A CONTROVERSIAL camera car has snared 813 motors parked illegally in just eight weeks – including four council vehicles.
Hartlepool Borough Council launched its £40,000 camera car in May in an effort to improve road safety.
It has already handed out fines which could net the authority £56,910.
The scheme has sparked a barrage of criticism from drivers who have been snapped dropping people off in bus stops, pulling onto double yellow lines to drop goods off in charity shops and even on mounted kerbs outside their own homes.
It has emerged that four of those tickets were sent to council workers who had parked local authority-branded vehicles illegally.
Since being launched on May 9, 848 penalty charge notices have been issued though that figure does not include any fines which have been issued in the last few days and have not yet been received by offenders.
Of that figure, 115 appeals were lodged with the council which resulted in 35 being cancelled.
The fines, which are fixed at £35 if paid early rising up to £70 after 21 days, could see the council rake in £56,910 in the first two months of the operation being launched.
Many irate motorists have claimed the vehicle is being used as a “cash-cow” at a time when the council is looking to save money at every opportunity, though bosses insist that is not the case and say the reduction in the number of tickets being issued proves drivers are not taking as many risks on the road.
Phil Hepburn, Hartlepool Council’s parking services manager, said: “We are aware of the criticism the camera car has had, and it was not entirely unexpected.
“We have had various road safety initiatives in the past which have not had the desired effect.
“Now, when a fine lands on the doormat, people know we are serious about this.
“We want to stop cars parking or pulling on zig-zag lines near schools, in loading bays, cycle lanes or bus stops.
“In the first six weeks the car was in use, we averaged around 120 tickets per week. A fortnight ago, that figure was down to 62, and then last week a total of 31 tickets were sent out.
“The system is ongoing, so many drivers who have been recorded will not yet have received their ticket. But all in all the drop in figures shows the car is making an impact and maybe drivers are not taking the risks they have done in the past.
“Drivers are changing their habits.”
He added: “Of the vehicles which have been fined, four of them are council vehicles so that shows we are not being selective with what we are taking pictures of.
“Those vehicles were dealt with in exactly the same way as any other. The vehicle would be traced back to whatever department it belonged to, the logs would show who the driver was, and that driver would be liable for the fine. This was not a case of the council fining the council, the driver would be liable.”
It comes after Callum Laws was snapped in a bus stop no longer in use opposite The Royal pub, in Church Street, Hartlepool, as he dropped off a pal on May 31 and was fined £70.
Gillian Hartill was was stunned when she received the £70 fixed penalty after she was snapped parked at a bus stop outside St Patrick’s shops in Owton Manor Lane, Hartlepool.
But at 9.41am on Thursday, June 9, when the ticket says she was nabbed, she claims she was frantically rushing her injured pet shar pei dog, Bailey, for treatment at Vets4Pets, in Belle Vue Way.
The Mail also reported how more than a dozen fines were dished out to residents parking outside their own homes in a stretch of Catcote Road, Hartlepool.
Among those fined were mum-of-four Michelle Clements, 44, and Harry James, 67, who had been given two tickets.
And Paul Robinson, 50, was also given a ticket after stopping at a bus stop in Wynyard Road, in Hartlepool, “for seconds”.
SINCE the camera car was launched, the Mail has been inundated with calls from motorists who have slammed the way the vehicle is operating.
News Editor IAN WILLIS put some of the general concerns and complaints to the council’s parking chief, Phil Hepburn.
IW: HOW MANY TICKETS HAVE BEEN ISSUED SINCE THIS STARTED?
PH: 848 to date, and from that we have had 115 appeals of which 35 were overturned. There is a downward trend, with just 31 tickets sent out last week.
IW: SO WHEN YOU GET TO THE STAGE WHERE YOU AREN’T CATCHING ANYONE, WILL YOU BE GETTING RID OF THE CAR?
PH: No, this is an ongoing process. The situation on the school run has improved, but in September we will have a new set of parents across the town. We don’t want to slip back into a situation where the congestion on school runs is dangerous. We will continue to address other issues across the town, away from the schools. We are also concious of displacement issues, where improving a traffic situation in one area could simply move it elsewhere and cause problems in another area. We are constantly monitoring things, we don’t want a situation where the school gates are totally clear, only for residents up the street to be blocked in on their drives.
IW: SURELY IT’S OK TO PULL INTO A BUS-STOP TO DROP SOMEONE OFF?
PH: No. Where do you draw the line? It is illegal to stop in a bus stop. As soon as the vehicle stops, an offence is being committed. A driver could claim to have only parked for seconds whilst others may stop for a few minutes. When trying to enforce this, there can be no grey areas.
IW: WHAT IF THERE’S A SIGN SAYING THE BUS STOP IS NOT BEING USED ANY MORE
PH: There are bus stops which are not in use, but they are still bus stops. A driver could say there are never any buses in the stop, so what is the problem? But another driver could say that the bus timetable shows there’s not one due for another couple of hours, either way the stops have to be managed a bus clearways where no stopping is allowed. The frequency of service is irrellevant.
