Fine, Costs and Criminal Conviction for Speed Trap Warning Man – Improving Road Safety or an abuse of state power?

Facebook and tabloid newspapers may not seem to be usefully critical focal points for fresh debate over abuses of state powers to ‘enforce’ traffic management, but sometimes they are. A new and in my view nasty twist has just been added to the ongoing debate about whether the use of ‘safety’ camera or ‘speed trap’ kit is really about improving road safety – or an ultimately damaging abuse of Traffic Management Act powers to rake in more cash from private motor vehicle drivers and riders.

Following a link from a Facebook (and real) biking friend – thanks Mark McArthur-Christie, I find that the much disparaged SUN newspaper just published a story about a man who has been convicted of a criminal offence and payed out over £440, because he flashed his headlights to warn road users they were about to enter a police speed trap…

Now I will point out that there are some crucial facts missing from the story in The SUN. e.g. Was the speed trap set on a section of road where many deaths and serious injuries had been caused by drivers or riders exceeding the speed limit? The story was also covered by the Daily Mail, and albeit in a notably different way by the Guardian, and Telegraph who both led with a defence of the CPS. Nevertheless, none of them added any more than The SUN.

But given the fact that it was a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decision to spend taxpayers money to take this case to court, perhaps the most critical question that none of the papers or CPS staff raised is this: Has this type of case has been tried before and if so what happened? And as a quick internet trawl reveals, such a case has been heard, it went to Appeal and a ruling was made by LORD JUSTICE SCOTT BAKER, that when the citizen in question warned fellow road users of a speed trap – he was not guilty of obstructing the police – which is quite rightly a serious criminal offence.

My brief internet trawl also found a site that purports to be a Forum for Police Officers – of whom a number seem critical of the prosecution and it’s inherent expenditure of Police and Court time.

So, yet again,critical questions are raised. What are we doing in Britain by allowing this sort of case to proceed to court? What are we doing using clever bits of kit as speed traps? I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but am not satisfied by most of the official answers. And, ultimately, is this sort of use of police and court time really enhancing the safety of our roads? As ever, I will allow you to decided and comment as you see fit…

Slow Death for High-Speed Rail – Only in America?

I have been so swamped with work recently, mostly in connection with my role as Transport Policy Advisor to MAG, (Motorcycle Action Group) that time to add posts to TC.com has escaped me.

There are however key issues, and in my view some seriously skewed thinking in plans for US transport policy development that run parallel to some that prevail in Britain too – and that I think are worth highlighting here – albeit with  little help from another analyst and commentator.

So without further ado, and with thanks to Randal O’Toole who did most of the fact finding for this review, I will present an account of what’s happening over there – as I think and frankly hope that some of the questions raised should be raised here too.

The bottom line for me here is this: 85% of all passenger movements in Britain are by ‘private’ motor vehicles on roads, and around 65% of all goods on which our lives and economy depends are moved in the same way. Currently, the budget for future expenditure is set at £4bn on UK roads – of which much will be spent on road ‘improvements’ that actually make traffic flow slower and less efficient. Whereas the budget for future spending on UK rail projects is around £19bn…

Anyway, here’s what’s happening over there.

President Obama’s ambitious and expensive high-speed rail plans could well be scuppered following the Tea party victories in November.  Republican governors-elect of both Ohio and Wisconsin have vowed to return federal high-speed rail funds that had been granted to those states.  The governor-elect of Florida is also a rail sceptic, and more and more obstacles are being thrown in front of California’s rail plans, according to Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, who cites these as salient facts.

  • Although California voters approved $9 billion in bonds for the rail project, the approval was conditional on getting matching funds.
  • So far, the state has received only about $2 billion from the federal government, which means it only has about $4 billion to spend on construction — less than 10 percent of the amount needed to build from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
  • Given the improbability of finding the other 90 percent, and the fact that Republicans in Congress hope to take back some of the money that has already been granted for high-speed rail, the California rail project seems all but dead.

The Ohio and Wisconsin projects aren’t even worthy of being called high-speed rail, as Wisconsin’s average speed was projected to be just 59 miles per hour (mph) and Ohio’s an even more lethargic 38.5 mph.

