Howard Croft column: Not convinced car safety feature is right approach

Pedestrian warning light similar to the feature fitted on BMW cars.
Pedestrian warning light similar to the feature fitted on BMW cars.

We are a two car family. I have a 1969 Morris Traveller in British racing green, much admired in my locality, but with little in the way of driver support systems. A fuel gauge that gives vague and unreliable readings and a red light that when lit indicates trouble ahead, also vague. That is it.

Mrs Croft’s car is a different animal: a sleek triumph of German engineering boasting a cockpit information system – visual and audio – that baffles as much as it reassures and still, after more than two years, surprises, as it did this week. An intrusive alarm sounded and onto the display screen there appeared the following warning: “Pedestrian warning system fault! Do not open bonnet! Drive at moderate speed! Drive to the nearest BMW service!” Accompanying this was a primitive graphic of a stick figure about to disappear under the wheels of a car, presumably Mrs Croft’s. Off we went at a brisk pace to the dealership.

We were at once assured that we were in no immediate danger or not much at least; a sensor located low down at the front of the car had failed and should be replaced. It seems that this safety feature is intended to protect the occupants of the car in the event of a collision with a pedestrian. In such an incident it is common for the unfortunate fellow to be thrown through the car windscreen causing distress and possible injury to the driver. To avoid this, the sensor alerts the bonnet catch which instantly disengages, the bonnet lifts and scoops up the pedestrian and flicks him (or her – see below) up over the top of the car, well clear of the windscreen. And all is well.

But all is not well for the pedestrian who presumably lands in front of the immediately following vehicle where a grim fate awaits him. Unless, that is, it’s another high-ticket BMW similarly equipped, in which case the process is repeated. I am aware of how much injury can be caused by even a medium-sized creature being hurled through a car windscreen, a badger say, or a turkey. Imagine, then, the risk presented by a little old lady, who might weigh eight stone or more, coming at you in that way.

Now I don’t know how you feel about this, but I am not entirely convinced that this is the right approach, although I accept that my reservations may be coloured by fond memories of my grandmothers. Would it not be fairer if the bonnet were designed instead to make a lateral movement and flick granny aside onto the grass verge? The fact that the car we are talking about is of German manufacture is neither here nor there – I dare say that French car manufacturers incorporate similar safety features that reflect their national priorities – and nor am I making a BREXIT point. But it does make you think.

Still on matters of traffic, I noticed the other day a waste collection vehicle (dust carts we used to call them) with the now familiar warning on the front “Operatives Working at Rear”, but on the back another warning read “Caution: Workmen”. What is going on? Is there some ideological battle going on in the council responsible for this dust cart, between those that want to call a spade a spade and not a shovel, or between those who disapprove of adjectives becoming nouns and those who like nothing better? Although I do think that the grammar purists have lost that battle as far as “operative” is concerned, the noun definition being given now in some up-to-date dictionaries, but confined to those with special skills. Special, of course being the operative word. I am not saying that there is no skill involved in pulling a lever to cause a wheelie bin to be hoisted and tipped, but not special I would have thought. I mean, I could do that

These trendy uses and abuses of language do seem to originate in the offices of local government and Human Resources Directorates, (previously known as Personnel Departments) where novelty is prized more highly than competence, and I think that they should be required to be clear about their policies. Or is that too big an ask?