No, I’ve not given up driving for lent. It’s been the previous month: at the end of January, I was running late for a residents’ meeting in my ward, hopped into my car, put the card in the slot, pressed the brake and hit the “start” button – Renault Meganes not having keys for ignition – when all hell broke lose. The wipers fired and wouldn’t stop (the same wipers that had failed completely in December, needing a replacement motor). The lights flashed. The dashboard flashed its WARNING and STOP! signs alternately. The engine had started, but wouldn’t stop. The wipers started to squeak. I dove through the handbook to look for clues and didn’t find any. There was a helpful thing that said if all else fails, hit the start key 5 times to stop, so I tried that - but the engine resolutely failed to respond. There was no way the car was drivable through the chaos – even if the lights and wipers hadn’t been running amok, the steering lock hadn’t released itself. I live, and park, on a hill, so I always point the wheels into the curb when I leave the car in case the handbrake fails.
Ater a good few minutes looking at the chaos, I still hadn’t figured out how to stop the engine, let alone work out what the fault was or how to fix it. I eventually remembered back to my driving lessons one sure fire way of making the engine stop – to stall it – so I brought the clutch up too fast and bump, the engine stopped.
But that left me with a useless car and on the wrong side of town. I phoned my ward colleague and asked him to send my apologies to the residents and went back inside to play with the internet instead.
The following morning, I phoned the dealer. The car has a lifetime warranty to replace anything that goes wrong with the expensive quid pro quo that I have to have all my servicing done with the dealer. I explain the symptoms and they sympathise and say it doesn’t sound like anything they’ve heard before, and yes of course they’ll have a look at it, but first I have to get it to them. They don’t have a collection service, and I don’t have AA membership, so I have to phone a tow-truck myself.
The tow-truck duly arrives and the chappie who gets out says “Megane? Going mad? Wipers and everything? Oh yeah we get called out to that all the time! Usually a sign your battery is going.” And he gets out his big portable battery charger thingie, gets his socket set out to the remove the battery cover, clips on the red crocodile… and the car starts normally and is generally fine.
So I stupidly assume the car is now mended, wave my visa card at the tow truck and let life carry on as normal.
Only later in the afternoon when I actually need the car again, the battery is totally totally dead. So dead the central locking no longer works, and if it hadn’t been for the fact I accidentally left the car unlocked, I wouldn’t even be able to get in. You certainly can’t open the boot without the battery as it’s electronic not manual.
So I kick the tyres and resolve, the following day, to walk to Halfords and buy myself one of those big chargeable free standing battery chargers. Next day arrives, which involves a taxi to the Notts Fire and Rescue HQ which is in the middle of a forest and not accessible by bus, and then I walk to Arnold to buy a charger. Only I balk a little at the cost. They’re over £70, which I just think is too much.
Then it snows, and I give up on driving for a few days. The snow stays in the hilly bits of Nottingham much longer than anywhere else and there is compacted ice on the road for nearly two weeks. It takes an age for the last bits of snow to melt in the garden.
A colleague lends me a plug-in battery charger. Only, unfortunately, the car is parked on the far side of the road from the house. P forbids me to trail wires across the road to charge it, so I look in the manual to see if it is possible to remove the battery to charge it in the house. There’s a paragraph that warns about FIERY DEATH if you try and do anything of the sort, so I give up.
A few more days later, and I feel too much of a wimp, so I have another go with the charger. I crack the bonnet, find the socket set, unscrew the battery cover, and RISK FIERY DEATH. Then I put on my orange hi-vis vest and trail a wire across the road. My thinking with the vest was that I could highly visible and stop passing cars to remove the wire before they either caused death by crushing the wires, or got the wires all tangled up hideously in their axles.
As it was, I just looked a total prat who felt the need to get all dressed up before attempting car maintenance.
I did manage to get the charger fixed to the battery, at which point it started to make ominous ticking and beeping noises, so I read the multilingual warnings on the battery cover I had so readily discarded. WARNING OF FIERY DEATH it said, if you attempt EVER to charge the battery without first disconnecting it from every last vestigial remaining car wire. I hadn’t done that. It looked like an awful lot of unscrewing to remove all the wires. And it was ticking and beeping and looking suspiciously like FIERY DEATH so I took all the clips off and rolled up the extension lead and retreated back into the house, the car still not even remotely working, feeling the least masculine I have ever felt.