  • The Wisconsin project was going to cost nearly $1 billion, nearly all of which the federal government agreed to fund, while Ohio’s would be more than half a billion, about $400 million of which was expected from federal funds.
  • Secretary of Immobility Transportation Ray LaHood vowed that these lines would be built no matter what the incoming governors said, then said that if they cancelled the projects he would just give the money to other states.

In theory, as I am prone to distinguish between practice, new transportation technologies are successful when they are faster, more convenient and less expensive than the technologies they replace. But the reality of transport policy evolution is of course not quite like that as there is always a political dimension. In simple terms, the bottom line for policy shaping by political leaders is established by a basic, sometimes base and potentially hugely costly principle. Never mind what’s most likely to really improve transport, what is most likely to retain or get more votes and keep my administration in power. And to be fair, this principle applies equally to all party politicians whatever colour they may be.

In practice, in America and in many instances in the UK, High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving and at least five times more expensive than either one.

In fact, developing new high speed rail services is only feasible with huge taxpayer subsidies and even then it will only serve a tiny portion of the nation’s population and our legitimate needs to move people and goods. So, while some might lament the slow death of this way to go, and others would go shouty crackers if plans for such development go down the gurgler, in times when essential services will get cut, I will not be booking a place at the front of the procession of mourners…

Appeal against Westminster Bike Park Tax gets go-ahead from Lord Justice Jackson…. On six out of seven grounds

Lord Justice Jackson has granted leave for an appeal against a High Court ruling that Westminster City Council were entitled to use Traffic Act powers to pioneer a new bike parking tax – in preparation for selling it as a ‘service’ to any UK council in need of a new source of cash. And, although some folk saw it as a victory for WCC and wannabe motorcycle parking taxers, I was convinced it was a hollow one. In fact, from the day of that ruling I’d said it was only a matter of time till the extremely odd conclusions in it were called into question – because in my view they were deeply flawed. It’s been a long three months since then though, so it is now a huge relief to know that the questioning can start in earnest.

The reason this decision and forthcoming appeal is so critical is that it provides an intriguingly unique opportunity to probe the extent to which UK Traffic Act powers can be used to introduce a new charging scheme, even though it has no demonstrable or even plausible traffic management benefit. In essence, the ‘trial version of the scheme proved that the income from the new charges exceeded all costs by over £500,000 in the first few months. ­This clearly shows the scheme creates a significant revenue which is against Local Government Act legislation on various counts.

The decision to grant leave to appeal against High Court ruling by Lord Justice Pitchford was made by The Rt Hon. Lord Justice Jackson who has raised concern about rising legal costs limiting access to justice by ordinary people, and who was recently quoted by the Law Society Gazette as saying:

“Access to Justice entails that those with meritorious claims are able to bring those claims before the courts for judicial resolution or post-issue settlement, as the case may be.”

On hearing news of the decision I called Philip Coppel QC, the Barrister who I had discussed key aspects of the case with and in some depth prior to him submitting the request for an appeal. Due to an odd quirk of circumstances he hadn’t yet heard the news before I rang. His initial delight was however increased when I read out the Order from the Judge that said: “Permission to appeal is granted on grounds 1 to 6,”. The extent of his initial positive reaction was however eclipsed when I read out a note at the bottom of the Appeal Court Order. This explained that although an appeal on ground 7 was refused at this stage, it went on to say that if the appellant makes a renewed application on that ground, “this should be dealt with by the full court at the hearing of the appeal.”

Put simply, what this means effectively is that every one of the grounds for appeal against the first High Court judgement has been accepted as a good reason for re-examining the entire first ruling, AND thereby opening several doors through which the whole twisted caboodle can be chucked out. In my view, the sole purpose for the new motorcycle parking scheme in question is to raise revenue.

To put this in to context, having leave to appeal on one ground alone is jolly good news as the rules for doing so are simple. The Court of Appeal can only grant permission to review and potentially quash a judgement if it thinks the appeal would have “a real prospect of success”, or there is “some other compelling reason why the appeal should be heard.”

