COLUMN: March 22, 2018

One of the few right-hand drive car pictures available on the internet

I HAVEN’T driven for a few years, mostly because bus drivers seem to take a dim view of it.

But I intended to go to York for a couple of days, and, for reasons which need not concern you, it was not clear when my companion and I would be able to depart or have to return. That meant I had two choices: buy an open return train ticket or hire a car.

Given that I would have to take out a new mortgage to pay for the former, I decided to go for the latter.

I don’t know if you have ever had to hire a car before, but it is not an entirely straightforward process. First of all, the pricing structure makes budget airlines look refreshingly upfront.

On the website you are quoted an enticing price, you click on it, and then you are surrounded by the virtual equivalent of a cross between a heavy in hobnailed boots and the man from the Gladstone Brookes advert.

“Nice car you’ve chosen there, sir. Shame if anything… happened to it,” he says. Right, you say, and you click on another £30 windscreen insurance.

“But what if the car is stolen?” he says. “Do you really want to have to pay out the first £1,000?” No, I most certainly do not, you say, if I had £1,000 to spend on cars I’d buy a car, and you click on another £25 theft insurance.

Before you know it, your enticing price has put on four stones, stopped shaving, and started hanging underpants in your fridge.

But the second thing about hiring a car is that the hire firms are not entirely trustful of you. They don’t just let you turn up with the equivalent of a briefcase full of pound notes and drive off with one of their motors. They require your driving licence, the paper part of your driving licence, which is now online, and requires you to get a special code from the DVLA, your passport, and a utilities bill as proof of address.

In short, the hire firm I used is now more sure of my identity than I am. In long, it is extremely hard to source a utilities bill these days, as the utilities companies had successfully convinced me a few years ago to go for paperless billing. Also, in order to get that special code from the DVLA, you need to know your National Insurance number. And if you don’t know your National Insurance number…

Hiring a car, dear readers, is a quest with lots of little side missions. I had all this to contend with, and I still wasn’t entirely sure I could remember how to drive. But on the day of the pick-up, I walked confidently to the hiring station, through a formerly industrial area now being converted into Luxuryflatsville, my suitcase trundling behind me.

“Oh, brilliant,” I thought, passing a building site, as a flurry of snow came down. “My first driving experience for four years, and I’m driving in this.”

I put up my umbrella and walked on, but the snow stopped as quickly it started. I entered the car hire office and explained myself. I handed over my many forms of identification. “Oh, we don’t need that,” said the operative, handing me back the utility bill. “We don’t ask for them any more because everybody’s on paperless billing.” My eye twitched.

“Right, that’ll be £410,” he said. My stomach dropped. “What?” I said.

“Yeah, we take a £250 deposit.”

Why did they need a deposit? Did they think I would do a runner? Firstly, they know exactly who I am, even more than I do. And they know where I live. More than that, I’ve taken out insurance to cover theft.

Also, if I were going to do a runner, hiring a car two weeks in advance of getting out of Dodge is the most bizarre and inefficient way to do it.

It was all too much. I could see spots before my eyes. I rubbed them, but the spots were on my glasses. “Why hasn’t that snow melted?” I wondered.

I looked down and, after a moment’s calculation, realised that the snowstorm I had walked through was actually a fine spray of white paint from the building site. I was spattered head to foot like a plasterer’s radio.

The spattering is still on my umbrella and suitcase, a souvenir of the weekend taunting me.

This is why I never drive.

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