit, watch chain and silk handkerchief popping out of his top pocket. He also appeared to have learned his people skills in the late 19th century as his ‘teaching’ style verged on the ludicrously patronising.

Everybody started off with crossed arms and sulky looks but the realisation that we were going to be there for four hours, whether we enjoyed it or not, meant that most people defrosted after ten minutes or so (not me).

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I have to admit… I learned some stuff. I don’t think I’ve been in this sort of classroom environment since I sulked my way through the compulsory team-building sessions that the BBC used to make everyone go on (never saw Alan Yentob or John Birt, weirdly). Just so that you don’t feel the need to do one of these courses, here are the three things that I learnt.

1. The word ‘Slow’ painted onto a road is an acronym for ‘Speed Low Observe Warnings’.

2. If you have a car crash, ring 112 on your mobile not 999. It goes through to the same people but 112 works all over Europe and, more importantly, they can pinpoint you on a map using GPS. This is particularly useful if you are in an upside-down car in a tree trying to describe your location to the ambulance service while drifting in and out of consciousness.

3. Incremental increases in speed, such as the difference between 30 and 35 miles an hour make a staggering difference to your stopping speed. I know this because Tiff Needell, still clearly smarting at not being approached for the new, revamped Top Gear, demonstrated this in a particularly hammy safety video that we were shown.

I tweeted that I was going to attend one of these courses and asked my followers what I should wear? The consensus seemed to be that I should go dressed as The Stig or the enormous snail from Trigger Happy TV. Personally I was tempted to turn up dressed as my mini-cab driver character who uses a smashed-up stock car to screech into Euston station and do a handbrake turn in front of a long taxi queue before getting out and shouting “Mini-Cab?” through his battered helmet… sometimes, however, even I have to behave.

You can follow Dom Joly on Twitter.