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

photography
Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

art
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
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.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible