Not so long ago, I was given a very nice car to test for a week. I won’t name the manufacturer, because what happened wasn’t strictly their fault. It was a combination of my absolute refusal to read an owner’s manual, lack of knowledge on the part of the breakdown man, and a lack of forethought on the designer’s side.

It was a very nice car, really. My only major quibble was that it had one of those awful electronic handbrake yokes. I really do think they are a solution in search of a problem. What’s wrong with the nice simple lever between the seats that we’re all used to? Since these abominations came along, it’s often a case of searching for a tiny button, usually sited in the most unlikely of places.

This car, however, had a button which was reasonably easy to find. A simple press engaged the handbrake and it was automatically released once you moved off. Everything worked perfectly, so it was only a slight niggle that marred an otherwise very enjoyable car.

All was well until I went to Dublin for the weekend. Arriving on Friday evening, I parked the car in the hotel car park and went into town. I didn’t intend using the car much over the weekend, but on Saturday morning, I went out to retrieve something, only to find the bonnet and roof covered in bird’s droppings. Like an eejit, I had parked under a tree. Even though the damage was already done, I decided to move the car to safer ground, to prevent things getting worse.

I sat in, switched on, engaged drive and attempted to drive off. I say attempted, because the accursed handbrake wouldn’t release. I tried pushing and pulling at the switch, but that only resulted in the check panel in front of me flashing up a message, telling me to press the brake to release the handbrake. I tried pressing the brake, I tried reversing, I tried switching it off and switching it back on again, in short, I tried everything, but the car wouldn’t budge.

I surmised, incorrectly as it turned out, that the pads had stuck onto the discs, a thing that often happens if a car is left for any length of time. The normal cure for such an occurrence is the brute force method of simply driving off and ignoring the resulting protests from the rear wheels. In my case, this tried and tested cure didn’t work, presumably because the handbrake, being electronic, was still forcing the pads onto the discs. I decided to call for help.

Calling the manufacturer’s breakdown service was an experience in itself. Even though I identified myself as a journalist, with a car from the press fleet, the first question I was asked was who the supplying dealer was. I professed total ignorance in this matter, sticking to my story that it was a press car. Nevertheless, I was asked the same question at least four times during the conversation. They seemed to have a real thing about that.

Eventually, I got action and got talking to a dispatcher who, after asking me who the supplying dealer was, told me that it generally took an hour to get a van out to a breakdown. We arranged that I would ring later in the day, on my way back out from town.

That afternoon, I rang again to arrange the callout and in due course, about an hour later, I got a phone call from the man in the van. He had managed to go to the wrong hotel and was now miles away. He said it didn’t matter, anyway. All he could do was arrange for a truck to take my car away to a dealer on Monday morning, to have the computer reset – I can reset my computer with just three fingers – talk about progress! He said he had come across similar problems before with other cars, and this was the only solution.

It looked like there was nothing to do but take a taxi across the city on Sunday morning to collect my own car, leaving the test car to the tender mercies of the pick up crew. With that in mind, the following morning, I again went out to the car to take out my goods and chattels.

While there, I decided to break the habit of a lifetime and look at the manual. Perhaps there was a procedure to deal with such contingencies?

I looked up handbrake in the index and began reading. I immediately experienced a ‘d’oh’ moment. The first sentence informed me that the handbrake wouldn’t release until the driver’s seatbelt was fastened. Now, I always put on my seatbelt, but I was only going to drive the car into another parking space, so I hadn’t bothered. I fastened the belt and the car drove away perfectly. I think I heard it snigger to itself.

I’m sorry, but what fool designed a feature like this? Later that day, queuing for the car wash, it was infuriating to have to fasten my seatbelt, just to move a metre or so. Surely there’s a better way? What really annoyed me was the check panel flashing up useless instructions. A far more useful message would have been ‘Put on your seatbelt, you dozy twit!’, but all I got was a bland instruction to press the brake pedal, which didn’t help matters, or my blood pressure, one little bit.

The final brickbat, I reserve for the breakdown people. Surely, if they were properly trained, they should have known about this seatbelt quirk? I was alright, as I was in the middle of a city in daylight, but what of a lone woman, in a remote area, late at night? A minor annoyance could potentially turn into a very dangerous situation.

In conclusion, car designers should stop making things needlessly complicated, car breakdown personnel should be fully trained and, in fairness, motoring journalists should read the bloody manual!


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