I was out driving the other day, and someone overtook me in a lovely Porsche 911 Carrera S. I looked across as it glided past, and at the driver at the wheel, and thought “what have you done to deserve that car?” Not in a judgemental way, mind you, but it got me thinking.
In many car racing computer games your entitlement to drive particular classes of car has to be earned through proving your driving skill, rather than just the accumulation of money. It strikes me that actually this is a fair and sensible approach, and one that highlights just how inadequate and antiquated our current system is. At the moment we only have one driving test, which is a simple yes/no answer to the question “did this person meet the minimum requirements on the day of the test”. The same driving test entitles someone to drive a rusty old Vauxhall Corsa, or a Bugatti Veyron. There’s something wrong there, methinks.
And so, as I drove along in my Ford Escort, I worked out the finer details of my idea to revolutionise driving tests, licences and car manufacture. To my surprise and delight, it looks like it might actually be a good idea!
The aim of this system is to ensure that people do not end up driving cars that they are not capable of controlling safely. Take, for instance, a 17 year old driving a Focus RS. Or an elderly man erratically towing a caravan and taking up all three lanes of the motorway in the process. Somehow our society believes that it is our human right to be allowed to drive whatever car we like, which I’m not sure I agree with. It certainly doesn’t tally with other areas of life; a GCSE grade E does not entitle you to the same standard of job as a First level degree.
This is not intended to be a practical limitation to people, nor a discrimination on those with expensive taste; all types of car should be available to all people (within reason), and people with deep pockets should still be able to drive in a luxurious mobile hotel if that’s what they want. My point is that money alone shouldn’t buy performance. A wealthy businessman can buy a Mercedes if he wants, but it’s conceivable that he might not be a great driver, so shouldn’t be let loose with millions of horsepowers.
My idea would be to split cars into four categories, or levels, each one accessible only by passing a further driving test to prove your driving ability. Before I go into the details of how to achieve all this, here is a breakdown of each level.
This is where every new driver would start off, and is where they would stay if they were over-cautious, nervous, or unskilled. Think of it as a ‘beginners’ class, for people to whom driving does not come naturally. Or for people who just can’t be bothered to upgrade because the higher levels hold no attraction for them. The driving test would be pretty basic, just making sure drivers were safely able to control the car, so not too dissimilar from the current test.
At this level you would be entitled to drive cars with a low power to weight ratio, like a 1.2L Fiesta or a 1.6L Focus. Pretty much all type of car would be found here, including superminis, hatchbacks, saloons, estates, people carriers, small pickups, small 4x4s and small vans. The low power to weight ratio ensures that the car is safe and easy to control at all times. Further limits would include no towing of trailers or caravans, and no rear wheel drive.
This level describes an ‘average’ driver, and is where most drivers would probably sit. It could also be described as an intermediate qualification, for people who are fairly confident in their driving ability and able to demonstrate some maturity too. The driving test would be a little more advanced, a bit like the existing Pass Plus test, making sure that drivers not only met the minimum requirements but were also reliable and effective in their driving, showing themselves to be able to control the car in all weathers and have some basic car maintenance knowledge.
All previous car types would be available, plus large pickups, large 4x4s, large vans and minibuses. Cars with a better power to weight ratio would be allowed, like a 1.6L Mini or a 2.0L Mondeo. Towing and rear wheel drive would be allowed, as well as the option of a turbodiesel engine.
This level is for the more advanced driver, the driving enthusiast. The driving test would show the driver to be more skilled than average in their car control, and might include a outing to a skid pan, a demonstration of cornering ability, clean and efficient gear changes, and a good general knowledge of basic engine functionality. Very few people would need this level, so its only purpose really is for enthusiasts, those who want to use the achievement as a status symbol, and people who relish the thrill of driving a sports car. Because experience also comes into play at this point, we might introduce a further limit whereby you must have at least 5 years driving experience to even take the test.
Cars at this level would have a higher power to weight ratio and would introduce sports models like a 2.5L Focus RS or a 4.0L V8 BMW M3. These are cars that in the wrong hands could be difficult to handle and potentially dangerous, hence the need to prove yourself capable. Petrol engines would also have the option of being turbocharged, even supercharged, and you’d be able to vary the level of traction control (i.e. turn it off for track days).
This is where the serious drivers live, with skill levels almost at semi-professional. These are expert drivers, with a true passion for motorsport and a natural aptitude for precision driving. The test would therefore include advanced driving techniques such as controlling powerslides (drifting), choosing the best racing line, heel-and-toe and double-clutching, left foot braking, and some experience both on a racing track and offroad.
The cars you’d expect to find at this level are the best of the best. The supercars. Vehicles with a very high power to weight ratio, like a 3.8L Porsche 911 Carrera S or a 4.5L Ferrari 458 Italia.
