Staying alive with the

daredevil racing doctor

By Anthony Howard

JONATHAN Palmer drives to survive. As the 31-year-old star of the Tyrrell grand prix team, you would expect him to be concerned about safety. But Palmer is also a qualified doctor and, as a houseman at hospitals in Sussex in the early 1980s, he has seen his fair share of the horror of road accidents.

"There is so much hostility on the roads, it's dreadful. What we need is co-operation, not antagonism. Road users should help one another far more in order to make their journeys easier.

"If this means letting the other driver overtake more easily, then do it. Ease to the left a bit or back off the throttle to let him come in neatly," he explained.

Palmer qualified at Guy's Hospital in London in 1979, but took a year's break in 1981 to concentrate on motor racing. He had already won the Formula 3 championship and had been offered Formula 1 test drives with the front-running teams, Williams, McLaren and Lotus.

Now, as a full-time racing driver, Palmer clocks-up an incredible 20,000 miles a year behind the wheel of his Tyrrell either testing or racing.

When he is not racing, he is either behind the wheel of his Ford Granada or at the controls of his helicopter.

Macho power exercise

"ON THE ROAD, egos and arrogance are the problem today. Too many people are too concerned with the driving of others, rather than their own. They regard it all as a competitive business," says Palmer. Driving on the roads ought not to be a macho power exercise, he says. It's a big enough challenge already, with more and more vehicles, more traffic signs and more hazards.

"Most drivers think learning finishes with the driving test when, in fact, it's only the start. When I passed my medical finals, I certainly wasn't ready to be the definitive doctor. The same applies to driving."

Palmer urges that we take nothing for granted on the road, and says fullest use of our faculties and senses is indispensable.

"Undoubtedly, it's not as safe to drive if you're deaf, or being blasted by very loud music, because you miss a lot of clues. An important one is hearing the horn of another car.

"It's also essential to hear a car overtaking. And sounds can tell you plenty about your own car, what it's doing and when to change gear. You could be changing up too early when the engine's lugging, or over-revving.

"If I didn't use my ears in a racing car, I couldn't drive it properly. Contrary to boy-racer opinion, you don't change up when you see 10,000 revs on the rev counter, but by ear. Otherwise you'd have to take your eyes off the road.

"Though I tend to drive fairly quickly, I've not had a serious road accident in 14 years – touch wood. And that comes from being attentive, seeing potential danger situations build up, and taking precautionary action.

"You have to watch other vehicles all the time, and the drivers too – which way their heads are turned as they approach from a side road, whether they're paying attention or gossiping, whether they've bothered to look in the mirror during the past couple of minutes and are aware you're there."

So important is clear vision that Palmer declares himself a real stickler for clean windscreens. "It's not just the outside. What drives me mad is the muck that accumulates on the inside.

"If the screen isn't absolutely as clean as you can make it, you'll be blinded by glare from the sunset or oncoming headlights. This is accentuated by the modern car's sharply-raked aerodynamic windscreen.

“In winter, it's appalling how many times you see people driving down the road with the windows all frosted over and a handkerchief-size patch of windscreen cleared. They should be disqualified for that.

"Five minutes before I drive off, I go out to start the engine, turn on the heater, and scrape off all the ice.

“Another of my pet hates are people who drive with dipped headlights all the time, even when there's no other traffic on a country road. They may reason that they don't need main beam because they're travelling slowly.

"But they're not using the full illumination at their disposal. So they can't see properly. And you can't see to overtake safely without switching your own lights to main beam."

Fog lights often misused

BRITISH DRIVERS are now much better at lighting up in poor conditions, thinks Palmer. Though he says high-intensity rear fog lights are often misused. “It drives me mad, and it's often dangerous – especially in rain where all they're doing is creating dazzling red haloes around their cars, particularly at night. And it's also unclear whether they're braking or just driving at a steady speed."

Even when he's racing on a very bright day, he spurns sunglasses. "Most people wear them for practical reasons, but I dislike them – maybe because they're often worn for posing.

"They put you in a little bit more of a cocoon in terms of integrating your forward view with peripheral vision – looking in the mirror or seeing cars coming alongside you."

