A Public Service?

December 30, 2006

“Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.” (Laurence J. Peter)

The more I have dealings with Islington Council, the more I am convinced of its corporate incompetence. I have every reason to be livid at the way I have been treated by them, but anger and rage are not particularly constructive emotions. So, as we approach the New Year let us calmly review the facts for 2006:

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Taking on Transport for London

December 29, 2006

If Local Authorities want us motorists to comply with the law, then they should also comply with the law. That’s logical – or am I dreaming?

Here is the text of an e-mail sent to TfL on 27th December 2006:

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League Tables

December 28, 2006

“What you have to remember is that civil servants use vagueness and ambiguity with razor-sharp precision” (Senior Civil Servant)

[This post was revised on 31 Dec 06 to correct errors and omissions spotted by ‘spaceman’ ]

The London Parking and Traffic Appeals Service (PATAS) is staffed by a bunch of lawyers who are very good at dispensing justice, and they produce an informative newsletter from time to time containing statistics of their appeals.

We have the data from April 2005 though to September 2006 for moving traffic appeals which include box junctions. These figures are broken down for each of the relevant authorities. Prior to 2005 they were lumped together.

The “big hitters” over this period are Camden, Ealing, Newham and TfL. The graphs show the percentage of successful appeals. The blue area shows the proportion of appeals that went uncontested and the red were contested, but lost.


Camden Appeals Allowed

Camden have seen a rise in the number of appeals from 20 to almost 300 over this period. They got off to a good start, but as the number of appeals rose the more they lost. However, they seem to have reversed this trend recently.


Ealing Appeals Allowed

I happen to know that Ealing had a lot of trouble with their PCNs to begin with which probably accounts for the 86% success rate in the first quarter. However, it looks like it is well worth appealing against Ealing for the time being.


Newham Appeals Allowed

Although Newham has been enforcing moving traffic contraventions since the start their performance is patchy. The number of appeals has actually halved over this period, and in Q3 of 2005/6 they only had 2 appeals. Maybe they have got better at challenging them.


TfL Appeals Allowed

TfL has only seen a small rise from 80 to 135 appeals over this period and they seem to have become better at challenging them.

The system is, in bureaucratic terms, still fairly new and everyone is still learning. It looks like TfL is learning faster than most. My suspicion is that Camden was unprepared for a sharp increase in appeals, and that despite challenging more, Ealing has completely lost the plot. It is difficult to draw any conclusions from Newham as it is so variable.

I have some other data for box junctions only which I am currently processing. It will be posted in due course.

Nothing Ventured…

December 16, 2006

fp.jpgWhen I started this website I naturally told friends and colleagues about it. One colleague, let’s call him Brian, reported back to me a few days later that he had become much more aware of the box junctions on his route to and from work, and as a result was taking extra care when negotiating them.

I didn’t see him for a few weeks, and when we eventually met up again recently he announced that he had received a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) from Transport for London (TfL), and paid it.

Apparently paying by phone wasn’t easy. One of the menu options was to key in the debit/credit card number on the phone keypad, but every time he tried he was cut off. He eventually gave up and spoke to an operator who told him that option had never worked!

By all accounts the contravention wasn’t really his fault.

The yellow box is situated at the end of a bus lane, and while crossing the box most cars move into the inside lane ready to turn left at the next junction. The column of traffic was stopped and Brian waited his turn to cross the box. The cars on the exit side moved off and Brian entered the box believing that he would have no problem getting across.

Just when he thinks nothing can go wrong – Whizz, Zoom, Screech! – and some kamikaze driver comes bombing down the outside lane and cuts into the left hand lane causing everyone behind him to perform a text book emergency stop; including Brian who by now has his front wheels squarely in the box. Smile please! Click! Kerrching! And a few days later a PCN drops through Brian’s letterbox.

He showed me the PCN, and although the photos are tiny something did not look right. I went onto Google Maps and fortunately the yellow box markings are visible on the aerial photos. I printed off the screen and took a few rough measurements. Based on this evidence and Brian’s observationI came to the conclusion that the road markings do not conform to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 act.

OK, TfL and the local council (Haringey) have a ‘get out of jail free’ card. If the road markings do not conform to the statute then they can apply to the Secretary of State for Transport for special authorisation. So, have they played their trump card? Have they applied for authorisation?

In the Parking Adjudicators’ Annual Report 2004/2005 the Chief Adjudicator notes:

“A particular issue that has arisen is that Adjudicators have seen numbers of appeals where it has transpired that the box has not complied with the detailed specification specified on diagram 1043 to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002. Non-compliant road markings mean that the prohibition cannot be enforced.”

I have checked with the TFL helpline and they are willing to listen to any new evidence regarding this PCN even though it has been paid. If they don’t stit up and pay attention then the next port of call is the Local Government Ombudsman. It’s worth a shot. At worst nothing changes, Brian will be no worse off. At best TfL have to refund all the PCNs on this junction. Talking of flying pigs…

Hanlon’s Razor

December 12, 2006

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” (Robert J Hanlon)

Question: When is a road sign not a road sign?

Answer: When it does not conform to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002

This piece of legislation has evolved over the years and it defines precisely what each road sign should look like and what it means to the motorist. It is the highway engineers lexicon.

What this act does not do is to specify how the signs should be deployed individually and in combination. That is left to the discretion of the individual engineer. It also does not determine the consequences of a road user disobeying a road sign; that is defined in other legislation.

In an effort to avoid road sign anarchy the Department for Transport offers much guidance on the deployment and appearance of road signs. In effect it is the “Idiots Guide to Road Signs”.

