30 Jan 2014

My Electronic Co-Driver & I

I have of late spent a good few evenings travelling home along dark and wet roads.  It is the nature of my day job that I have to attend public meetings which end at 8, 9 or even 10pm - and are often 2 or 3 hours from West Berkshire.

Last Friday evening was one such.  I left a village hall on the Devon coast at 8pm and spent the next 150 minutes driving home along the A303 - my favourite slice of blacktop for such a journey.  It's far more interesting than the dreary M5 and squalid M4.

At night the A303 is free from much traffic, and camera clasping mobile revenue generators.  I know where the fixed speed cameras are - well most of them.  That's not to say I speed but some of the speed limits on its open, traffic free roads are ridiculously low.  One such camera is located on a half mile stretch of dual carriageway on an upward hill, thus preventing more than one car overtaking the inevitable HGV during daylight hours.  Straightforward bureaucratic nastiness.

I said I only know where most of the speed cameras are located.  That's not enough.  I need to know where all of them are, because it is all too easy in modern, or ancient, cars to creep to just a few mph over the posted speed limit.  The law is one thing, common sense is another.

To help find the cameras missing from my mind I use my electronic friend - my TomTom Live.

No matter how expensive the car it will have an inferior satnav to a TomTom.  Its knowledge of traffic conditions will always be worse - and it will not beep loudly when a known speed camera location is approaching.

So when the A303 has been blocked by an accident the TomTom tells me and then plans another route around the blockage.  In days gone by I have spent many an hour on motorways and A roads whilst the emergency services scrape up some poor soul from the tarmac.  Not any more.  My satnav knows it's happened just after the police do.

But the biggest benefit to using the satnav on a dark winter's evening is for its ability as a co-driver.  Depending what car I'm in the road ahead is lit by anything from candlelight (my Porsche 924S) to full blown daylight (any Volvo).

But the A303 always has traffic coming the other way.  No matter the time of day or night every thirty seconds or so another vehicle will be approaching on the other side of the carriageway.  This means you can't use the main beam - unless I'm in the Porsche when the main beam is weaker than most car's dipped beam.

So I'll be travelling at 50, 60 or 70mph on a dark road with no street lamps and with only, at most, 70 metres of light ahead of me.  This isn't enough to make informed, immediate decisions as to where to steer so the car remains on the tarmac rather than upside down in the verge.

The TomTom shows the road ahead in 3D view.  It tells me when the next junction is, what the road I need to take is called, and it shows which direction the road immediately ahead is turning - and how sharp.

It's like a rally co-driver.  It means I can occasionally glance at its screen and understand that in 200 yards the road bends to the right and that all the lights I can see over to the left (which I might have thought was the road until I was almost on it) are for a slip road to Wincanton.

In the pitch black with rain streaming down the windscreen I could either do 40mph with my nose pressed against the windscreen, or 60mph, know where and when the road turns, and use more brain power to spot any hazards ahead.

This is no advert for TomTom.  They haven't paid me.  It just comes from experience of many different satnav systems.  All of them are useless compared to a £130 off the shelf gizmo that sticks to the windscreen and plugs into the 12V socket.

Simple, yet brilliant.

By Matt Hubbard