The rise of the red coats
All this week our top writers tackle the subjects that matter to you. Our Consumer Correspondent Claire McNeilly asks: As traders struggle with the recession, how did we get car parking so wrong?
The trademark red-and-black coats and caps are a dead giveaway when it comes to identifying the most hated professionals in town.
Lurking in doorways and around street corners, armed with a small black bag that contains those dreaded parking tickets, they eagerly await the call of duty.
These are the 'red coats' you don't say a cheery hi-di-hi to.
I am, of course, referring to traffic attendants, 115 of who pound the pavements across Northern Ireland and enthusiastically pounce on us naughty motorists.
Those street artists formerly known as traffic wardens proved very effective in 2011, when 125,848 penalty charge notices (PCNs, or parking fines) of £60 were issued for various 'crimes', such as parking on yellow lines, or taking up two spaces in car parks.
Of course, their weapons of mass tax-gathering will be even more merciless come June, when Roads Minister Danny Kennedy ups the fixed penalties by 50% to a staggering £90 a time (or £45 if you pay within 14 days).
Just like the Terminator in the movies, these people can't be bargained with, can't be reasoned with, don't feel pity, pain or remorse.
They listen to no excuses, make no compromises and never turn a blind eye - unless you happen to park in one of the six towns across the province where they don't need to, because they appear not to patrol there.
In Belfast, Londonderry or Newry - the top ticketing hotspots - if you stay one minute longer in a restricted parking space, the new fine will exceed an average weekly family food budget by £20.
But in Cushendall, Pomeroy, Draperstown, Dungiven, Claudy, or Glenarm - where no tickets were issued in 2011 - it seems you can park with impunity.
As a double whammy, Mr Kennedy is also introducing fees of up to 40p-per-hour in 16 towns in 25 car parks which were previously free.
So we can expect the red coats - who work for a company called NSL - to be very busy indeed.
NSL is employed by the Department for Regional Development's Roads Service to provide on-the-ground enforcement - at a cost of £36.1m since October 2006 (when parking was decriminalised and therefore no longer falling under the police's remit).
But the shortfall between the money paid to NSL and the revenue raised via parking fines stands at £13.6m.
This has provoked fury - and accusations that the minister is hiking penalties in an attempt to balance his books.
The DRD says the fines are geared towards reduced congestion and improving road safety.
It adds that, in the 25 car parks where new fees apply, they will be between 20p and 40p-an-hour.
And it says that drivers will still be able park for free in other parts of the 16 towns affected.
That seems reasonable compared with London, which charges up to £1.20 for 20 minutes, or elsewhere in England and Wales, where it's between 50p and £1-per-hour.
More unreasonable, though, are PCNs and the automatic £90\£45 flat fee, whatever the offence.
In London, where a two-tier system operates, offenders pay between £60 and £130, depending on the transgression; ie the fine for parking on double yellow lines would be more than parking over your time on a meter.
The British Parking Association (BPA) is trying to hike charges and fines on a UK-wide basis, but so far most local authorities - which are also struggling to raise revenue - have refused to increase them.
They know people can barely afford to fuel their cars as it is, so increased parking costs and penalties could help accelerate the death-knell on high streets.
Note, for instance, our despairing traders on Belfast's Lisburn Road, which has the unwanted reputation of being the most ticketed street here.
It would unfair to underestimate the complexities of running a system in Northern Ireland where the whole geographical area is patrolled by 115 officials.
And while traders accuse attendants of being 'over-zealous', they are upholding the rules of the road and helping avoid traffic congestion.
Also, it can't be easy pounding the streets in all weathers and constantly being subjected to verbal abuse - all for £7.34-an-hour.
What doesn't work here is the one-size-fits-all system where there is no sliding scale for fines.
The DRD also confirmed that there are no business permits, as employed elsewhere, which allow people - from retailers to doctors - to park in allocated areas.
Surely we need a proper business plan that dispels of the blanket approach that we have now?
At Stormont - which sets the parking enforcement agenda - MLAs cost us more than £23m annually in wages and expenses.
For that money, they should be capable of finding a proper solution - and preferably before June.