THE first time I laid eyes the old N7 road between Limerick and Nenagh, I thought it was the biggest and most impressive highway in the world.
That was over 50 years ago, and my family had just moved close to it from a less advanced area of rutted laneways and small roads where two vehicles couldn’t pass without one of them having to climb the ditch at right angles to the road. In contrast, the N7 in 1961, looked wide, sleek and dangerously seductive. It was so wide, that for a long time I was afraid to cross it to catch the bus to school.
I’d never have thought then that half a century on, the little lanes of my childhood – minus a few dangerous bends albeit - would enjoy the same status as the old N7, with a speed limit of 80km per hour.
Is this daft, or is it even reasonable? The N7 road is the official alternative to the motorway and, in law, the NRA is obliged to provide an alternative to a tolled road. The road is wider and straighter than any regional road I know. Surely a limit of 100km, or 60 miles per hour, would be more appropriate to its purpose and to the safety of its users. As it is, there is more frustration per kilometre on that road as a result of the downgrade and reduced speed limit, than there is on any road in the country. And while frustration may not be as great a threat to road safety as speeding motorists are, it’s still a threat.
Now, I don’t need to be reminded of why the N7 was downgraded from a National Primary road, ignominiously re-named R445 and confined to a speed limit of less than 50 miles an hour. It was essentially a political decision to appease the followers of keep Ireland moving and one that didn’t cost an awful lot to implement at a time when we had very little to spend on any kind of infrastructure. The country, or a section of it anyway, demanded cycle lanes to keep the increasingly sedentary citizenry fit and healthy, and more importantly perhaps, to entice thousands of cycling tourists from abroad. Whatever about the first, I haven’t seen any real evidence of the latter objective having been achieved.
Nevertheless, the cycle lanes on each side of the road are, no doubt, still a potential tourist attraction and a great delight to the cycling fraternity – so much so that some of them insist on appropriating a wider swathe of tarmacadam and cycling three or four abreast. But dare I ask, in the interests of saving space, do we need to have a cycle lane on each side of the road when there are so few cyclists on it at any given time?
Meanwhile, despite the efforts of at least one local county councillor, who braved the ire of the politically correct and called for a slight upgrading of the road so that the demon motorists could at least pass out a tractor, the speed limit remains. Apparently, nothing short of a National Referendum could now change the status, or the official name of the R445. For all I know, it could be enshrined in the Constitution.
But surely there’s still scope for some rational thinking here. There is nothing, for instance, to stop a cyclist passing out a motorist on the R445 now. And if you think that’s a bit far-fetched, remember that, last year, Sebastiaan Bowier hit a record 133 kmph on his bicycle and the year before that, Frenchwoman, Barbara Boulois cycled at 121 kmph on the flat. I also suspect that Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, even if he wouldn’t dream of driving a coach and four through an Act of Parliament, could do 100 km per hour over the Conor Pass on a bike. Imagine how frustrating it would be for motorists, if Sebastiaan or Barbara or Enda took a cycle down the R445 and left them trailing. Dammit, if there’s a speed limit for motor traffic, surely there should be one for bicycles! Fair is fair.
I travel the road myself nearly every day – at snail’s pace naturally – because if there isn’t a tractor in front of me with no hard shoulder to pull in and let me pass, then there’s a ‘GoSafe camera van’ owned and operated by a private consortium up ahead, ready to pounce and demand my purse.
It’s nerve wracking, and very dangerous, as you also have to contend with dozens of drivers flashing lights to alert you to the highway man waiting the bushes, and hundreds of others who are either blithely ignoring the speed limit or who maybe can’t believe that they are confined to 80km an hour on one of the best roadways in the country. You can’t even pull in to let them pass, without trespassing on the cycle lane and risking another penalty point.
It’s a nightmare, I tell you! And now, I suppose I’m going to be damned as a speed merchant and told to get on my bike and stop ranting. Too late! I’m afraid I’ve achieved the impossible. I’ve completely forgotten how to ride a bike.