Lockdown, foot down: driving in the time of Covid

Has there ever been a better time to drive?

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

After the post-apocalyptic fall-off in traffic at the start of lockdown, cars are now slowly starting to return to the roads. Well, if you’ve seen a smug git cruising through north Perthshire in a 1989 Atlantic Blue BMW 320i convertible, that’s me. I’m rediscovering the love of the car.

I started lockdown in London, hurtling down Edgware Road blasting out ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials. Having decamped to the Highlands (in defiance of the SNP edicts to stay away), I now chug along at 20 miles per hour below the speed limit, with a gentle accompaniment of Hall & Oates. It’s pure bliss.

Is driving for pleasure within the government’s lockdown guidelines? It’s certainly not ‘essential’ travel. I’m not on the road for medical reasons or going to or from work, but many of my sallies are the preludes to vigorous walks, which makes them technically kosher. Nonetheless, Covid driving certainly feels illicit. Since the government is still advising the public to stay at home as much as possible, it’s no wonder everyone on the road looks so shifty. Whenever I set off for a drive it feels like I’m stealing my own car. It’s as if twocking has made a comeback. ‘Twoc’ (taking without owner’s consent) is the acronym for the criminal offence of joyriding, which more or less died out when vehicle locking technology improved in the 2000s. It feels like we’re all twockers now.

Apart from the thrill of auto-grand theft auto, lockdown is revealing another of driving’s charms: privacy. The car has always been a sanctuary. It’s like the loo, in a way, but without unpleasant smells and pictures of your schooldays staring you down. In these cooped-up times the car can be a refuge from family and an adyton when the churches are closed, especially for those who live in inner cities, where private space can be hard to come by. And something to do with the motion and perhaps the concentration required for driving means it can have the same calming effect as any good long walk.

The war on Covid has temporarily obscured the war on the car. For years, motorists have been under attack by politicians keen to flaunt their green credentials. Take London, where the mayor wants to extend his ‘ultra-low emission zone’ to an area covering four million people with no exemption or discount for residents. Hundreds of thousands of people will have to pay £12.50 a pop just to drive to the end of their roads. This is despite negligible improvement to air quality. In a single year, Camden Council has increased the cost of its resident permits by 37 times the rate of inflation. This is crippling for anyone who wants to drive in London, but spare your thoughts for the night-shift workers, who really do rely on their battered Fiestas.

In the developing world, people are shifting from creaking public transport systems to the private car en masse. Go to Ghana and you’ll see houses with fleets of glitzy cars, even though the streets look like they’ve been pounded by artillery. In Britain, on the other hand, the environmentalists — as opposed to the genuine stewards of the environment — want to cast driving as a sinful pleasure. Policy-makers across Europe are exerting themselves to make it as esoteric as dogging or glue-sniffing. Now I like public transport as much as the next man — particularly the random encounters on any train outside the Home Counties, and the spice of the bus nutter — but I’m not sure we should be forced to use it. And right now people are understandably scared of travelling on the London Underground. It was quite remarkable to hear the Prime Minister in his Sunday evening address to the nation exhorting workers to avoid public transport.

Could the virus then possibly rekindle the car industry? Or is lockdown just an interlude in its inevitable demise? At least let us consider what will be forever entombed with the old fossil fuel beast. Is your date really going to be seduced by an electric driverless vehicle? When the last petrol car is taxed off the road, I’ll return to the horse.

But back to the present. Has there ever been a better time to drive than right now? Fuel is cheaper than bottled water, the roads are barren, there’s even an MOT holiday. Indeed, there’s actually a détente in the war: emissions charges, congestion charges, parking charges all suspended. And if like me you prefer not to have a robotic woman barking directions at you, abandon your sat navs and take the Ordnance Survey maps. They’ll also come in handy for the necessary walk at the end of it.

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