Now for some further details and caveats.
Obviously there are some people who are not going to like this idea. For that reason, I’m happy for the government to steal my idea; I don’t mind not getting official credit for the idea, because it means I won’t get the hate mail as well. I’m fully aware that there are car enthusiasts out there who love cars, especially the powerful ones, but are not competent drivers, who will feel that they are being unfairly discriminated against. They will no doubt argue that although the car has a big engine they don’t ever use all that power so it’s no more dangerous than a Prius. My argument, however, means that it is not illegal to own sports cars without a suitable licence, just to drive them on public roads. If you want to own a sports car and drive it on a track or private land, you go right ahead.
Then there is the modifiers community, who love to take ordinary cars and pimp them up with bodykits and massive engines. Well, I have nothing against you modifying your cars, in all honesty I’d do the same if I had the time and money. But the classification of your car may have to change as a result of the modifications you make. With this in mind, we would have to introduce further tests as part of the yearly MOT to make sure the power to weight ratio hasn’t been changed too far for it to need reclassifying.
I’d also like to clarify why I keep going on about power to weigh ratios instead of horsepowers. Remember that the amount of power an engine develops only makes a car powerful in comparison to its weight. A 100hp engine in a tiddly little Saxo will be pretty racy, while the same 100hp in a hefty 7-seater people carrier might not really be enough. So classifying cars on their power to weight ratio ensures that we are dealing in the effective power rather than the crankshaft power, which makes it more relevant. In the MOT, cars would have to be put on a rolling road to test their power and then weighed to get the necessary statistic.
This also has implications for insurance companies. Drivers with a high level licence who choose to drive a lower level car could be given discounts, having shown themselves to be safer behind the wheel; I’d see that as a much more reliable judge than a person’s no-claims bonus. In the event of an accident, if the driver was found to be driving a car in a higher class than their licence permitted, their insurance would be void and null; police could also impose fines if they found people driving cars they weren’t authorised to drive, maybe even taking them down a level.
When it comes to those additional tests, this ties in with something I’ve thought for many years – I think compulsory retests are a good idea. They could be introduced gradually, but it would be great if we could make sure that everyone was retested at least once every 10 years. A lot can happen in 10 years, after all. Further tests would all be optional, of course. People who drive for business may be required to have at least Level 2, but that shouldn’t be difficult to achieve for most people so that’s not going to be a problem.
A quick word about turbos. My dear friend Phill commented on a previous rant of mine saying how he has justified choosing a car with a turbo fitted. This is not a direct get-back at him, I must stress. And it must be understood what the difference is between a turbo on a petrol engine and a turbo on a diesel engine. These days, turbodiesels are commonplace and do not represent a sporty or excessively powerful engine. A normally-aspirated diesel engine (i.e. one without a turbocharger) has a narrow power band, poor efficiency, lumpy power transmission, excessive CO2 emission and is pretty noisy. Adding a modern turbocharger transforms the engine into an efficient purr, and has made it very popular in many saloons and even some sports cars. I therefore see no reason not to allow a Level 2 driver to have a turbodiesel vehicle, because it doesn’t present a particularly high risk or require additional skill to control. A turbocharger on a petrol engine, however, is an entirely different monster. A normally-aspirated petrol engine typically has a wider power band, revs happily and develops a good amount of power, and still manages to be relatively efficient. Adding a turbo massively increases power output, often makes it quite wild and harder to control, and usually negatively impacts fuel efficiency too. Giving an everyday driver access to these sorts of turbos is not a good idea, hence why Level 2 allows turbodiesel but not petrol turbo. There is method to the madness.
So what happens if you take a routine retest and get downgraded to a lower class? Naturally, you wouldn’t be expected to walk home, so I imagine there would have to be a suitable amount of time between your reclassing to allow to you sell your car, or take another retest.
There are also implications for the car manufacturers, who would be encouraged to make sure they have models in each category. This means making a luxurious Mercedes Benz that can be graded in Level 1, so that Mr Director can turn up to his business meetings looking the bee’s knees despite his inability to qualify for a Level 2 licence. Obviously, there are limits to this; no purist will be happy to see an Aston Martin fitted with a teensy weensy 1.6L engine. Also, it’s clear that it would be unfair to apply these classifications to cars already on the market, so it would have to be something introduced to new cars.
Finally, I want to make it clear that I’m not out to make life more difficult for everyone. I just want to make the roads safer, by ensuring that those people driving sports cars are actually capable of controlling them. This new system doesn’t cater for farm or heavy machinery, heavy goods vehicles or motorbikes, incidentally; they’d have to have their own rules, as they do already, so in all likelihood they wouldn’t be affected by any of this.
I’d be interested to hear your views on this idea. Do you see potential flaws in the system? Is there anything else you’d add? Leave your comment. Drive safe.