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.

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