Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The drive of death

Occasionally, just occasionally, and a lot more rarely as you get older, you experience something that thrills you and excites you to the very marrow of your being. Something that you know is a whirlwind knuckle-clenching ride to oblivion as you laugh in the face of danger and dribble in the face of certain death. For some people, it is parachute jumping, or white water rafting, or maybe the new series of Desperate Housewives.
I have just had one of those experiences. As I type this, my body is still shaking with the sheer excitement of it all. I am on a high and my body has not yet adjusted to the dull, maudlin reality to which it has returned. I need to tell the world about it.
Yes, I have just come down the New Ongar Road at 60kph.
For those of you who live in the south of Dublin 15 and have never had occasion to venture out into the sticks, the New Ongar Road is a brand spanking super highway that links the Power City Roundabout (not the official name!) on Blanchardstown Road South with, well, New Ongar. It has liberated a whole generation of Littlepacers and Ongarites from the horrors of the N3 and the Blanchardstown Centre slip-road and given them an alternative route to the holy shopping Mecca only two miles away.
In short it is a godsend and I always include the Roads Department of Fingal County Council in my nightly prayers by way of thanks for their divine and munificent intervention.
It is a wonderful road. It consists of a lane for ordinary traffic, a bus lane, a murderous and psychotic looking pink strip (commonly known as a “complete cycle path” – sorry, but the old jokes are always the best) and a pavement for pedestrians. And there’s another set of four travelling in the opposite direction too. It is an eight lane, straight as a dye, ultra highway that would have your average American drooling in envy.
There are no houses on the New Ongar Road. The good citizens of Mount Symon, Allendale, , Lohunda et al, whose estates border this infrastructural jewel in Dublin 15’s crown, may sleep soundly in their beds, protected by a long high wall that runs the length of the road in both directions. Just the kind of wall that the deafened citizens of Pheasant’s Run and Swallowbrook on the N3 would give their right ear for. As it is, nobody is inconvenienced by the high pitch scream of traffic tearing up and down the New Ongar Road at 50 kph.
I say 50 kph (that’s 31 mph for those of you still operating in pounds, shillings and pence) because up until this year, that was the speed that the Road Traffic Authority had deemed it unwise to surpass. And rightly so. A long, straight stretch of road with a bus lane to separate the cars from pedestrians and cyclists and no houses on it? Sure, you’d want to be as mad as a Lionel Ritchie fan to want to risk exceeding 50 kph.
However, and I know it is hard to believe, some drivers felt that tearing along at 50 kph was too slow. They had this reckless habit of overtaking on the inside – nipping into the bus lane to try and get past the car in front. No matter that a bus is very seldom seen on the New Ongar Road since its official opening – a bus lane is still a bus lane, whether any buses use it or not. Of course such despicable activity soon drew the attention of the local GardaĆ­ whose radar gun soon put a temporary stop to this practice.
But the RTA, or some man in an office somewhere, acceded to the pressure to raise the speed limit and since the beginning of the year, the red bordered circle with the black six-oh in it was planted at either end of this Formula One track. Again for the benefit of English and American readers, I convert this as 37.2 mph, a speed, I’m sure you will agree, that is physically very difficult for the human body to endure.
Purely in the interests of research for this column, I have just driven down the New Ongar Road at a speed that approached this limit. (For the purposes of clarification, I always regard the journey from Ongar to Blanchardstown as ‘up’ and the reverse as ‘down.’ I realise it may well be an optical illusion but I fancy the latter run would make a damn fine ski slope, should our oil run out and global freezing make a comeback)
The G-forces as you approach 60 kph have to be felt to be believed. The loose skin on your cheeks is pulled back and it feels as though your hair is being pulled out by the roots. It was only with great difficulty that I managed to prevent my head from snapping back, knowing that to take my eyes from the road ahead would mean calamity. Now I know what those brave astronauts go through whenever the Space Shuttle is launched.
Despite this, and I cannot verify this for certain as I was struggling to maintain my grip on the wheel, I have the vague impression that I was still being passed on the inside by cars going even faster. Now, my knowledge of quantum physics is decidedly sketchy but I am sure that Einstein had a theory somewhere about what happens when speeds of 60 kph are exceeded. Time begins to warp and you actually reach the end of your journey ten minutes before you began, I think he said, which is great if you are late for an appointment at the hairdressers, but would have poor Gay Byrne turning over in his grave, if he were dead.
In his wisdom, the man in the office somewhere has placed three sets of traffic lights along the New Ongar Road, perfectly synchronised that, although you may get through one and possibly two of them, the third will always pull you up. The worst one is at the junction with Shelerin Road, obviously designed by the same man that designed the infamous Snugborough Road interchange. Each road gets a go in turn – and there’s about five of them, then the pedestrians. Just miss a green light and you have time to read another chapter of “PS I Love You” (why this work of art was not even shortlisted for the Booker Prize is one of the great travesties of modern literature) before the lights turn green again
Of course, as the traffic coming up the New Ongar Road builds up, waiting for the green light, some drivers at the back nip into the bus lane at the lights, afraid that they will not make the next green. Or maybe it is important to them to get three cars ahead, I don’t know. Whatever reason, not only is this practice extremely dangerous, as it runs a risk of colliding with the bus that has hardly ever been seen on the road, but it also infuriates the drivers in the proper lane.
The Rules of the Road state that the proper course of action in this situation for the law-abiding driver in the correct lane is to make sure the first car in line makes a smart getaway and is followed in close proximity by all the other cars in the line, thus preventing Mr. Impatient from getting back in line and keeping him in the bus-lane where he is summarily nabbed by a waiting traffic policeman thirty yards up the road.
In practice though, the first car normally makes an extremely slow getaway or the car ahead of yours obligingly leaves a large gap to allow him to come back in. And of course the traffic policeman has more important things to do than dealing with traffic.
I am calling on the Minister for Transport to step in here before somebody gets seriously annoyed.

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