Monday, October 23, 2006

Life in the fast lane....

I've decided not to write anymore about XXX for a while. I imagine the point has been made and as therapy it wasn't really working for me. As a form of anger management, it was about as effective as a 1 legged man at an arse kicking contest. I've decided to turn to matters less self-centred, but no less symptomatic of modern Ireland, from now on.

This weekend another 7 people lost their lives on Irish roads bringing the total of road deaths so far this year here to over 300. Every time there is a cluster of deaths on the roads, and it occurs with sickening monotony, breasts are beaten, solemn ministers promise stricter legislation and the media people ask what the garda are doing.

When I first came to live in Dublin I realised that being a road user here in any form carried with it certain hazards not typical of other European societies. The most apparent thing was that there seemed to be two kinds of red lights on traffic signals. The first kind said 'Stamp on the accelerator and plough right through. Go on yeh boy yeh' the other kind said 'What? You mean I'm supposed to bring the car to a halt here? That's cat that is. Are you sure I have to stop? Reeeealllly?'.

The other was that most people, pedestrians or drivers, seemed to be so lost in thought on our highways and by-ways that mere questions of personal survival paled into insignificance beside what Ciaran texted to Cliona on the mobile.

They say that for a healthy heart, you should do something that scares you at least once a day. After eight years of cycling around Dublin I expect my heart to keep beating long after the rest of me has been reduced to the dust that is the fate of all things mortal. Survival as a cyclist or a pedestrian here requires, as they say in Liverpool, eyes in the back of your arse, not to mention the clairvoyant powers of a seventh son of a seventh son from a long line of gypsy fortune tellers.

It's not so much that Irish drivers are bad (They are, though) it's just that they are relatively unregulated and as a consequence many drive with the gay abandon and devil may care of a teenaged joyrider auditioning for the next Mad Max movie. A lot of the others seem to have unresolved issues with their vehicle about who is actually driving whom. Is the car in control here or am I? Oh bollix, now look what you made me drive into....

A large part of the problem lies with the failure of the state to tackle the problem of driving tests. Ireland is the only country in the EU where, to my knowledge a learner driver can drive him or herself unaccompanied to a driving test, fail it and then drive away. I know people who only have a full licence because the Government declared an amnesty due to waiting lists of such magnitude that they wouldn't be reduced before internal combustion was replaced by cold fusion as a means of vehicular propulsion.

Something like 20 percent of all full licence holders here have never taken a test and a huge number of provisional licence holders have no intention of ever doing so if they can get away with it. The current waiting list for tests is 137,000 and grows by 1500 a month. It can take 62 weeks to get a test in some parts of the country. In the fast moving, I want it yesterday culture that is modern Ireland, no politician worth the title of gombeen man is going to render him/herself unelectable by restricting the driving habits of that many voters.

Another factor that renders life on the roads here as exciting as a game of russian roulette in a fall of Saigon late bar is the absence of adequate traffic policing on both major or minor roads. I have driven from Dublin to Cork on numerous occasions and failed to clap eyes on a single blue uniform on the lookout for moving violations. Last year I drove to Donegal. The only police presence I saw was on the road into Letterkenny where the Comhaltas National Fleadh was taking place. They appeared to be stopping and searching vehicles on the way into the town lest they might be carrying non-traditional musical instruments, like banjos or, God forbid, didgeridoos.

Unlike many people here I don't actually blame the Garda Siochana for their laxness in this respect. They might be overpaid but they're certainly under-resourced when it comes to traffic enforcement. And when they do enforce matters, the judiciary tends to let the side down. In a recent case a man stopped for travelling at 127 kph in an 80kph zone had his case thrown out because the judge didn't think a charge of dangerous driving was merited. Where is the encouragement to drive responsibly if you know that even if you do get caught the likelihood of conviction is minimal? Moreover, even if you are convicted and banned, short of a prison sentence there's nothing to stop you just driving yourself home from court.

In Ireland our rulers pass legislation at the drop of a hat (or preferably a brown envelope stuffed with Euros) and I have no doubt that before long, newer more draconian laws will be passed targeting the speed freaks and the boy racers at the centre of this week's moral panic. It won't, however, make a blind bit of difference. There's no point in passing laws which, a few weeks after the dust has settled and the knees have stopped jerking, will be not so much unenforceable as merely unenforced.

You see we don't care too much for any old legislation in this country. In terms of compliance the most succesful laws in the last few years have been the smoking ban in pubs and the plastic carrier bag tax which imposed a levy on the supply of carrier bags by shops to customers. What both of these had in common was the onus they placed on bar owners and shopkeepers to enforce them. The old rebel spirit was quashed overnight when the pockets of the petit-bourgeois were threatened, no question. And not for the first time in the history of this country.

There's a bank holiday weekend coming up soon and these are normally an occasion for mass carnage on our roads. The events this past weekend will probably induce some calm and possibly a reduction in the number of deaths. But that will be it. A few weeks will pass and then it will all start again as the national characteristic of comfortable complacency resumes its course back on the road to God knows where....

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