Sydney Morning Herald - Tuesday 12 July, 2005

Meter Madness

By Andrew Clark

Too late an inspector issues a ticket at Bondi Beach. Waverley Council rakes in $5 million a year from parking fines.
Photo: Bob Pearce

Traffic fines are proving a lucrative money-spinner for councils and driving motorists crazy, reports Andrew Clark.

THEY are the grey ghosts, the brown bombers, the meter zealots guaranteed to send a shudder down the spine of Sydney's motorists. The Jedi knights of local government, parking officers, are on the prowl.

Mid-morning on a weekday, once the rush hour has become a memory, it can be tempting to pull over and nip into a shop for a latte or a newspaper. Drivers do so at their peril, for a ranger may well be lurking in the shadows.

It has never been riskier to gamble on illegal parking: the City of Sydney has 125 dedicated parking enforcement officers in the centre of the city, plus 20 ordnance inspectors charged with wider responsibilities. The city council rakes in a reported $20 million in fines every year.

Other councils such as Waverley and Parramatta are just as tough. However, it takes something of a legal eagle to work out how much a simple infringement is going to cost. The Roads and Traffic Authority's latest list of penalties, which came into force this month, has 115 offences for parking. A further 20 pages of closely typed tables list 1500 "general driving offences".

The Pedestrian Council of Australia's chairman, Harold Scruby, believes the rules are riddled with inconsistencies. "They're a joke," he says. "Offences which are most likely to endanger the community should carry higher penalties - but they don't."

The relative severity of punishments is, in many cases, intriguing. Insensitive Sydney drivers who disrupt funeral processions are liable to a fine of $75. The same amount can be levied upon those who recklessly abuse a crimson warning light on a vehicle. These infringements are judged more serious than riding an unlicensed toy vehicle attached to a motor car, which will only cost $50. However, woe betide the motorist who splashes mud on a bus passenger: such anti-social behaviour is judged worthy of a $125 payout.

Among everyday offences, stopping a car in the middle of Sydney Harbour Bridge, blocking a lane of traffic and causing havoc to the rush-hour, carries a fine of $175 for obstruction. But a sneaky bit of trickery such as altering the time on a parking ticket will cost a far more painful $375.

Scruby says: "We've got an upstairs, downstairs attitude towards driving offences." Driving in a bus lane, for example, will bring a $225 fine and three demerit points, but stopping and parking all day in a bus lane costs only $175, with no demerit points.

While other states allow for multiple infringements, NSW enforcement officers are discouraged from slapping several tickets on a single car. So a motorist can remain illegally parked all day for just $75. It is almost tempting to park in a restricted zone for 12 hours in central Sydney rather than pay up to $52 at a car park in the CBD.

Illustration:Stephen Clark

The anomalies are all the more peculiar because the RTA has just reviewed its fines to iron out inconsistencies such as the lack of demerit points, until this month, for stopping in pedestrian zones.

Asked about the basis on which the various fines were pitched, the RTA provided a statement saying the prices were linked to the "road safety implications" of offences. A spokeswoman said she could not comment in any more detail, although the statement continued: "The review was carried out by a working group comprising representatives of the NRMA, police, Pedestrian Council and the RTA. The review also included two rounds of public consultation.

"One of the main recommendations of the review was to address the inconsistencies of the fine levels that existed throughout the 48 categories."

NEAR the top of the list of lucrative spots for parking officers is Campbell Parade on Bondi Beach. On a damp winter afternoon last week, barely a few dozen surfers were braving the choppy ocean. But the kerbside action on the promenade was in full swing.

Even on an out-of-season weekday, the turnover of cars at Bondi is frenetic. As soon as a precious parking bay becomes free, it is filled by another sedan, four-wheel-drive or sports car.

In most Bondi parking bays, cars can stop only for an hour and the high-tech Reino meters count down their remaining allowance to the second. Errant motorists who outstay their welcome get slapped with a $75 fine. Jason McCastle, a visitor from Queensland parking his Honda, was unimpressed: "I wouldn't exactly call $3 an hour good value but there's no such thing as free parking any more, is there?"

Waverley Council, which is responsible for parking at Bondi, rakes in $5 million a year from parking fines, which is close to 10 per cent of the council's overall income.

The United Services Union, which represents parking officers, says other money-spinning spots include Norton Street in Leichhardt and a handful of congested roads in the CBD.

Critics say councils are becoming too addicted to the proceeds. If enforcement is working properly as a deterrent, they argue, then the proceeds should decline rather than increase.

The union's Mark McLeay says attitudes vary widely across the metropolitan area. Ashfield, for example, has only two dedicated parking officers. And with Marrickville and North Sydney, it generally takes a more educative view of parking.

But elsewhere, McLeay says, fines have become a crucial element of council budgets and are milked as a way to keep taxes down. "A number of places budget on a certain amount of revenue being raised and they rely on that revenue to provide essential services."

In the city, rangers have complained their performance is scrutinised at salary reviews if they fall consistently short of issuing 20 tickets a day.

A zero-tolerance attitude is not always healthy for rangers: a 38-year-old motorist was charged after he chased and ran down a North Sydney parking inspector who had ticketed his four-wheel-drive vehicle in February.

One former parking officer, who asked for anonymity, says assaults are becoming common: "In the city, I'd say there's an average of one minor assault a week - that's when somebody gets pushed, or spat at. There might be a more serious assault once a month."

Although the city insists it operates no formal quota system dictating how many tickets should be issued by its rangers, the former officer says those who issued more tended to be smiled upon in performance reviews. "When I was there, if you brought in only 15 tickets a day, you were performance managed. If you brought in 25 a day, you could turn up for work 10 minutes late, write what you wanted on your reports and wear what you felt like."

THE range of offences is remarkable: stopping near a postbox brings a $75 penalty. Leaving a car unattended with the keys in the ignition will set you back $75. Using an indicator light unlawfully costs $125. Honking a horn unnecessarily costs $225 - as does travelling "in or upon the boot of a motor vehicle".

Even taxi drivers are under the cosh. Tracey Cain, of the NSW Taxi Council, complains that the diminishing amount of street space where cabs can drop off legally means that drivers are constantly vulnerable to fines.

"Taxi drivers' problem is that a passenger will just say 'drop me off here'. If it's not a legal drop-off point, they've got a choice of risking a fine or risking the passenger calling in to complain that they've been taken round the block," she says.

So what is the solution to the problem of "fine creep"? The Pedestrian Council says fines should be graduated closely according to the level of danger afforded to passers-by.

The NRMA says inconvenience should be the key measure. Its policy adviser, John Brown, says every right-minded motorist supports sensible enforcement of parking and of similar motoring regulations. "Illegal parking that creates frustration and inconvenience to other motorists should be policed. Highly visible parking officers act as a deterrent and as a reminder to the public," he says.

However, he says fines must be "reasonable" and that parking officers should be encouraged to use common sense. "If there was such a thing as a quota system of tickets for each officer, that would certainly concern us."

There are a few strategies worth bearing in mind to minimise the risk of a ticket on the windscreen. A newspaper reported last year that Sydney parking officers - who, naturally, are only human - are much more enthusiastic about their work in moderate weather. Heavy rains or hot summer days are likely to send them scuttling into the shadows, issuing up to 45 per cent fewer penalties.

So if you want to disrupt a funeral procession, tow a toy vehicle or splash a bus passenger, you are taking an irresponsible risk which cannot possibly be condoned. It might, however, be prudent to choose a sweltering day to park illegally on Bondi's Campbell Parade.


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