Northern Ireland pothole problems: We're on a road to nowhere
Voters regularly voice their anger at potholes, above other issues. So why aren't our politicians listening to them, asks Eilis O'Hanlon
There are certain advantages to living in the country. There's more space. Fewer people. The air is cleaner. The state of the roads is another matter altogether.
The other night I was out driving. It wasn't exactly the middle of nowhere, but it was late, the roads were empty, darkness all around. I hit a pothole.
Obviously, I've hit them before, but this was a monster. I knew at once that something wasn't right. The tyre sounded wrong. The road was too loud. As soon as I could I pulled in and, sure enough, the tyre was flat.
I don't have a spare tyre and the repair kit only works for a puncture, not a ruined tyre, but luckily I have roadside assistance and knew exactly where I was, so within a couple of hours I'd been picked up and was on my way home, with the car on the back of the lorry.
Next day I had the tyre, which was less than six months old, replaced at a cost of £78.
It could have been worse, but it was money that I shouldn't have had to spend. Many people wouldn't be able to afford it at all.
But it got me thinking. Money-wise, I got off lightly. The recovery man said that he was getting an increasing number of call-outs from motorists stranded by potholes. That day he'd picked up a woman whose whole wheel was buckled after an encounter with one of the same public menaces. The man at the dealership who fixed my car said the same. People were coming in with busted suspensions, damaged bodywork, you name it.
I wondered how many other cars would hit the same hole that had done for me and be faced with the same, unnecessary expense.
"You should report it," they all said. So I went online and did just that. NI Direct, the local government website, has a page for reporting potholes. You click on the map, zoom in and leave a note at the place where a pothole has appeared.
Doing so, I not only saw that the pothole which I'd hit had already been reported, but that it was a "double pothole" and had been flagged up more than a week earlier without any action being taken.
The road wasn't exactly Royal Avenue, but there were houses and farms all the way along, so traffic would pass down it regularly enough.
How many other people had suffered as a result? How much money had it cost us all collectively to fix the damage caused by one hole? More to the point, what exactly do we pay road tax for, together with all the excise duty, fuel duty and VAT on top of all that, which amounts to many multiples of billions of pounds a year, according to the RAC.
For that we get the right to drive on roads which are so badly maintained that they wreck our cars, necessitating further, often crippling, expense - bills which, just to add insult to injury, incur further VAT charges.
They're literally making money from the personal misfortune caused by their negligence.
It's not only rural Northern Ireland that is affected, either. The interactive map of Belfast is pockmarked with the same notifications.
Nor is the pothole I hit the worst by a long shot. Another one has been reported in Co Down since January 7, with cracks proceeding 30 to 40 metres along the road.
Coming back from getting my car fixed in Belfast, I even noticed potholes on the slip road off the M1, which must be far more dangerous because of the speed of the cars hitting them.
That NI Direct map would be enough to scare any driver into never getting behind the wheel of a car again. Zoom in and the number of roads on which a pothole has been reported starts to look mind-boggling.
It would be wise to work out a route beforehand to avoid them all, adding miles to your journey, and even then there are no guarantees.
New ones are springing up (or should that be down?) all the time, especially with the weather being so bad recently, and it's become a bit of an obsession of mine to keep tabs on them all.
Even so, there are still a sufficiently limited number of them that it shouldn't be beyond the capability of everyone working together to get the worst ones fixed.
The Department for Infrastructure says: "Due to the current budgetary shortfall for routine maintenance work, we must prioritise repair work to initially target those areas posing the greatest risk to the public.
"We would therefore ask everyone for their patience while we continue to make progress with the various outstanding repairs."
They have a point. It's been estimated that the total needed just to patch up the roads each year and keep them in their current state of repair is approximately £137m and last year only £43m was allocated to the job. The department can't work miracles.
But how bad does a pothole need to become before it's a matter of urgency?
I heard about one motorist who came across a pothole out beyond Newtownabbey, into which he was able to put his arm up to the elbow.
That's not a minor inconvenience. It's a death-trap.
It's become customary to blame everything that goes wrong in Northern Ireland on the continuing lack of a working government, but, after a year in which Stormont sat idle, it's hard not to get frustrated at the refusal of local politicians to stop faffing about and take responsibility for setting a budget for the vital work that needs done.
The budget for fixing the roads ran out five months early in 2017 and we're all, literally, paying the price for the deterioration.
It needs a sitting minister to re-allocate resources as day-to-day problems occur. Civil servants don't have authority to make these decisions.
It's now nearly nine years since Professor Snaith, Emeritus Professor of Highway Engineering at Birmingham University, completed his 2009 official report into what needed to be done to stop the roads in Northern Ireland falling apart; but while the Department of Transport in England has committed £6bn for local councils to mend roads over the term of the current parliament, here we're still arguing about what language the road signs should be in.
If you listen to MLAs, voters on the doorstep raise their anger at potholes far more than they do some of the other issues which are holding up the return of devolved government.
Is it too much to ask that someone listens to them for once?