July 4 has been dubbed 'Super Saturday', the day lockdown restrictions began to ease (in England at least, although not in Leicester). The change in social distancing measures from two metres to one-metre-plus affects mainly pubs, restaurants and cinemas, which have now reopened, but also has an impact on car travel.
It is already the case that you are allowed to travel as far from your house as you want for a day trip – although you are advised to use a car rather than public transport.
Since July 4, you can now stay overnight in a friend or family member’s house. Even then, you are still advised to maintain a distance from those you do not (normally) live with.
The latest Government advice is to plan your route, including any breaks, before setting out. Routes may be different as local areas make changes to enable social distancing.
People from a household or support bubble can travel together in a vehicle but you should wear a face covering in an enclosed space where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people outside your household or support bubble.
Expect more pedestrians and cyclists, especially at peak times. Where possible, allow other road users to maintain social distancing. For example, give cyclists space at traffic lights.
Limit the time you spend at garages, petrol stations and motorway services. Try to keep your distance from other people and if possible pay by contactless.
Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or sanitise your hands often, and always when exiting or re-entering your vehicle.
At the end of your journey, it is advised that you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or sanitise your hands as soon as possible
You can still drive to a place of exercise irrespective of distance and you can meet family and friends outdoors provided social distancing measures are observed, although drivers in England must still not cross the border into Wales or Scotland. Perfect for the excellent weather, people can now drive to an attraction
for a day out, following the reopening of retailers, as well as pubs, cinemas, hairdressers, museums, hotels, and restaurants.
Once you've reached your destination, you're advised to maintain social distancing from those outside your household. So while technically you're OK to visit beaches and outdoor attractions, it might be wise to hold off a few days to let the crowds subside.
What about public transport?
The government also says that social distance guidance on public transport must be followed rigorously. Masks or face coverings are compulsory. But many medium- to long-distance commuters, for whom walking or cycling to work is not an option, will undoubtedly turn to their cars rather than risk public transport.
Regarding sharing a car with another person not from your household group, Government advice is to avoid that method of travel if at all possible. If you must share, try to travel with the same people in your support bubble every time and keep groupings to as few people as you can.
Face coverings/masks are optional (although not on public transport), but there is evidence that you'll be protecting others if you wear one in confined spaces such as a car
For taxis and private hire vehicles, maintain social distancing measures at taxi ranks. Try to sit in the left rear seat, the maximum distance from the driver. Be aware of surfaces that you and others touch - as ever, carrying hand sanitiser is strongly recommended. You can also open windows to ensure circulation of air.
The information below applies mainly to England, with Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland still asking people to remain at home for all but essential journeys, although that may soon change.
However, many people will not have driven for almost 15 weeks, while others will have taken to the road only infrequently. What should drivers and riders be aware of as they begin commuting again?
To find out, we spoke to Jack Cousens, Automobile Association head of roads policy, and Richard Gladman, IAM RoadSmart (Institute of Advanced Motorists) head of driving and riding standards.
Adapt to change
Both Cousens and Gladman assert that drivers must be prepared for change on the roads and adapt accordingly.
The condition of your car (or motorcycle, scooter or bicycle) may have deteriorated since you last used it. Your driving and or riding skills may not be as sharp as they were. Other road users may behave differently.
The roads themselves may have degraded, and there may be a significant increase in traffic. And, since lockdown started, there will be much more vegetation and some signs may be obscured.
Check your machine
Cleaning the windscreen, checking tyre pressure and ensuring you have plenty of fuel, oil and screenwash and that your vehicle's battery is in good health, are, to some extent, no-brainers. "You need to check your handbrake too, and if you can move the car by a minimal amount at regular intervals, it is worth doing so. Otherwise, you may find the handbrake is firmly stuck on, and the car won't move," cautions Gladman.
Mice can also be a problem, says Cousens, "Stationary vehicles are a haven for rodents. They love to nest under the bonnet, and they like to chew on the plastic that coats the wiring. They even get a taste for some of the car's fluids."
Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate
Assuming your vehicle is ship-shape, and the mice haven't wrecked the engine's Electronic Control Unit (ECU), you should be good to go. But what about the human brain?
"For many people, this will be the lengthiest period in their lives that they haven't driven. Some have already forgotten how to drive, especially on quiet roads when they are not following anybody,” says Cousens. “We have anecdotal evidence of drivers getting to a mini-roundabout, not being sure what to do and going the wrong way around it.”
To minimise mental fluster that could lead to panic and distracted driving, Gladman advises preparing for journeys the night before. “When people return to commuting, they will have fallen out of their routine. It’s important to plan well and set out everything you need in advance.”
Respect other road users
Setting out early is also very likely to pay dividends for driving in a post-lockdown world. With people advised to avoid public transport, the level of traffic on the road is likely to increase and journeys will take longer.
And then there are new road-users to consider. "It seems that more people have taken to cycling during the lockdown," observes Cousens. "Some people are cycling on the roads for the first time, and they may well want to continue to do that. It will be a very different experience for them once traffic increases again.
"Drivers need to be aware of them and give them plenty of space when overtaking."
Already, we are aware that we need to drive more carefully than ever. It is essential to avoid accidents that might tie up ambulance, police and recovery crews and risk exposing them to Covid-19. “Even if you have a relatively minor mishap, like driving into the back of someone, do you really want to be standing close to them while exchanging insurance details?” says Gladman.
Read the road ahead
Both road safety experts point out another factor that has changed since lockdown began. We’ve enjoyed a great start to spring with trees and hedgerows bursting into life; the downside is that they are often obscuring road signs. And councils may not have been able to send crews out to deal with this, or to clean signs that have become dirty.
“Extra caution is required when you can't see the sign that warns you of a 30mph speed limit or a sharp bend or a give way junction ahead,” warns Gladman. “And even if you are familiar with the road, new potholes could provide a nasty surprise.”
To share or not to share?
Picking up a colleague and catching up with the gossip on the way into work now represents a level of risk utterly unimaginable six short weeks ago. The Department of Transport (DfT) advises strongly against it.
“If there is no other option and you have to share a car with people who are not part of your household, you should share with the same people and with the minimum number of people at any one time,” it says.
Driving with open windows, with occupants facing away from each other, and regular vehicle cleaning (particularly the parts that you and other occupants touch regularly) while wearing gloves, are also strongly recommended.
Do your bit
While there have been small incidents of moronic, selfish behaviour with people driving at insane speeds, most motorists have abided by the lockdown. As it is further eased in England from July 4, and we are permitted to take to the road to drive to work, are we morally and duty-bound to do so in a different manner, just as we were morally bound to remain at home?
Both Gladman and Cousens think so. "We've all got a responsibility to one another – drivers, riders, cyclists and pedestrians. This is a chance for a reset. This is a chance to get rid of all those bad habits we've let creep in over the years and go back to driving as we were taught to," advocates Cousens.
And perhaps, as we have all been starved of driving for so long, it will be a chance to reconnect with it and no longer take it for granted.
“For anyone who wants to refresh their skills, IAM RoadSmart will be resuming courses and training when lockdown ends,” points out Gladman. "We must all do our bit to make our roads as safe as possible. We are all duty-bound to prevent accidents, avoid injuries and death and support the NHS by leaving them free to continue the brilliant, selfless work they have been doing.”
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