How big does a driver’s manual have to be?

John Boggiano gets frustrated by car handbooks

I was out driving the GT3 on the M62 yesterday when somebody did something that really annoyed me. Now that’s nothing new but this particular example put me in mind of another thing that annoys me and that made it even more annoying. The sun was shining, the road was dry and the Porsche was sparkling clean. And then some oaf in an overtaking 3-series pulled into my lane far too soon (actually, that’s another thing that annoys me…) and decided to wash his windscreen.

Up into the air, almost vertically it seemed from my viewpoint, shot four streams of BMW screenwash additive, bypassing his windscreen and his whole car almost entirely before depositing themselves on my windscreen. For goodness sake! Now I’ll either have to wash my own windscreen and spatter my polished paintwork in the process, or put up with the speckly residue in front of my eyes for the rest of the morning. Git.

As I sat there, irritatedly eating my own tongue, I pondered why such things as screen washing etiquette aren’t dealt with in car handbooks. After all, these days they seem to cover just about everything else that you can or can’t, must or mustn’t and should or shouldn’t do with or in your car.

And that was a stroke of luck, because I soon forgot about the smeary screen and became absorbed with the current ridiculous state to which those once-small pieces of literature have sunk. I mean, does a Porsche 997, to take an entirely random example, really require a handbook that runs to nine separate volumes and some 715 pages? There are even small ‘quick guides’ to some of the larger, thicker sections. It’s madness. Frankly, I don’t even know where to start on this one. The whole idea irks me so much that I can barely bring myself to think about it sufficiently to write coherently. There’s far too much stuff in there that simply doesn’t need to be said.

Take, for example, all those stupid grades of cautionary warnings (from mild admonishment all the way up to the foretelling of imminent death), each with its own symbol and associated words in a little box. Entreaties not to do things such as forgetting to look what’s in front while adjusting the mirror, or pulling your seatbelt so tight that you can’t breathe, or raising your seat so high that you are crushed against the roof (or so low that you can’t see out), or disposing of used engine oil by feeding it to next door’s cat.

You’re repeatedly advised not to do anything at all while driving, too. Well I don’t know about you, but if I have to pull in every time I want to adjust my steering wheel because I think it might be better just a little higher or further out, I’ll become a complete menace on the roads as I constantly pull in and pull out again. Surely it’s okay to do it on the move, as long as it’s done carefully? And surely that doesn’t really need spelling out? Please tell me it doesn’t.

I estimate that if you removed all the useless wordage and just kept the bits that really matter (like how to open the front lid when the battery’s gone flat and how to switch the headlamp beams to point the other way), you’d be left with about twelve pages. In fact, I’ll go further than that: let’s strip it right back to the essentials and go for three pages, one diagram and a website address where you can find further information if you’re suddenly taken by the urge to know to what level the coolant should be filled. I’ll help you out on that one; you’ll be astonished to know that it should be between the ‘Max’ and ‘Min’ marks on the reservoir. Who’d have thought it?

It’s the fear of litigation, isn’t it? Manufacturers are so worried that some gork will see a chance to make some cash at their expense, having spotted that he wasn’t told in print not to pick his nose with the indicator stalk at 150mph, that they feel they must warn us of every conceivable danger and tell us how to avoid it. Of course, this isn’t just true in the world of cars; it’s so widespread that the planet is at risk from the sheer volume of useless printed matter that assails us daily, as manufacturers attempt to take pre-emptive action.

Someone I know once threatened to sue the maker of a boil-in-the-can jam sponge because she pierced the tin when it was still hot and was rewarded with a faceful of scalding jam. There was a warning on the label, but it was too small, she felt.  She was actually a customer of mine in my previous life as a pharmacist and I would like to confess here and now that I broke the golden rule of dealing with customers face to face; that is, not to laugh at them. But that’s what all this stuff deserves – it’s laughable.

Bring back personal responsibility. Bring back common sense. Bring back car handbooks that are a pleasure to read because they tell us interesting stuff about our cars. All we need is a simple disclaimer that all purchasers must sign, saying something like, “If I do something stupid, it’s my own lookout,” and then we’re off into our brave new world. We don’t need all this junk – just imagine how much it all weighs and how much fuel is being wasted just carting it all around every day. We don’t need constantly to feed the growth of printed cautionary materiel, or of law firms.

Oh, I’ve just thought; a lawyer friend of mine will read this. I should just conjure up a little warning about what he might be about to read, and get him to sign it…

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