IW: BUT IN THE DAYS BEFORE THE CAMERA CAR, IF A TRAFFIC WARDEN SAW SOMEONE BEING DROPPED OFF IN A BUS STOP, OR DROPPING BAGS OFF IN A CHARITY SHOP, HE WOULD USE SOME DISCRETION AND LET THE DRIVER OFF WOULDN’T HE?
PH: Maybe, but a traffic warden wouldn’t have time to issue a ticket in those few seconds because of the time it takes to fill out the form. That does not mean the driver is not commiting an offence. The camera car can record offences which would otherwise be difficult to enforce on foot.
IW: WILL PEOPLE BE ABLE TO PARK OUTSIDE OF SCHOOLS WHEN THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS COME AROUND?
PH: My advice to any driver would be to read the signs. If a sign says Keep Clear Mon-Fri from 8am-5pm, then it doesn’t matter if the school is open or not. It is the same with loading bays, or around double yellow lines. Those signs are there for a reason.
IW: WHAT ABOUT THE YELLOW LINES STILL LEFT OVER FROM THE TALL SHIPS RACES? WILL THE CAMERA CAR GET ME ON THOSE?
PH: As with any double yellow lines, the camera car can only enforce them where a loading ban is in place. Such a ban is indicated by yellow markings on the kerbstone beside the double yellow lines.
IW: IS THIS CAR NOT JUST A WAY OF RAKING IN MONEY FOR THE COUNCIL DURING ALL THE CUTBACKS?
PH: It is not a cash-cow. If it was, then we would have targets and be aiming to fine a certain number of drivers every time the car went out. That is not the case.
IW: SO IF YOU ARE MAKING LOTS OF MONEY, CAN WE EXPECT THE CASH TO BE USED TO SAVE A LIBRARY OR A SERVICE WHICH HAS BEEN AXED RECENTLY?
PH: The money is ring-fenced, and is spent on transport or traffic-related schemes. Income form penalty charges issued by the car and direct by officers is used to finance the running of the service, the car, staffing costs and everything that goes with it but any operational profit stays within the transport and traffic budget.
It has to be remembered that this was all funded by Central Government money, it did not come out of a pot of council cash. It’s a not a case of us reaching a certain target, where we can say “the car has paid for itself now”. That is not the situation.
IW: SO IF IT’S NOT A CASH-COW, THEN WHAT IS THE POINT OF THE CAR?
PH: As we have said from the start, this is to improve road safety. Previous initiatives have not been successful, but the reduction in the number of tickets suggests people are now taking notice. The feedback from schools has been very positive, parents are taking more care where they leave their cars on the school run. The reduction in tickets shows it is having an effect.
IW: HOW DOES THE APPEAL PROCESS WORK?
PH: A person gets the penalty charge notice from us, and has 28 days to pay it or lodge an appeal. If they don’t pay it or let us know they wish to appeal, they will be issued with a Charge Certificate. If there is no response after an additional 14 days, then debt recovery action will start which could culminate in county court action. Each case is judged on its own merits.
IW: WHO HAS THE FINAL SAY OVER APPEALS IF AN AGREEMENT CANNOT BE REACHED?
PH: In the first instance, we look at every picture the camera takes and decide whether or not a contravention has occured. If we are satisfied it has, then a ticket is sent to the registered keeper of the vehicle. Ultimately if the driver chooses to appeal but is not happy with council decision to still enforce the penalty charge, then the vehicle owner can refer the case to the independant adjudicator for consideration. Both the council and the person appealing have to abide by that decision.
IW: SHOULD PEOPLE BE WARNED WHERE THE CAR IS GOING TO BE, LIKE WHERE THERE ARE SIGNS SAYING SPEED TRAPS ARE IN OPERATION?
PH: It is not always practical to provide advance notice of which sites the car will be patrolling, and its probably the uncertainty of where the vehicle may be that is having such an impact on driver compliance. But the car is not a hidden camera to catch people out, it is well signed and the camera signage is clearly visible. There is no legal obligation to sign sites although some of the speeed camera routes are already marked to show camera enforcement is in operation. Everything in the camera car has been legally certified, and approved by the Department of Transport and they are entirely satisfied with the legality of the camera car and how it is being used.
IW: OBVIOUSLY PEOPLE ARE NEVER HAPPY WHEN THEY ARE FINED. WHAT RESPONSE HAVE YOU HAD IN GENERAL?
PH: Criticism was not entirely unexpected. But there have been positives. The feedback from the schools is good, there is noticeable improvement at the gates. There was an issue at first with taxis, but I have been to various meetings with the firms and they now know where they stand with the legislation.
There were a lot of misconceptions at first, perhaps there still are, but hopefully we are starting to make things clear.
Our figures show that 50 per cent of the fines which are issued are paid immediately, that is a lot of people acknowledging they have commited an offence. People are well within their rights to appeal.
I know it’s not popular - I’ve been taken off a few Christmas card lists I would imagine - but it is having the desired impact.