Autojournalists Are Terrible Drivers And Worse Passengers

Illustration for article titled Autojournalists Are Terrible Drivers And Worse Passengers

"You've just hit another car. Stop talking – I have no interest in your home life. Concentrate on driving. I just want to live." And so began another ride with one of the UK's crack motoring journalists.


From the moment I passed my driving test I had always hated sitting in the front seat without use of a steering wheel, but working as a junior ashtray for a car magazine many years ago quickly turned that hatred into a pathological fear. I have become a truly terrible passenger.

And this is not borne of some misplaced sense of my own superiority behind the wheel. I have no doubt a roadcraft expert would pull my driving to pieces and proclaim me to be a complete arse, but I'd like to think that on a basic level I at least take enough pride in what I'm doing to at least have a vague clue about it.

This brings me neatly to the first point – one which exists outside of my professional life – riding with people who neither care about cars or driving. These tend to be some of the most terrifying experiences. The core problem with being forced to travel like this, and it is always under duress because people like you and me always drive unless thwarted by social or legal limitations, is that you realise that most people take no pride in their driving and have no interest whatsoever in what is happening around them.

The great thing about you peering in your rear-view mirror to see if those are the wider front fenders of a 500E W124 Mercedes following is that in doing so you are displaying an interest in the surrounding environment and are therefore able to read the traffic around you. It allows you to interpret the language of a car much earlier than the layperson. It means you will avoid other road cretins before they do.

More often than not the fear in this case lies in the lack of skill, the clumsy inputs, the fascinating array of seating positions and steering methods. If you can't reach the wheel with both hands, when the time comes to avoid the shunt, you won't avoid the shunt. And why must you apply extra braking just as the car is about to reach a stop and force our heads to do the nodding-dog?

Misplaced confidence is dangerous in any walk of life, but in the motor car, in the context of a press launch full of people desperate to prove something, it is often terrifying. I rarely sit next to anyone these days, and on the few occasions I have to the list of trusted chauffeurs is short. For a profession that contains many thousand people who probably think they're a bit handy behind the wheel, the general standard of driving is best described as 'fucking catastrophic'.

And the modern motor car is both very fast and very good at stopping itself without crashing, further adding to the completely misplaced assumption by many of these lunatics that they can really drive. I remember thinking, as I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable crunch and shrieking pain to envelop my body that the only possible reasons the bloke driving me on a Porsche 911 launch hadn't already thrown us off the road were luck and some genius engineer from the wider Stuttgart area.

And the driver was a pretty well-known journalist. I'd never sit next to him on a bus again, let alone a 180mph car. Of course the awkward thing is, I actually like him and will happily share a beer with him.


My brain reverts to a kind of ECU limp-home mode in these situations. I sit motionless, I try to brace myself against the door and the footwell and I keep telling myself over-and-over "It's going to be okay" – a bleating, pleading wail of helplessness. Because being a bad passenger is of course all about being a control-freak denied control.

I certainly couldn't have handled sitting next to the late, great LJK Setright. His driving on press drive events is the stuff of legend – careering about the place at vast speed, pulling on a cheroot and opining on the relative excellence of anything Honda. Mates who worked with him said they'd hide in the toilet when the driving pairs were being sorted, to avoid the certain terror the remainder of the day would bring if paired with him. He was arguably the greatest motoring writer of us all, but those who rode with him say they often entered the car agnostic and exited hours later having found something spiritual.


I used to deploy similar bathroom tactics a few years back and then after one especially terrifying ride in a Carrera GT (they're not supposed to do 120mph through villages) I asked for a list of attendees for an upcoming event and emailed the only sane human I could identify and asked if he'd share with me. He said yes. The first stop-over on the driving route was thirty miles up the side of a hill. Of the eight cars that left the hotel, two arrived damaged, one didn't arrive at all.

The deliberately lively passenger ride with the professional hand doesn't appeal to me that much either. In the name of art I've sat next to some of the very best drivers on the planet and witnessed skills you wouldn't think possible. On some Porsche launch years ago Walter Rohrl was careering up and down a closed Spanish road giving rides – and being Walter and therefore incapable of doing anything at less than 110% commitment - the speeds were difficult to comprehend. It was only a five minute blat, but after about thirty seconds I just looked at the floor and sweated.

There is plenty of evidence of my passenger ride face on video: the grimace of terror. Two are standouts: the hour I spent with Francois Delecour in a 997 GT3 RS was absurd in every way. And riding with Paulo Andreucci in a Lancia 037 left me unable to speak for quite a while afterwards. Was either pleasurable? Not really – they created memorable content, but pushed me well beyond my fear threshold.


It's a pathetic display of hypocrisy really, I've given thousands of passenger rides under the same circumstances and no doubt scared the shit out of many people, but that's different you see. I'm in control, so everything will be fine. Unless I crash, which of course occasionally I do.

Typical male self-unawareness on the subject of one's own driving means that many colleagues probably still run to the gents at the prospect of sitting next to me, but I suspect that has more to do with my personality than the way I conduct myself on the road.


As you can imagine, this means I have fairly strident views on autonomous cars. Humans are bad enough, but the thought of sitting in the back of something pre-programmed by a human lunatic, with the added potential fuckwittery of an electronic brain is enough for me to forgive some of my colleagues' shortcomings.

And we really had just hit another car. The speed was low, but the crunch was very real and instead of stopping, the bloke kept talking about is bloody girlfriend.


Illustration: Sam Woolley


Jonathan Harper

Though I often call my passengers out for using the "invisible brake" on the floor of the passenger side footwell, I am also quite guilty of invisible braking as I'm just as shitty a passenger as Chris.