International lens crafters Hoya now offer a special type of glass for night driving called EnRoute. Gimmick, I hear you cry, and yet you will have noticed, as have I, how much harder driving at night is in the era of LED and halogen headlights. Talk about your law of unintended consequences. The big selling point of LEDs and halogens has always been that brighter, stronger pool of light in front of your car at night, which is bound to make night driving easier, right?
I find it hard to believe that anybody now finds it easier to drive at night. You could accuse me of getting older, sure, but my difficulties with night vision probably stabilised about 20 years ago. What causes me to utter the words Jesus Christ or Jesus Fucking Christ multiple times when driving at night are the eye-searingly bright headlamps coming the other way. Doesn’t matter if you have the fanciest £1000 option Christmas tree lights on your car, you too are being blinded regularly – especially on dark, undulating, winding country roads.
I’ve often complained about the absence of cats’ eyes from French roads. Driving at night over there in wet conditions often involves moments where the white lines disappear completely, and you have no idea where the road is. I had a couple of truly hairy motorway moments this summer in thunderstorms, one of which was in broad daylight, and my problem with disappearing roads dates back at least 20 years.
But the journey we completed yesterday, 21 hours after we set out (on what is normally a 9–10 hour drive), may have been the worst yet.
I’m kicking myself for a series of poor decisions to start with. Poor decision number one was that I booked a 9 a.m. crossing — because getting through passport control (my greatest stressor) is dead easy at that time, but it meant leaving home around midnight. ‘Around midnight’, when my wife is involved, always ends up being ‘Around 11 p.m.’, which is when we set out. As usual, I checked Google Maps for the best route, and what I think of as ‘the Northern route’ was marked as one minute faster.
In other words, nothing in it, but on the basis of that single minute I chose to take the Northern route. A key advantage of this route is that more of the first two hours of the journey are on dual carriageways, whereas both of the two Southern routes involve two hour stretches on N or D roads, passing through multiple villages. Another advantage of the Northern Route is that it is mainly on N roads, so there are fewer motorway tolls to pay, which in these financially straitened times, might be important to me.
The N57 follows the Moselle valley, and winds and undulates considerably more than a motorway, and is not as well marked or lit, and the road surface is more variable than a motorway. I only ever seem to drive on it in the worst weather, so I don’t have good memories. What I was thankful for, given that we were setting out at the arse end of a bank holiday (it was still New Year’s Day when we set out), there were no lorries, and therefore much less spray than there would otherwise have been.
So the journey North was okay. By the time we turned westwards on the N4, lorries were starting to appear again. Still, I felt like we were going to reach Reims within about 4 hours, which is making pretty decent time. And we were within an hour of Reims, approaching Saint Dizier, when disaster struck.
A decision not made was to continue a little further than Nancy to Metz, where I could have joined the A4 autoroute, and travelled across to Reims that way instead. How much time would have been in that? Google wasn’t saying. Anyway, compared to the A4, the N4 is a piece of shit: a patchy, badly lit dual carriageway with invisible white lines, and — it turns out — massive (and notorious) pot holes.
The pot hole we hit at 70 mph — and it was that, around 110 kph, the speed limit, on cruise control — was so deep and so wide that it felt like driving into a brick wall. I had literally just been thinking, as I so often do, about how bad it would be to get a flat tyre in our shitty VW Touran diesel with its shitty — and expensive — “tyre repair kit”, which is what you get instead of a proper spare wheel. I had been thinking about the inconvenience and inevitable difficulties of a flat tyre at two o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere, France, when we hit the pot hole. There was a brief moment of almost hope that no damage had been done before the rear tyres — both of them — completely deflated.
So even if we’d had a spare, we were fucked.
Luckily, I pay over £200 a year for international driving cover through the AA, so we were covered.
But it was dark, and windy, and cold, and we were on an N road, not a motorway. There was no hard shoulder, so we were pulled into the side on a dual carriageway, and the lorries kept thundering past, some of them so close they weren’t even all the way into the outside lane. I made everyone, including the cat, step over the barrier and away from the car, and we stood there wrapped in blankets for an hour while we waited for the tow truck and a taxi.
What great service. I mean, after the one-hour wait, it was terrific. We were taken to an Ibis hotel (basic, but modern and clean) and the car was towed to a garage, where two new tyres were fitted by noon the following day. We weren’t covered for the tyres (which aren’t included under “parts”, apparently), but the tow, the labour, and the taxi journey(s) and the hotel rooms were covered. As much as I’ve resented shelling out for this cover that we’ve never before needed, I was so glad to have it. And if it hadn’t been for the cat freaking out all night long, I’d have had a good night’s sleep on a comfortable bed in the Ibis.
The pothole was locally famous. The tow truck guy had picked up someone with exactly the same problem at the same spot two days before. And both taxi drivers were aware of it, too. I expect it’s that pothole that keeps the Saint Dizier local economy afloat.
Anyway, here’s my message to car manufacturers. Your LED headlights are a fucking blight on society, and your absent spare wheels are an absurd swindle to match your lies about ‘clean diesel’.