Thursday, 13 September 2012

In Praise of Clutch

It would be great if this was an article about the rather good band by the name of Clutch. In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to write in praise of them, as their first album was an absolute ripper. But no, it is with the third pedal in manual transmission cars in mind that I write. And I’m not talking about “the” clutch. No. I’m talking about the concept of clutch.

I’m sure if I ended up dedicating the rest of this blog to griping about the traffic and the driving in Bogota it’d get pretty boring, but you might have to bear with me for a bit while I work out a few issues I’ve got with the locals. Take the clutch for example. Colombian drivers clearly undertake a rigorous training process from an early age in order to acquire the skills necessary for safe and prudent navigation in the nation’s road network (currently judged to be theworst in the whole Latin American region). This training process takes place on the dodgems in local fairgrounds. Hence Colombian drivers learn that the accelerator works like a light switch – it is either on or off. And you keep it to the floor right up until the moment you need to stop, whereupon you switch it off and stamp on the brake. This third pedal, mysteriously there next to the brake pedal, is clearly some sort of non-functioning prototype that the manufacturers have collectively agreed to pre-install on all cars, in expectation of some currently unimagined leap forward in automotive technology in the future. They have future-proofed the pedals in their cars. It is rocket science.

Mysterious, inexplicable, the presence of clutch causes not the slightest inconvenience to the jolting serenity of the Colombian driver. For the first few months of living in Bogotá I woke every morning with clicky vertebrae and an aching back. Despite one of our first significant acts being spending the very last of our British credit card capacity on a decent mattress, I was getting up in a terrible state. Then it dawned on me what the problem was. Whiplash.

Bus drivers (for they are by far the worst offenders) usually aren’t the owners of the vehicles that they drive, and hence the major imperative that they experience is to get to the end of the route in the shortest possible time and so commence the return journey all the quicker in order to make more money and increase the chances of them keeping their job the following week. As soon as the traffic lights change they stamp on the accelerator. What else is there to do? Anything else would slow the journey down, so the gear stick is wrenched into position and the bus lurches forward. The most likely scenario that follows is that the driver then stamps on the brake in disgust as he (it is “he” in about 97% of the cases) discovers that his rivals have blocked the junction ahead of him. Horn war ensues, and in order to back up the blaring of the horn (empty threats get you nowhere here), the driver stamps rapidly in succession on the accelerator and then the brake to make the bus leap forward in tiny increments, in a movement that seems faintly akin to a penned bull having a seizure while trying to headbutt its way out of a corral. For a while I used to think that many of these buses had loose chains dragging on the road beneath them, until it dawned on me that the rattling sound was the death rattle of the gear cogs as the changes were forced on them without the slightest attempt at clutch action.

This naïve disregard of the concept of clutch is only compounded by the approach to driving and braking. Drive hard with the accelerator flat to the floor up until you want to stop, whereupon you press the brake. One particularly unskilled taxi driver that I had the misfortune to encounter treated the brake pedal like a repulsive petri dish, open and brimming with some deadly virus. As we approached a set of traffic lights on red, he pressed it once, gingerly, and then peered over the steering wheel to see whether the car had stopped. As it hadn’t, he pressed it again, taking his foot off it quickly before he caught something. As we still hadn’t slowed enough, and the cars in front were coming up fast, he pressed it again, checked speed, pressed it again, checked speed, and continued in this vein until finally the taxi’s momentum gave up the struggle with his percussive braking and we came to a halt. Whiplash.

If I sound bitter it’s because I am. There have been times I’ve been thrown out of my seat so hard that I’ve hit my head off the bus roof. I’ve seen bus drivers pull off from a standing start so hard that children have been ricocheted against the grab rails, or pensioners have been dumped into the lap of the passengers behind them. And we haven’t even got on to the astonishing amount of thick black smoke that the most of them belch out into the city air. Next time I’ll tell you about my permanent nose-bleed. It’s the bus drivers’ fault.

(This is a gratuitous insertion of a video of the band Clutch. It's a great song.)

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