For most of those outside major cities, and quite a few inside them as well, learning to drive is a rite of passage. It's one of the few things in this world that seems impossible while you're learning it, until you remember the stupidest people in your life do it with no problem. Some will take to it later in life in a bid to assert their maturity, but most will be champing at the bit as soon as they turn 16. Panicking while a van driver pounds his horn behind you, nearly crashing into a hedge, stalling over and over again—yep, learning to drive is a real treat. And once you've managed to obtain your license from the fucking Gestapo headquarters that is the DMV, the world is your oyster, the 24-hour drive throughs your satellite kitchens.
That being said, aside from exploration and eating shitty food, the other thing young'uns like doing is taking drugs. Smoking weed, doing pills, snorting gear, chomping shrooms—getting wavy is the order of the day, but combined with driving it can prove fatal. Ford, the motor car company started by virulent anti-semite Henry Ford in 1902, wants the kids to know the dangers of drug driving, and have commissioned some German boffins from the Meyer-Hentschel Institute, the people behind something called an "age suit," to simulate the effects. The drug suit that they created impairs your physical movements and vision while driving, and will hopefully teach those whippersnappers a thing or two about driving safely.
I got a chance to test out the suit at the Ford Dunton Technical Centre in Laindon, Essex. It's a giant, town-like complex in which Ford tests all their new gadgets and cars and stuff in the UK. I was told a couple of thousand people work there. I was taken to a little circular test track at the bottom of a longer, more exciting test track that had a variety of surfaces, like cobbles and rumble strips and ramps. I wanted to drive on the exciting one, but it wasn't to be. I guess I'm just not important enough.
The suit was revealed to me, but it wasn't what I'd envisioned. In my head it was a hi-tech mecha-suit, turning me into a drunken, drugged-up Transformer. In reality it was a series of weights attached to my extremities, tightened to secure and reduce movement. There was also a vibrating glove that simulated a tremor in my hand, a neck brace, some headphones playing droning bleeps to distract me, and, the pièce de résistance, the crowning glory: the rave specs.
The rave specs were by far the most debilitating aspect of the whole ensemble. A pair of protective glasses you'd get in chemistry class in school, but modified with flashing lights and a grid of plastic that makes things seem far away and close at the same time. I tried a few times to catch some tennis balls and play keepy-up with middling success.
No matter, it was time for the real shit, the fun part: I was going to see how drugs would affect my driving skills. I don't actually have a license, but I can drive, so I have never actually combined the two. I have done drugs and I have driven as two separate activities, so I can imagine what the effects would be like. Unfortunately, however, I'm sad to report that the drug simulation suit does not effectively simulate drugs.
It seems the suit is aimed at people who have yet to ruin their lives with the pipe of nightmares, or the syringe of pain. To a non-user, the suit would make you think one hit on a blunt or one dab of MDMA would weigh you down like a pair of concrete galoshes, and turn your eyesight into a Kyuss show at the planetarium.
As most of us know, drugs won't do that. Not most drugs, at least. If you're eating shrooms or doing acid while driving you're asking for a disaster, so most people tend to avoid doing that. Driving while under the influence of more commonplace night out drugs, while something I, obviously, absolutely cannot condone, will not make you feel like you're in a 19th century diving suit, the helmet decorated by the HADOUKEN! street team.
After riding around a bit I decided to try and weave in and out of the cones that had been set up. I crushed and destroyed two of them, but after a bit of practice I could weave through them like a particularly sober judge.
Well, not really, but it didn't fuck me up as much as I'd thought. Part of the reason was the weights that were supposed to quell my movement didn't have much effect in the small space I was driving in. I imagined they were supposed to make changing gears and the like tiresome, but you can't really change gears while driving around in a little circle. It appears that the suit is trying to replicate the feelings of ecstasy, heroin, acid, coke, and weed all at once. But without actually being on those drugs, I'm just a drugless man wearing a lot of gym equipment.
Still, what Ford is doing, while perhaps not as effective as they'd hoped, is quite sweet. It's all a part of their little known Driving Skills For Life initiative, an over a decade-long program that provides safety tips to new drivers. Stats say that people driving after tooting rocks and greens are 30 times more likely to be involved in an accident, and if wearing weighted water wings and a rudimentary Oculus Rift simulating the experience of trying to find the toilet at Burning Man makes people think twice, then so be it.