As it happened, I ended the day I heard this news on the 18th floor of Westminster City Hall. There, for my sins, I was attending the first meeting of the Council’s Road User Forum as the Transport Policy Advisor for MAG. And so it came to pass that I was able to tell its chairman, Cllr Lee Rowley and known associate officer Kieran Fitzall, that despite the council’s best efforts to get an appeal against the High Court decision rejected, permission had been granted for it to go-ahead…

Transport Minister Challenged! End of the £140m road for Cycling England…?

I got excited news from a prolific writer about train and bicycle stuff this morning. It came from Christian Wolmar right, who is self-styled as ‘Britain’s leading transport commentator’. We’ve met on various occasions and although I haven’t always agreed with him, I’ve often found his passionately expressed views interesting – and that he is generally quite an an affable chap.

But now he has written an “angry” open letter to Norman Baker, Lib Dem MP left, who is our new Transport Minister responsible for Regional and Local Transport…

It turns out that dear old Wolmar has got his knickers well twisted by rumours that a £140m fund to run a body he is director of, at a cost to the taxpayer that began at £5m and increased to £60m per year, is about to get the chop. The body concerned is called Cycling England and Wolmar asks Norman some searching questions. These include:

What is Norman Baker for? What is the point of you being in the Department of Transport? Then, with no more beating about the bush, our new minister is asked this.

“Are you a fig-leaf for the most reactionary policies to come out of the Marsham Street since the days of Nicholas Ridley?”

Cripes! I thought. That’s quite a question to ask a guy who, whatever you may think of him, at least had the guts to voice serious concerns over the exceptionally odd death of Dr David Kelly – who may have known far too much for his own good about the weapons of mass destruction that ‘justified’ the Iraq war – but weren’t actually there. Anyway, Wolmar also tells Norman that Cycling England is facing the axe “for the crime of being a quango – when it could quite easily not be one”.

In response to all this excitement and rumours of funding cuts, the bicycle industry has quite understandably “raised its voice” in support of Cycling England. But whatever the rights and wrongs of all this may be it is set in a tough situation in Britain where spending cuts amounting to £6.2bn need to be made with £683m to be hacked from the Transport Ministers’ budget.

Now I remember passing the good old cycling proficiency test and would love to see it continue to help youngsters learn how to ride a bicycle safely. But I am left with a number of puzzling questions. First, do we really need to spend £60m of public funds per year to do so? Secondly, is an angry letter from the nations’ ‘leading transport commentator’ likely to encourage a Transport Minister to keep a body like Cycling England safe from the budget slasher’s knife?

To be honest, I have no idea what the answer to the first question is but it does seem odd that the costs of running the quango that runs a proficiency test should grow from £5m to £60m in two or three years.

As to the second question, I will leave you to decide for yourself. But I offer a couple of illustrations to show how wide the gap can be between the opinions of prominent figures who comment about cycling. There can be no doubt that Bojo, London’s larger-than-life Conservative Mayor is a great fan of bicycling. But his fellow Tory peer, Lady Sharples is right at the top of the premier league of Baroness bicycle bashers.

Now, whatever comes of this challenge to save Cycling England and all the worthy work it does, there is one for for sure. There is no need to worry about saving  the future of a government funded body that gets £60m a year to do similar worthy work to promote the training and testing of scooter or motorbike riders. And that’s for the simple reason that such a body is a bit like Blair’s WMD in Iraq, it does not exist.

Nevertheless, concerned as I am about such iniquities, I am not a bicycle basher like the Tory baroness – or in anyway anti-cyclist. Actually, in my humble opinion, cyclists and riders of of motorbikes or scooters have two key things in common. First, we ride single track machines on roads and help cut congestion like no twin tracked vehicles can. And secondly, all single-track machine riders are vulnerable to attack by people in or out of big tin boxes with wheels on – and we deserve as much help and protection as we can get. But going back to dear old Wolmar’s angry letter, I have to say that it never ceases to amaze me how much some fans of cycling will demand – even in times when everyone is facing cuts.

Protesters against a new motorcycle parking tax take their case against Westminster City Council to the High Court, but will justice be done and seen to be done?