Palmer advocates a relaxed, yet attentive, approach whether in slow-moving London traffic or motoring quickly across country.

"I sit quite upright so I can operate all the controls properly while always firmly supported by the seat. And I'm a great believer in reducing tension.

"Hold the wheel with as much force as you need – which isn't a lot these days but let the rest of your arms, you neck, back and legs relax.

"It might sound a bit corny, but believe me there are lots of times when this is invaluable in stressful situations – when you're stuck in a jam, late for an appointment, driving in fast traffic, or the kids are screaming.

"If we can rid ourselves of tension, which uses a lot of energy for no result, we substantially reduce the amount of effort needed to drive."

It's not speed that kills

PALMER IS A great believer in a good night's sleep. "It's all very well setting out on a long journey after getting to bed at four in the morning but, sooner or later, that will do for your concentration. Rest periods en route have to be a commonsense compromise. Holiday makers have more opportunity to take a break than business people with deadlines."

Talking behind the wheel is another of his bętes noires. "I'm not clever enough to drive properly and talk at the same time, regardless of what speed I'm doing. I don't know about other people. Time and again, you follow somebody who doesn't see you in the mirror because he's yakking.

"When eventually he does pull over and you overtake, he's upset. He waves his fist and flashes his lights as if you're the biggest road hog in the world. Yet he's not been paying attention for the past couple of miles. We do have to encourage people to concentrate better.

"Speed in itself doesn't kill. The trouble is too few people have any real appreciation of how much more attentive they have to be as speed builds up"

Britain's 70mph limit is now well out of date, Palmer believes. "The realist fact these days is that cars can cruise happily at 85-90mph on uncrowded motorways. It's not dangerous at all.

"If I had my way, the limit would 100mph – high enough for people not to feel they have to drive up to it all the time. They'd each adopt speeds they feel comfortable at. There wouldn't I bunching, and there'd be greater pressure sure to develop good lane discipline.

"Police should put more emphasis on careless driving mistakes than speeding. We all know that a 1967 Morris Oxford, 11 months after its last MoT and with a 17-year-old at the wheel, is lethal on a wet motorway at 68mph, but that's under the limit.

"Yet the guy doing 93 in his new Sierra and harming no-one is the one who is pulled up, gets three points on his licence and a Ł70 fine."

Belt-up in the back of the car

FROM HIS vantage point, Palmer is far better qualified than most to judge the value of seat belts. "I'm a total advocate. I was amazed at the ridiculous resistance when they were being made compulsory

"They should be worn by all occupants. When I'm in the back, I'll wear a belt. If somebody doesn't want to wear a front seat belt, I won't drive them – I don't want the responsibility.

"You couldn't drive a racing car without a harness because you'd be flung around so much by the 3-4g braking and cornering forces.

"In an accident, you're subjected to 15-30g. If I can't support myself in a racing car, then no way can anybody do it in a sudden impact where the forces are five to ten times greater."

Bad eyesight is a big danger

THE DRIVING test eyesight check – reading a number plate with 3˝in letters from a distance of 75ft or the newer smaller ones from 67ft – is a minimum requirement for safe driving, Palmer believes.

"Motorists with weak vision are a big danger. They say they're OK because they can see the car ahead. But they're the sort who'll suddenly slow without warning to 25mph on a busy dual carriageway when they're trying to read a signpost because they can't do it sufficiently far in advance.

"Anyone who suspects his or her eyesight is not normal should have yearly checks. Their passengers and other road users deserve that level of responsibility.

"You have to learn to look – concentrate and absorb what you see. It's one of the most fundamental concepts in driving on road or track.

"Planning ahead is far, far too rare.

"Many drivers follow too closely on motorways because they're looking no further than the tail of the vehicle just ahead. They should position their cars more deliberately, a little bit offset with a view through its screen or down the outside, so they can see what's developing up the road.

"I can't tell you the number of times something's happened and I've put my brakes on before the driver in front of me has even reacted. Trying to anticipate better than the next bloke is a good game to play."

1,790 words Copyright © by Anthony Howard for Auto Express