Ulster's car bubble bursts

Peace has brought an unexpected challenge to Northern Ireland's obsession with fast, expensive wheels, writes Philip MacCann

I'm laughing over fast, bright jazz on a carriageway into Belfast. I'm thinking of a local radio interview I've done. Why is my fiction so bleak, Sean Rafferty asked me, what experience have I had? "None," I told him. "I never go out!" Which isn't quite true.

I have to turn off for Belfast at the next exit. This one is the new overpass no one ever uses, the ghost road you can mess about on. No, in fact, I'm out all the time. But I'm still a minor recluse because I'm one of the middle-class in this city: we lived in bubbles through the Troubles. We went where we had to go in cars, they kept us safe from the dangerous streets, we saw nothing. From suburbia to work to supermarkets to filling stations, we didn't touch pavement. We bypassed reality.

Detachment was the life-style here; the car aided it. A motor-car culture flourished in Northern Ireland even as the terror stifled us. Half of all households have one; half of these have two. There are, according to government statistics, more "performance" models per head than in England, Scotland or Wales: 7,000 Mercs, 7,500 BMWs, 1,000 Jags, 434 Porsches and 52 Rolls-Royces among 1.5 million people.

Chris, a former statistician, now researching the social impact of the Troubles, thinks people were content to live in a bubble. "During the Troubles people wouldn't emigrate," he says. "They could have an unusually high standard of living here. House prices are low, many people can afford two luxury cars. We had no recession - the province received a war, and now a peace, dividend." He thinks the free market could have dissolved political conflict: "Actually, you're talking about a bubble mentality in economics. The Government sustained life in the face of terrorist disruption. What it stabilised with one hand it destabilised with the other. The middle class in their bubbles had no incentive to press for change."

I sweep off the flyover into Belfast. There are no bomb scares or Army road blocks these days, so you don't hit traffic jams as you cross the city. Even a year ago it was grim; buses were hijacked, soldiers with twigs in their helmets flagged down traffic: against concrete they were conspicuously got up as bushes. I remember a joke: they ought to have city camouflage - SLOW signs, double yellow lines on their uniforms. I also remember joyriders being shot, tanks on the motorways. If we could zoom ahead of these memories ...

I get a parking space beside a bar on Botanic Avenue. Inside, an unrepentant drink-driver waits. "I drive some lovely cars - when someone lets me. But you soon realise the limits of your skill. Because a really, really fast car, like a Porsche Carrera - like, you can get 80 in first gear - requires a consummate driver. Which I am not." He laughs. "It takes handling, responsiveness. If you aren't careful you kill yourself! Or someone else. I speed like crazy."

Is he always careful?

"I was doing 80 on a B road from Glenavy into town in a hired car, yeah? It was a straight piece of road and the car lurched for the ditch. And being a totally cocky bastard, I thought I could sort this skid out. I ended up being sucked into a ditch, chewed up by some hedge, and spun back on to the bend, and was able to drive on and park on the grass. And I got out and I felt totally thrilled." He chuckles. "It was fun."

"You're not afraid of speed?"

"No"

"You don't think you'll die?"

"I do think I'll die."

"Driving fast?"

"Oh I hope not. What a waste that would be."

I cut for home. Belfast has changed in recent years. Shops were built here in expectation of blast damage from car bombs. They have a less temporary look now, blue glass fronts; crystal, porcelain displays. At night there's atmosphere: alluring restaurants, couples in crisp new clothes; from the Dublin Road to Stramillis you can't get parked. The women could fix their hair in the polished flanks.

We are trying to snatch a bit of glamour. You want statistics? In the last 10 years of terrorism we were always able to predict that three or four people would die needless, violent deaths in Northern Ireland every week.

In cities where this fact had lost the power to shock, it was a matter of near indifference that these deaths were road accidents. The RUC's latest annual report states that since 1969, 3,112 people died as a result of the security situation, while almost twice that number - 6,084 - were killed on the roads.

Northern Ireland had the highest rate of fatal accidents per head of any comparable region of the European Community. The Troubles may have ceased - the killing hasn't. A few years ago an Austrian psychoanalyst suggested that Northern Irish road accident deaths were violence-related. He wasn't joking. Is Ulster's bad driving sublimated terrorism?

Fred Williams laughs. He was knocked down crossing the Castlereagh Road on the way to a chemist's by an untaxed, uninsured car doing 70. It didn't stop. He woke up with "an array of injuries", was "confused for several years". Disabled today, be runs an activities group for people with mainly head injuries. "The driver's number was reported. He got off with a six- month suspended sentence. I could become the bitter cripple on the corner. I have to get on with my life and get moving. That was a decade ago. Forgiveness is something tough we all have to learn I suppose."

A chill runs through me. Psychologists say the car gives an illusion of control, that the road is lined with tiny cars, it all looks picturesque. A child's motorway with pop-in trees, an old war zone in the background. I recall a survey showing that people drive more recklessly in safer cars. Pedestrian deaths rose when seat belts were made compulsory.

"I was determined to drive after my accident, so I can't knock everyone for getting into cars," Fred Williams says. "But the Department of the Environment has a responsibility that they're now taking up to keep us out of Belfast, encouraging us to take the bus if we can."

Perhaps we will. Now that the city is relatively safe perhaps there is no need for us to travel in such a detached way. The car culture must be on its way out. If house prices rise vehicles will be less affordable.

I pass a Ferrari pulled in for speeding. The RUC is cracking down on our bad driving. You can get an arbitrary fine for doing 35 in traffic flow these days. Middle-aged men are the new terrorists.

Everyone is grumbling: the police are over zealous, anxious to keep their jobs. I ring them up.

All I get are more statistics: in 1993 in Northern Ireland there was one car accident every 81 minutes, one child casualty every six hours; men between the ages of 25 and 34 were most at risk; the risk to drivers was halved by a speed limit of 40 mph or less; inattention and excess speed were the principle causes of accidents, the vast majority occurred in fine weather, the worst hour on weekdays being between 5 and 6pm; almost twice as many fatal accidents occurred in rural than in urban areas; yet 1993 had the lowest annual figure of road accident deaths (143) since 1958.

So what is being done? I must contact Road Safety Education at the DoE, they tell me. There is a wider policy in Northern Ireland, but the police traffic branch can merely step up enforcement in co-operation with the department's commitment to reduce road casualties by one third by the year 2000.

I get through to Harry Green. "Ourselves, the police, the road service and the health service are all working together on a road safety plan to set out exactly how we mean to meet our target, published in the next few months." He soundsserious . A campaign, involving television commercials and education ("Unlike any other country, road safety is now on our school curriculum to GCSE level") is targeting seat-belt neglect, speeding and, above all, drink driving. "Alcohol has caused one in four deaths in Northern Ireland over the past 10 years." .

I shift up to fifth now on the carriageway back home, eyeing the clock. For sure, the days when we could glide to any place detached and uninterrupted are over. For better or worse, I think as I switch on the stereo, a bubble is burst.

`The Miracle Shed', short stories by Philip MacCann, is published by Faber.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month