AS THE Christmas holidays come to an end, loved ones are leaving home and taking to the roads, airport, bus and train stations to return to where they work, live, and go to college.
Eager shoppers are flocking to the city and suburban shopping centres to look for deals, and plenty more are returning to work after the festive break.
Meanwhile, overseeing the ebbs and flows that run through the city’s arteries and veins, the Garda Traffic Corps monitor the movements throughout Cork and across the county.
The division, overseen by Inspector Finbarr O’Sullivan in Anglesea St Garda Station, is fed information by the Garda Communications Centre within the building, which watches over the dozens of CCTV cameras across the city, while keeping tabs on where garda patrol units are at any given time through radio contact and a GPS system.
This information is combined with the news received through emergency calls, and media both traditional and social, complimented by the real time figures relayed by Cork City’s car parks, which provides a sure indicator of how the city is moving.
The gardaí, in turn, pass on what they know to radio stations, AA Roadwatch and other media to inform motorists who they hope will heed the advice issued and modify their routes to help spread the load across the city.
Technology’s impact on traffic management is not limited to the offices and control room within Anglesea St, however.
In conjunction with Cork City Council and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, the gardaí have developed a sequential light sequence running throughout the city.
It’s the reason, Insp O’Sullivan explains, that you seldom see gardaí directing motorists at junctions anymore — overriding the sequence at one junction will disrupt the carefully calculated order to the detriment of traffic across the city.
At times of heavy traffic, gardaí deployed to manage junctions are instead there to ensure there are no “yellow box” encroachments — a habit of impatient drivers that can equally destabilise the carefully calibrated traffic flow by blocking motorists approaching from the other side.
When an accident occurs during peak hours, gardaí on motorbikes are sent to weave through the congestion and reach the scene of the incident. More serious accidents will see larger numbers deployed to attend to the victims, direct cars away from the crash, and to preserve the scene for a forensic examination, if necessary.
When it comes to traffic management, Cork’s unique geography poses its own challenges.
“The city centre is an island and the only way into it is over a few bridges,” Insp O’Sullivan notes.
“There’s also no one complete ring road around it. If you want to travel onto the south ring road from the north of the city you have no option but to come through some part of the city centre.”
Other than agreeing with the local authorities that no roadworks are carried out in the month preceding Christmas, there is little difference in how the gardaí intervene with management of the traffic flow in the build-up to the festive season compared with the rest of the year.
“We’re trying to encourage shoppers into the city, and so we’re making sure there are as few obstacles as possible in their way,” Insp O’Sullivan says.
Traffic has moved better in the build-up to recent Christmases than during the Celtic Tiger-era consumer rush, Insp O’Sullivan notes.
Even with more people returning to work, anecdotally it appears that more shoppers are spreading out their gift-buying well ahead of the big day instead of leaving it until the last minute.
While attractions such as Glow keep the main thoroughfares of Cork busy, the so-called ‘doughnut effect’ has also seen city-centre traffic eased, and for better or worse, shopping centres such as Mahon Point have drawn some of the congestion out of the city and into the suburbs. This too, brings its own challenges, however.
One of the routes under Insp O’Sullivan’s auspices is the behemoth N40 that stretches from the Jack Lynch Tunnel around the south of the city and out to the west.
With 25m vehicle journeys recorded on the route a year, the South Ring Road is busier than the infamous Red Cow interchange in Dublin, and a number of roads south of Cork City constantly bring new traffic to it.
The Bandon road alone, for example, sees some 2,000 cars an hour pass under the viaduct at peak hours.
A backlog on the N40 can have a knock-on effect throughout the rest of the city — as Cork motorists know only too well.
It is little over a year since a build-up of leaves and silt blocked the drainage in the Jack Lynch Tunnel, closing a northbound lane and setting off a sequence that caused gridlock throughout the city.
Insp O’Sullivan says lessons have been learned from the ensuing chaos.
“We have held several meetings with the TII and tunnel management,” he said.
“We have drawn up preliminary plans and a communications strategy to get the message out to the public quicker,” he said.
This plan includes the potential deployment of the Civil Defence, he explains. In a worst-case scenario where traffic is at a standstill for hours, they will be deployed to aid those in need such as pregnant women and children, and will extract them if necessary.
Other tasks under the Traffic Corps’ remit include assisting medical and VIP escorts; road safety presentations; court administration; and forensic examinations of collisions.
Ticketing cars parked illegally also falls under their remit — a task that is carried out electronically.
Insp O’Sullivan said this means that many may not realise that cars have been ticketed, as there is no physical fine notice attached to the windscreen. Those who think they may have gotten away with it subsequently receive an unwelcome surprise in the post.
He said he is aware of the disquiet around parking enforcement among residents in areas around Pairc Uí Chaoimh and Pairc Uí Rinn, but says that gardaí have to strike a balance between enforcing the law and facilitating cultural and sporting events — a diplomacy that is “not easy”.
Insp O’Sullivan said that culturally, Irish drivers have a relaxed attitude to parking laws, and that it is something that will take time to change.
“Previously drink driving was accepted and that is something I would say has only really changed in the last 10 to 15 years,” he said.
Driver error is the greatest contributing factor to accidents, and gardaí are urging motorists to keep their cool in heavy traffic, and to be mindful of their surroundings when it’s flowing better.
Insp O’Sullivan has also noted drivers’ impatience in areas where cycle lanes have been introduced, but believes they are a necessary infrastructure.
“The council are future proofing the city,” he said, “there will always be a bit of pain initially.
“We are always very conscious of traffic delays and do our best to mitigate for them. I think people forget that every garda is a motorist as well — I get stuck in traffic too,” he said.
“At Christmas, people are rushing more, get impatient when they are driving and get distracted with their shopping and so on.”
Accidents that block a lane tend to be the source of further gridlock, due to drivers rubbernecking to see the collision — a distraction that in turn can lead to another accident.
Statistically speaking, the most dangerous time on Irish roads is between 4pm and 6pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The more serious accidents will require more personnel to divert traffic away from the scene.
Unfortunately, these serious accident scenes were increasingly familiar to gardaí this year.
Last year, 187 people lost their lives in 175 fatal crashes; compared with 162 road deaths in 155 crashes in 2015. 21 of 2016’s fatalities took place in Cork.
For all the management the Traffic Corps do, Insp O’Sullivan is keen to stress that proper driver behaviour is key to preventing accidents: “Ultimately, drivers have the responsibility to drive safely, watch their speed and observe signs.
“They have to remember they have a responsibility to themselves, their families, other road users and their communities,” he says.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that 52 motorists were arrested in Cork on suspicion of drink driving in the first three weeks of December.
“We still have people willing to take a chance,” Insp O’Sullivan says, “even though the consequences are severe. A first-time offence could result in a ban of up to four years, not to mention the possibility of killing someone or yourself.”
He also adds that there’s an increase in the numbers arrested the next morning — and despite what people may think, those caught in the morning are still substantially over the limit and not marginally so.
“People aren’t getting the message that alcohol stays in your body for a period of time. If you have eight to 10 pints, it is still in your body for a good part of the day,” he says.