An octogenarian who never even sat the driving test may seem an unlikely person to be championing road safety, but Pat Martin has dedicated most of her adult life to trying to reduce accidents and deaths on Northern Ireland’s roads.
The Newtownabbey woman, a retired teacher, has been passionate about promoting the road safety message for more than 50 years – since she started the Tufty Club (a Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents initiative that featured a safety-savvy squirrel character) while working at Carnmoney Primary School in the mid-1960s.
“I had a young child and was very aware of the dangers on the roads. Also, as a new teacher I was terribly concerned about the safety of children, particularly on the roads. I heard about the Tufty Club and thought: ‘Right, let’s try to do something’, so I started the Tufty Club in Carnmoney,” she explained.
“I still meet people in their 50s who see me in the street and say ‘Hello Mrs Tufty’ – that’s what a lot of the children called me as they thought I was Tufty’s mummy!”
Keen to expand her pupils’ knowledge about road safety, the then Mrs Tombe went on to teach cycling proficiency to the school’s P7s – a scheme she led for almost 20 years and one she believes “really made an impact on the children.”
Looking back on a once-burgeoning programme of road safety initiatives, Pat recalls how at one time there were dedicated road safety education officers in each area of Northern Ireland, cycling proficiency lessons provided in all schools, quiz nights, safe driving competitions, special events for female motorists and even road safety-themed church services.
She has fond memories too of something called “the seat belt convincer” - a rudimentary contraption involving a sliding seat on a trailer that was taken to various locations and events during the early 1980s with the aim of convincing people of the benefits of wearing a seatbelt.
Highlighting the incredible reach of the campaign at that time, she recalls an event in the mid 1980s when hundreds of bikers crowded into Monkstown Community School for a road safety event featuring legendary road racers Joey and Robert Dunlop – the latter drawing laughs from the crowd after dressing up in the school crossing patrol man’s outfit before taking to the stage.
But times have changed, and Northern Ireland’s road safety campaign now looks very different to how it did in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
While glad to see the hard-hitting TV and billboard advertising campaigns aimed at educating motorists about the dangers of speeding, drink-driving and using a mobile phone when behind the wheel, Pat laments the cutbacks in recent years that have led to a loss of funding for local road safety committees and education initiatives.
However, she stresses that one key event – the Northern Ireland primary schools’ road safety quiz – is still going strong, thanks to sponsorship from Crash Services.
“It’s become harder over the years, impacted by a lack of funding and a loss of contacts in many schools. It’s been very frustrating at times,” she said.
“I suppose we have just learned to accept that we can no longer do what we used to be able to do event-wise and everything else.”
The mother-of-two and grandmother-of-five also still helps to organise winter tyre and headlamp testing sessions for motorists and goes into local primary and special schools to give talks about road safety and promote the ‘stop, look and listen’ message.
She is adamant that it’s a case of “the younger the better” when trying to teach children about road safety.
With that in mind, she reacted with horror to recent speculation that funding for manned school crossing patrols could be under threat, describing the very idea as “absolutely crazy”.
“They are an absolute necessity, especially with the amount of traffic around schools. Someone is going to have to pay for them, whether it is the education authorities or whoever,” she stressed.
Pat’s father, a school principal, taught her to drive in 1955 - the year before the test was introduced in Northern Ireland.
“I am so old,” she smiled. “My dad taught me to drive and I never did a test, but I have always tried to be a careful driver.
“I would like to think I am a mature driver, a careful driver. I obey the rules of the road.”
And her advice to other drivers is simple: “Banish mobile phone use in cars, never take even one drink and drive, slow down and be alert at all times.”
Pat, who is originally from north Belfast but has lived in Jordanstown for the past 22 years, has served on Newtownabbey Road Safety Committee for more than four decades, having been asked by the local council to set up the organisation in 1976.
She still serves as chair of the committee and has been a member of Province-wide road safety umbrella organisation Road Safe NI (formerly The Road Safety Council of Northern Ireland) for the past four decades, serving as chair for the last 10 years.
“I have very much enjoyed it. We are all volunteers and come from all walks of life. It’s been great,” she said.
Pat has received many awards for her unstinting work, including recognition at the Antrim and Newtownabbey Volunteer Accolades and a Road Safe NI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
And in June this year she was awarded the MBE by HRH Prince Charles for services to road safety, describing her big day out at Buckingham Palace as “a most fantastic experience and very humbling.”
“It is lovely to get these awards and it’s lovely to be recognised, but I have loved everything that I have done - from standing in the freezing cold teaching cycling proficiency all those years ago to what I do today.”
While expressing sadness at the current “carnage” on Northern Ireland’s roads – something she puts down to drivers’ excess speed and inattention – Pat believes the road safety campaign has made a difference, helping to save lives.
“You just hope that over the years you have helped to save somebody’s life, but you can’t really quantify it,” she said.
However, the value of the years of campaigning is borne out by the PSNI’s road traffic fatalities figures, which show that in the 1970s there were 315 road deaths each year, on average. The following decade the average yearly road death total had dropped to 202, and by 2010 - 2016 the average number of fatalities each year was 63 - a massive improvement, but one Pat isn’t satisfied with.
“Certainly the number of road crash deaths has dropped, but the figures are still far too high. The road to zero – no deaths – is what we are trying to aim for,” she added.
Pat, who was sadly widowed earlier this year when her husband of 30 years, Bill, passed away after a battle against cancer, said she has no regrets about dedicating so much of her life to road safety campaigning.
“I’ve loved it and it is still a very big part of my life.”
While she knows she can’t go on forever, Pat says she plans to stay on as chair of Road Safe NI for at least another year.
And when she finally calls a halt to her campaigning efforts, what would she like to see happen in the years ahead?
“I would love to see a reinvention of it all and much more road safety work being done in schools - properly funded. That’s where you have to get them – the younger the better,” she concluded.