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Road safety game-changer

November 12th, 2019 7:06 AM

By Southern Star Team

Gda Brigid Hartnett and Gda Jonathan McCarthy showcasing their innovative virtual reality headsets, with others including West Cork's Crime Prevention Officer Sgt James O'Donovan and Dr Jason van der Velde of West Cork Rapid Response

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A particularly gruesome crash in Bantry led to two West Cork gardaí coming up with a safety initiative that has now been rolled out nationwide

NEW ideas can be born out of terrible situations, says local Gda Brigid Hartnett who, with her community policing colleague Gda Jonathan McCarthy, have been unveiling the gardaí’s new virtual reality sets. 

The nationwide roll-out came about from an idea born in West Cork.

Bantry-based Brigid says the plan was Jonathan’s brainchild which all came about as a result of a fatal collision the members encountered.

 The collision was a particularly gruesome one that occurred in the middle of a town and was witnessed by shoppers on a Saturday afternoon, just going about their normal run-of-the-mill Saturday routines. 

‘They unfortunately witnessed this collision and suffered all kinds of difficult and surprising emotions, including shock and anger,’ recalled Brigid. ‘Having witnessed the trauma first-hand they then had to recount their experience and provide a statement to the gardaí, and then to the priest who offered the last rites, and then to the emergency services that attended the scene and dealt with the immediate aftermath.’

 Brigid remembers the incident in graphic detail. She was on duty that Saturday morning in the patrol car alone. The call for the collision came in as she was sitting down to breakfast. She attended the scene with no idea of what lay ahead. 

Being first on the scene, she had to close off the scene and direct traffic, all the while attempting to preserve the dignity of the deceased person. 

She was also taking names of those involved, and photographs of the scene. 

‘You go into autopilot, you have a number of jobs that must be completed immediately. But I genuinely cannot thank the fire service enough. I would never have completed even half of those tasks without their amazing assistance,’ the garda recalled. 

Brigid describes later that evening a lady calling into the station to report her friend missing. ‘Having to bring this poor lady into the back office and explain that her dear friend had died earlier that morning as a result of a collision, it was such a difficult task. 

'It is one aspect of our job that no garda wants to have to do. To deliver bad news knowing that you will change their lives for ever with those terrible words “I’m sorry”.’

Garda Jonathan McCarthy came from Schull to assist Brigid that day, directing traffic and preserving the scene. Little did they know, that just a few short weeks later, Brigid would be coming to Jonathan’s assistance in Ballydehob, when he received a call to another fatal traffic collision.

As a result of what those members experienced, they felt there must be something they could do to prevent another fatal collision. 

Sharing a cup of tea in Schull garda station, and talking about what would make a difference, Jonathan suggested something. 

He purchased a standalone virtual reality headset which provides a real-time experience of being a passenger in a car being driven by a young driver. 

'This young driver is texting while speeding and not paying attention to his surroundings. The journey meets an untimely end resulting in a serious collision. The participants then experience the emergency services offering them help and administering first aid to the fellow passengers in the car. It is so real.’

Part of a community garda’s role is liaising with lots of locals organisations. One such organisation is the County Council’s safety officers. Once Anita Lenihane (Cork City safety officer) and Caroline Casey (Cork County safety officer) heard about the idea and saw the plan, they immediately came on board. 

The initiative was born and became a reality with the assistance of Teddy Daly of Aviva Insurance’s marketing department. 

It was a perfect match for the insurer’s very successful driving school for young drivers. 

The sets purchased in England were imported to West Cork. 

'We set up information stands at local shows and rallies and asked members of the public to try the VR sets on and provide feedback,’ remembered Brigid. 

The six-minute clip carries a powerful message. Brigid says she could speak for hours on the subject of road safety but the VR sets deliver a very effective and lasting message. 

‘The feedback from users has been astonishing and so positive despite the difficult imagery and topic. But the message is clear and rings true: we all need to play our part,’ said the West Cork garda. 

The feedback was carried out over a 10-month period throughout Cork. Over 4,500 people participated in trying out the new equipment and offering their feedback. 

The feedback was a real game changer in respect of road safety education, noted Jonathan.  

 Brigid and Jonathan are most thankful for the support of local Supt Declan O’Sullivan. 

Chief Supt Con Cadogan is also fully supportive of the West Cork initiative and its innovative way of delivering the road safety message.

 Early September saw both gardaí attending the Aviva stadium in Dublin where they gave a talk to road safety officers from each county. 

Since then, every County Council in the country has received a box of the VR sets with a total of 500 sets distributed to date. 

‘This is very impressive considering this started out as a chat between two members over a cup of tea,’ said Gda Hartnett. ‘Everyone wants to make a difference and keep our families and friends safe. 

'This modern invention delivers a stark message effectively and one that remains with the user long after watching the clip.’

 It is hoped that all school children from transition year onwards will eventually be given a chance to try the device.

‘Road safety continues to be such a serious and real issue. Hopefully this new programme effectiveness will witness a reduction in road collisions,’ Gda Hartnett told The Southern Star. 

The gardai will demonstrate the VR sets to any groups over the age of 16.

• For more information contact Garda Brigid Hartnett in Bantry at [email protected]  or Jonathan McCarthy in Schull at [email protected]

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