October 26, 2020
Motoring News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: The long and winding road

When I was a child of five, maybe six, my father hired a caravan and the family went touring in Wicklow. It was a scary experience.

My da drove a hefty car that was well capable of pulling the load. But the caravan was a rickety affair with a mind of its own. It wobbled behind us and seemed likely to break loose at any moment, turning the Vale of Avoca’s winding roads into a hair-raising slalom course.

That drive, from Belfast, was the longest I ever took with my father. But all car journeys were long back then, because of the decrepit state of the roads and the fact that they never went from A to Z without passing through 24 other places .

Things hadn’t improved much by the late 1960s when I first got a car of my own. A journey from Belfast to Dublin was pretty much a day trip.

Among the obstacles to be faced was The Border, where I had to stop, show insurance documents and receive a little triangular device called a triptyque, which I was required to stick on the inside of the windscreen.

By this stage I had already been in the towns of Lisburn, Banbridge and Newry. Before reaching Dublin, I would go through Dundalk, Drogheda, Balbriggan, Swords and several smaller places.

The concept of a bypass seemed unknown in 1960s Ireland, so when I say ‘go through’ I mean just that: down past rows of houses, along the main street and out again, skirting market stalls, local monuments, large churches and small schools.

I’m not sure how many hours were actually spent on the road but it was a trip which required stops. Since drink-driving was almost as foreign a concept as the bypass, these stops were often spent in pubs, which did nothing to speed the voyage. Cautious folk would bring tea and sandwiches “for the journey”.

Cars were unreliable – my early cars, in particular – and breakdowns frequent, turning what is now a two-hour drive into an unpredictable adventure.

I recall developing a puncture somewhere in Co Louth. The wheel bolts had seized and I couldn’t loosen them. A sturdy little man appeared, like magic it seemed, and offered to help. He put the wheel brace in place and jumped on it. This tactic loosened the bolt but it also broke the brace and, since the brace operated the jack, changing the wheel now seemed impossible.

My knight of the road was undaunted. He put both hands under the chassis, lifted one side of the car and held it there while I made the necessary change. He then tightened the bolts by hand as firmly as I could have managed with the brace.

Motorways put a stop to such adventures. And a good thing too. It was fun but nobody in their right mind wants to spend half a day travelling between Dublin and Belfast.

Unfortunately, in a variant of Parkinson’s Law, the volume of traffic has expanded to fill the roads available, so modern driving is often unpleasant and, at the wrong time of day, journeys can take almost as long as they did 50 years ago.

When I look at near empty roads on recent news bulletins, I think “if only …”

Well, no, they can’t be like that all the time. But some of the lessons we are learning from this crisis may improve, not just driving, but life in general.

It’s crazy that half the country spends hours commuting to work in central locations and I feel sure that, when this is over, more people will chose to work from home, at least for some days each week.

That would take some of the burden off public transport.

The few people I know still using it to get to work, tell me how good it is to be on trains and trams that are not packed, where people can sit with a degree of comfort. We can achieve that, or something like it, by investing in public transport; more trains with more carriages and more frequent buses.

That would take some of the burden off the roads.

We don’t need to keep building new roads but we will always need the ones we have and it would be nice if they became a bit more user-friendly.

I don’t want driving to be an adventure but it could be a lot more pleasant.

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