Carry on reading at 180km/h. Yeah, right

By Angela Gregory

Sometimes justice can't just be seen to be done, it has to be felt to be done.

That's why the Weekend Herald decided to see what it felt like to be driven at up to 180km/h - while reading Government documents.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has said she was too busy working in the back of her limousine to notice the motorcade she was travelling in reached extreme open-road speeds in its dash to get her to a plane on time for a rugby test.

A defendant in the trial which finished this week, Constable Simon Vincent, told the Timaru District Court his speedometer got as high as 180km/h during the trip he led in a Ford Explorer vehicle from Washdyke to Christchurch.

Armed with the Ministry of Development's 2005 social report and a beginner's guide to rugby, the Weekend Herald yesterday paid a visit to the Pukekohe racetrack.

Eschewing the offered crash helmet, I hopped into a souped-up Lancia Delta and rally driver Greg Paul proceeded to drive me around the bend.

He warned that it would take a couple of laps to reach 170km/h, but with my head buried in the gripping chapter on road casualties I was, unlike the Prime Minister, in no particular hurry.

In fact, it proved somewhat reassuring to read that males were much more likely to be injured or die in motor vehicle accidents than females, and that I did not fit the ethnic groups with the greatest chance of fatalities.

This heartening news came at about the time I began to feel uneasy about the speed at which we were travelling.

I glance up at the speedometer to see it clocking 158km/h and rising.

We are on a straight but a "slow" car ahead forces Paul to hit the brakes.

By now my protruding eyes are fixed ahead.

I do not feel comfortable but we are after all now racing around a corner and not along the South Island straights.

Paul is now serious to crack 170km/h. We finally hit 178km/h, the fastest speed he can reach in the damp conditions.

It is fast enough for me.

If I could be a backseat driver I would be - with a simple two-word instruction.

"Slow down!"

But I am in the front seat, on a near-abandoned race track, in a car with double seatbelts and roll bars and in the hands of a professional driver.

I just look stern in my most Clark-esque manner. My reading material lies abandoned on my lap.

Paul, who runs a corporate driving service, is unimpressed with the reported speed of Helen Clark's motorcade, especially given country roads with hazards such as stray animals.

He tells me rally car drivers are forbidden to drive over 200km/h in competitions and their average speed is 132km/h, just 4km/h faster than the calculated average speed of the motorcade.

But for the sake of balance and with an eye to the next honours list for contributions to journalism I can report that Paul confirmed it was possible to read at 180km/h - navigators do in car rallies.

The verdict then? Sorry, Helen, I'll forsake the gong. Guilty.

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