Ireland and Malta will be the only EU countries that drive on the left-hand side after Britain departs the bloc in October, writes Fergus Finlay
I KNOW well the road between Dublin and Cork. I could drive it blindfold, I reckon; the old route or the new route. But I wonder how we’re all going to cope when we have to drive it the wrong way round.
I know the route so well because, way, way back, I commuted once a week between Dublin and Cork. That’s a posh way of describing a complicated set of family arrangements.
For a good deal of my Leaving Cert year, my family lived in Dublin, my father worked in Cork City, and I went to school in Cork.
Every Friday, Dad and I would pack dirty laundry into the boot of his Austin A40, and set off on the journey to Dublin. When the car was going well (which wasn’t every weekend), we’d make the trip in around four hours, door to door, from the Western Road in Cork to Novara Terrace in Bray. Nowadays, it’s about two hours from one end of the motorway to another, but you can often add another hour and a half to that for city traffic.
What slowed us down was Dad’s unfailing habit of stopping for refreshments. A pint and a sandwich in Davern’s of Cashel; then another drive of an hour, for a pint in Egan’s of Portlaoise, before completing the journey home. The two pints wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes each to consume, but if he fell into conversation about the politics of the day, an hour could pass easily enough. And one pint could become two.
What passed for safe driving back then, in a rickety old car, would be unthinkable now.
And those conversations, and extra pints, could happen frequently. Strangers could become friends or foes in Davern’s or Egan’s. Sean Lemass, our Taoiseach at the time, picked the occasion of one of our journeys to announce his retirement, and I can still remember the argument, in the pub on our way home, about who should succeed him. I thought I would never get home that night.
I’m telling you all this so that you’ll believe me when I say that I know the road to Cork like the back of my hand. Those first journeys, more than 50 years ago, were almost the only ones I ever took as a passenger.
I’ve been driving that road through every change made to it for a half-century now.
I remember when it frequently took more than an hour to get through Naas. I remember when Horse and Jockey was the single most dangerous part of the road, because it had both a hairpin bend and a humpbacked bridge, and that was on the main road to Dublin. I remember the feeling of celebration when you hit the only two pieces of dual carriageway on the entire road: Dunkettle and the Naas dual carriageway (for a couple of miles at either end).
So, I’m no stranger to that road. In fact, I love it. Setting out on the road to Cork, for me, is like saying hello to an old friend.
So, what’s it going to be like, I wonder, when we have to do that journey while driving on the other side of the road? Because that will be one of the inevitable consequences of Brexit.
We know now, don’t we, that Britain is going to leave the EU this year, with or without a deal. They won’t get any more extensions after Halloween, especially not if they take part in the European elections, and Nigel Farage whips up enough bile to win seats for his Brexit party. Then, nobody in Europe will want them using those seats to disrupt as much as they can.
So the latest deadline is almost certainly the last. And when they go, we will be the only market in the EU (apart from Malta) for cars, buses, and lorries that drive on the wrong side of the road.
I chatted at the weekend to a man who is in the business of supplying public transport vehicles. Already, he said, it’s becoming harder and harder to find suppliers who are interested in a market as tiny as ours. We benefit, right now, from the fact that there is a 20-times bigger UK market next door, but, soon, that will be a third country market, with its own export-and-import arrangements.
Of course, there are complicated and expensive arrangements we could make to ensure that we continue to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. But, sooner of later, we’re going to have to switch.
Imagine the chaos that would ensue.
The Swedes did it in 1967. But Sweden is a disciplined place, and Swedish drivers aren’t like us. Even then, it took Sweden four years to prepare, and cost a huge amount. Now, they are reprogrammed, and they get as confused as anyone else when they have to drive here.
What’s more, there was no motorway in Sweden when they switched. I drove from Cork to Dublin on Sunday, using the motorway, and tried to imagine what it would be like on the other side of the road. Going up the down ramps — especially that one that joins the M7 to the M50 — could be the stuff of nightmares, if we don’t figure out how to do it correctly.
AND the signage, on every road in the country, is all pointing the wrong way. Our buses have all their main doors on the wrong side. One-way streets will have to change direction. Speed limits will have to be reduced, at least until we get used to the new way of driving.
And that’s before you take into account the unique characteristics of the Irish driver. We are a country of bad habits on the road. We tend to regard traffic lights as a way of urging us to speed up, and speed limits as a sort of personal affront. If we’re not safe enough drivers now, what will we be like when we have to switch to the other side of the road? Especially as we’re going to end up with a mix of cars, some right-hand drive, some left-hand, for years to come.
But we’re going to have to do it, and the sooner we start a discussion about it, the better. Post-Brexit, the choice will become a stark inevitability. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but sooner or later, if we want affordable cars, we’re going to have to conform to European driving norms.
But we’ll get there. We always do in the end. The road to Cork might never be the same, but it will still be an old friend, just with a new look to it.
We’re going to end up with a mix of cars, some right-hand drive, some left-hand, for years to come