Days later, I phoned the tow truck again, and they turned up again, and started it in 2 seconds with a screwdriver and battery pack. This time, I insisted they followed me to the dealer and I left the car with them.
Five days at the dealer and £300 later, it came back with a new battery, new brake pads and replacement wiring which means the ignition works properly again now. I guess the mechanics at the dealer face FIERY DEATH every time they crack open a bonnet and need adequate remuneration, but £300?? It irks me just how many people work at the Renault main dealer, and they all have very fancy uniforms…
Add in two tow-truck calls and I’ve just paid £400 to *not* drive my car for a whole month. Bargain!
In the mean time, I have rediscovered what I knew all along – that Nottingham’s buses are by and large fantastic. There is a fast and frequent service from near my house to the city centre that runs pretty much every two minutes through all the times I am awake.
There is a bit of a niggle, of course, and one I have raised regularly in committee: the buses are amazing if you want to go directly from a suburb to the city centre, but all but non-existent if you want to go from Suburb A to Suburb B. In my case, I don’t live in the ward I represent, so I am frequently to be found driving across town to leaflet or visit residents or attend ward meetings or surgeries.
Despite the excellent bus route into town – and despite also the fact that it is really only two miles and I ought simply to walk into town – I have a free parking space in the city centre and I succumb to driving in far more than I should. My personal rule is that I only drive in when I have a multi-hop journey to make. Fine to drive to the city, then drive to the ward, then drive home. Sort of ok to drive to the city, then to the supermarket and then home. Not fine to drive in and then straight home again.
But I was breaking that rule more often than adhering to it, particularly after discovering I can get from front door to sitting down in the Committee room in 18 minutes if I drive…
In fact all those short little hops probably contributed to the death of the battery, as did flattening it by charging my mobile and listening to radio whilst on a camping trip last summer.
In my car-free month, I got by fine by
- using the bus a lot more
- walking a little bit more
- taking 3 taxis (to Chalfont Drive, Radford Rd Police Station and Fire HQ)
- relying much more on lifts from friends
- getting P to take me for the “big shop”
- stopping doing some things entirely, eg leafleting, evening ward meetings.
I could get by without the car. But life is much easier with it.
At some point in the coming months, I expect that Nottingham’s workplace parking levy will come in, and John Heppel MP told Parliament last night that I will have to pay it:
In fact, the councillors are among those who will have to pay the workplace parking levy for the parking that they use in the city centre, which is effectively free. I do not think that many people in Nottingham will mind the fact that the councillors will have to pay.
This isn’t a surprise, of course, the fact that I will have to pay it has been at the back of my mind since the Lib Dems voted for WPL last year. But it’s nice to have it confirmed on the floor of the house in one of my MP’s rare speeches.
It does mean that I’ll have to make a proper decision: do I make a change or do I pay the charge – the equivalent of 70p per day. I haven’t yet made that decision.
Finally, here’s a list of all the things that have gone wrong with my car since I bought it:
- vanity light on drivers door randomly lights up my feet when driving at night
- electronic boot switch needed replacing after locking the boot shut
- lost a hub cap
- spark plugs died and needed replacing
- replacement spark plugs died within weeks and needed replacing during a singing holiday, which was a right pain to organise!
- one headlight failed, and I discovered just what an immense PITA it is to attempt to replace the headlight yourself
- both headlights failed at once, and I failed to notice, driving on side lights for a few weeks and wondering why I couldn’t see
- hydraulic clutch developed intermittent fault and needed replacing (scary that one – suddenly and without warning the clutch pedal just hangs limply and isn’t connected to the engine)
- the wiring on the clutch gave out, which meant I could only start the ignition with the brake pedal
- windscreen wiper motor failed – but only at some speeds
All this in only 30,000 miles / three years.
See also: this car-free paradise from Orwell-prize-nominated LDV co-editor Alix Mortimer.