So, with all that help and information available there should be little chance of getting it wrong? Well, not according to Edmund King, Executive Director of the RAC Foundation. Let’s just attribute his examples of bad road signage to stupidity.

A yellow box junction is technically a road sign. Here’s one I photographed earlier:


Q: Is the box junction justified?

A: No. It is protecting a quiet, residential, cul-de-sac side street with passage for cycles. The amount of traffic entering and leaving is minimal. “Keep Clear” markings would be more appropriate.

Q: What is the other side of the box?

A: Stacking space for two (and a bit) cars and then traffic lights.

Q: Do many drivers stop in the box?

A: All the time. When the lights change to red, the third car from the lights invariably ends up with its back wheels in the box. Sometimes the fourth vehicle stops in the box as well. Two for the price of one!

Q: Why do they stop in the box?

A: (i) Because when you approach traffic lights you focus on the lights in case they change against you, and beyond the lights planning your exit; so your attention is ahead and distant, not down on the road surface and close. It’s a complex, high workload situation.

(ii) In order to be absolutely sure of not falling foul of the box junction, you would need to allow for the possibility of stopping short by increasing the gap between you and the car in front well before reaching the yellow box. This would require advance warning of the box junction, which there never is. It would be reasonable to anticipate a yellow box at a junction controlled by lights i.e. after the lights, but not immediately before traffic lights.

Q: Is there an enforcement camera on this junction?

A: You bet!

Q: Is it making money?

A: Loads!

Q: Is this an example of malice or stupidity?

A: You decide.

Incompetence at the Highest Level

December 10, 2006

“Giving money and power to [local] government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” (P.J. O’Rourke)

In early 2005 The London Authority Transport Committee carried out a review of decriminalised parking enforcement. It’s called “Parking enforcement in London: Investigation into parking controls and their enforcement in London“, published in June 2005 and it makes moderately interesting reading.

I was going to make some comment about how nothing has changed in the last 18 months since the report was published and since enforcement has been extended, but then I noticed this sentence at the end of the Executive Summary:

“There is nothing to gain from a system which allows authorities to impose a penalty on a citizen without that citizen being fully aware of the reasons for that penalty and having absolute confidence that the fine is being imposed fairly, efficiently and transparently.”

What planet are they on? This is a decriminalised system and as such cannot impose fines, only penalty charges. Fines can only be imposed by a criminal court according to criminal law. So I hit the search button for the word “fine”. There are 26 instances of the word “fine” in this document, only one of which is justified:

“You would have to do something quite serious to get fined four figures in the Magistrates’ Court”.

Here are a couple of examples of erroneous use:

“We received considerable evidence that motorists are being fined for minor breaches of regulations such as…”

“…a visit to the West End or City for London’s 215,000 Blue Badge holders can be frustrating, confusing and often result in parking fines.”

As an aside, the other factor that comes to light when you do a search like this is that the same paragraphs appear over and over again in the report showing that it has been padded – a triumph of quantity over quality.

Well it’s not surprising that nothing has changed ‘on the streets’ if those in charge cannot demonstrate leadership and understanding.

Sorry Mr Paul Watling, you failed miserably to do your job as Scrutiny Manager for this report. Feel free to e-mail him at paul.watling@london.gov.uk and tell him what you think.

The Real Hustle

December 4, 2006

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” (Thomas Edison)

Fairly soon after I received my Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) I visited a local solicitor to see if he could explain the legal basis on which it had been issued. Even though he had extensive experience of dealing with motoring and traffic offences he didn’t have a clue about the law surrounding PCNs. The problem is that no-one is really quite sure what is going on either – and that includes some of the local councils operating the enforcement scheme.

To put it simply, local councils are operating a legalised extortion racket. I have been desperately searching for some analogy to try and explain how the process works, but the nearest I can come to is that it is a cross between a confidence trick and a school bully.

The legal starting point is a few hundred years ago with the 1689 Bill of Rights. This bill is the nearest thing we have to a constitution and is regarded as sacrosanct by most decent politicians. One passage reads: “All grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void.” Put more simply you cannot be fined until you have been tried in a court of law and convicted of a criminal offence. The right to a fair trial is at the cornerstone of all human rights legislation.

Well yes, that is unless you decide to “decriminalise” some offences. You do this by massaging the language in a way that would make Sir Humphrey (for those of you that remember “Yes Minister”) proud. With the help of a parliamentary bill, and provided local councils choose their words correctly they can get away with extorting money out of motorists. I use the verb extort advisedly; it means “to obtain something by force or threat, or with difficulty” (Cambridge Dictionary) or to “obtain by force, threats, or other unfair means” (Oxford Dictionary). In this case local councils are legally permitted to obtain money by threat.

Here are the linguistic subtleties as defined in the Hustler’s Decriminalised Dictionary:

Criminal wording Decriminalised wording
Offence Contravention
Fine Penalty Charge
Admits Agrees
Claims Says
Guilty Contravention occured

Geddit? Not Sure? Let me illustrate.

Scenario: A photographer snaps pictures of a celeb fooling around with someone other than his/her partner. Photographer contacts celeb and says, “Pay up and I will destroy the evidence, otherwise I will go to the News of the World.”

Scenario: Local council takes pictures of a motorist stopped in a yellow box junction. Council contacts motorist and says, “Pay up and we will destroy the evidence, otherwise we might take you to court.”

You are not being accused of committing an offence immediately because an accusation must lead to a trial. Councils simply allege that a traffic contravention occurred and they invite (I’m being kind here) you to pay them hush money.

This is just the tip of the iceberg; it gets worse the deeper you dig. Talk about erosion of human rights –

WAKE UP ALL YOU ZOMBIES OUT THERE. Justice has left the building…