Guilty but Unfit

H. F. ELLIS is a Londoner whose light prose has frequently appeared in the ATLANTIC. He is on the staff of PUNCH.

“I formed the opinion that defendant’s breath smelled of pork chops, and invited him to accompany me to the station.”

These sinister words have not yet, so far as I know, been spoken. The sentence, with all its rich undertones, came into my head ready-made while I was reading the Motoring Column in my morning paper. As a rule, when I come to the familiar bit about the distance in which a car with fully efficient brakes can be pulled up from a speed of 30 miles an hour, I content myself with a mental note to have a word with the man at the garage sometime. That is about all one can do, except that if the paper goes on to give details of the distance required to pull up with average brakes from 50 mph, I make a note to have a word with the man tomorrow.

At least, I thought it was all one could do. It hadn’t occurred to me to save life and keep my fenders uncrumpled by giving up bacon, until “Our Motoring Correspondent" got me stirred up this week on the subject of time lag. Not that there is anything new about time lag as such. I have known for a long time that, though fully efficient brakes will stop a car in 30 feet from 30 mph, it is necessary to add some extra yards to cover the time it takes for the driver’s reflexes to work. In fact you have to double the distance for an average time lag of .75 seconds. I knew that. It has always been one of my cardinal beliefs that the sooner you put the brakes on the sooner you stop. What I had not realized was that it is the driver’s duty to keep his reflexes, as well as his brakes, properly adjusted.

Well, of course, I knew that I ought not to drive when drunk or exhausted to the point of coma or drowsy with antihistamine. But I thought that in the ordinary way of business the speed of my reflexes was fixed, immutable, something I was born with, like a long nose. It has come as a shock to find that a life of near-monasticism may result in cutting my stopping distance down a clear ten feel or so.

“The man whose reactions arc slow,” says my paper, “can often revolutionize his ability to act quickly. Sometimes it is a question of medical advice, more often a question of his way of life.” And then come these four hints on polishing up your driving:

1. Keep the daily intake of alcohol low.

2. Eat moderately and keep off fattv foods.

3. Smoke moderately.

4. Take regular exercise.

I shall do those four things. It isn’t that I have any reason to believe my reflexes are particularly slow; I jump as smartly and as high into the air as the next man, when paper bags are burst behind my back. What makes me uneasy is the legal aspect. Even the best drivers run into things at times, and I can’t get it out of my head that the Law, already hot enough on alcohol (Hint 1), will very soon start campaigning against those other enemies of sale driving (Hints 2, 3, and 4). That evidence of the policeman’s about pork chops keeps ringing in my ears.

He isn’t likely to stop at my breath either.

“When searched,” I can hear the ponderous fellow saying, “a quantity of flake tobacco, medium strength, was found on the defendant’s person, together with two pipes bearing traces of recent use. He was observed to be attempting to conceal a half-smoked cigarette in the turn-ups of his trousers. His paunch protruded, and when required to run with knees up six times round the charge room his breathing became distressed. I formed the opinion that defendant had taken no exercise for twenty years.”

His Lordship: “If there is any more laughter I shall clear the Court.”

And what sort of a figure shall I cut when prosecuting counsel has me in the witness box?

“Answer the question. Did you or did you not have bacon for breakfast in addition to the two fried eggs to which you have now admitted?”

“Yes.”

“Thick?”

“Not very. Medium. Cut number seven, I think it was.”

“Number seven. I see. And for lunch, as we have already heard from the waitress at the Rendezvous, you had scampi fried in butter followed by a mixed grill and suet pudding?”

“I — I cannot remember. You are confusing me.”

“And between these two Lucullan and, if m’Lud will allow me, greasy feasts, did you partake of any further nourishment?”

“Certainly not.”

“You had better be careful.”

“I — no.”

“I put it to you that at 11:15 A.M. on the day of the accident you consumed a glass of milk and two doughnuts.”

“Oh, those.”

“Exactly. Are you aware that in the course of preparation doughnuts are plunged in a bath of boiling fat?”

“Well . . .”

“You are also aware of the retardation of the reflexes caused by the immoderate ingestion of fatty foods?”

“Oh I say, look here.”

“Yet you wish the jury to understand that, despite that knowledge, well knowing that it was your intenlion later in the day to drive, or attempt to drive, a vehicle on the public highway, you took no exercise of any kind either in the forenoon or in the interval, if interval there was, between this wanton suet pudding and the unbridled dish of crumpets to which on sworn testimony —”

“It’s a lie. My Lord, I must ask for the protection of the Court. I had only three crumpets, which left me completely unaffected. I have a very strong stomach. I can puli up in fifty feet after six crumpets, as witnesses will prove. As for the protein test . . .”

Much good it will do me to protest. The moment counsel elicits that pork chop evidence, the jury’s sympathies will be fatally alienated. My only hope is that, when I tell them how many pipes I had after dinner, I shall be adjudged unfit even to plead.