I have been watching events at close quarters as Westminster Council try to roll out a new parking tax for scooter and motorcycle riders. One way or another this saga could well become a turning point in the way that Traffic Act legislation is used in Britain as a cover for local authorities to tax motorised use of public highways. As it happens, I’ve also been doing what I can to guide all concerned towards a truly sustainable solution to the massive problems this regressive scheme has caused.

Recently this involved me being at the High Court for two days while the NTBPT case against the scheme was being considered. The case included a large amount of written evidence from both sides and an extensive witness statement from me as an independent Motorcycling Policy expert. I give my account of the proceedings below but first of all I set out what I think should happen next.

In my opinion, there is only one solution to the current mess that Westminster have got themselves into that is truly sustainable on all relevant levels, and it is simple. They should take steps to withdraw this totally unnecessary and unjustified tax and bin all plans to roll out such schemes to create a new nationwide revenue stream for local authorities. (For more details of this issue go to Crossroadsrider.com)

The bottom line for me is that the council have not made any plausible case to justify the scheme as a traffic management measure. What their ‘reasons’ for the scheme amount to is a misuse of Traffic Management Act legislation and spurious references to a need for new charges to ‘manage demand’ for parking scooters and motorcycles on parts of the public highway that have already been established for that purpose.  Fortunately in my view there is a golden opportunity to make real progress towards a really sustainable solution.

As I have already suggested to Cllr Lee Rowley, the new guy in charge of the scheme in Westminster, he needs to take a golden opportunity presented by his current review of the whole saga and tell his colleagues that there are a great deal more disbenifits arising from trying to keep it in place in credit crunched Britain than benefits. He expressed enthusiasm for having a second meeting with me last time we spoke which I hope will happen soon.

In the meantime here is my summary of the NTBPT claim against Westminster City Council’s bike parking tax scheme. In essence the claim is that the Traffic Orders for the permanent scheme issued in Jan 2010, were not made according to all relevant regulations and that therefore the scheme is illegal and must be scraped.

And this is my take on how the hearing went…

There is no doubt that the authorities are taking this case extremely seriously as it was heard not by one judge, but two, including one of high seniority, Lord Justice, Sir John Pitchford.

During the first day he actually told the claimant’s barrister with a smile that he might be “pushing at an open door”. During the morning of day two, the NTBPT barrister made a series of well made points that caused the Westminster team to quite literally hold their heads in gloom. However, during the afternoon, the WCC defence barrister made a series of loose points and claims that the judges said were “unsubstantiated”. At one stage the proceedings took on an almost farcical tone as the Judges tried to get a clear idea of what the Western extension of the Congestion Charging zone was – and if it had anything to do with the case. Then, worryingly for all concerned with the claim, it seemed that the input from the defence was mostly accepted by the judges as a legitimate contribution to considering the pros and cons of the case. It seemed to me that the defence were being allowed to waffle about more or less anything without being held to account by the Judges on whether Westminster Council had really done what was legally required to justify making the scheme permanent. The simple two part question that was never asked of the council was this: What exactly is the problem you are saying you ‘need’ a new charging scheme to solve – and where is your evidence that you can’t address that problem fully with the immense amount of powers you already have to control parking of all vehicles on every inch of highway space under your management?

Obviously that did not bode well for a ruling against the new orders for the scheme…

In summarising where we ended up, I would suggest that it is impossible to say what the ruling will be, as there was so much written evidence that was only referred to briefly in the court. But although I still have some hope for a ruling in favour of the claim, there is a tremendous amount at stake here which the Judges revealed they were aware of. So, I have to strongly advise caution about assuming that just because the council did not really justify their new tax to the court, that the court will tell them to scrap it.

As far as I’m concerned some good points were scored for the claimants, but the NTBPT barrister may have put too much emphasis on a string of legal points drawn from previous cases than clearly spelling out the fundamental key points of the case against Westminster – even though the judges asked him to do just that on two or three occasions throughout the hearing.

So, here is my view of what the case is really about: The WCC Traffic Orders in question for the permanent scheme, made in Jan 2010, say that the main ‘reason’ to impose a new bike parking charge for on-street bays is a “need to manage demand for kerbside space” the key arguments against the scheme in my opinion are these:

1. WCC already had all the powers it needed to ‘manage’ and control parking of all vehicles, including motorcycles but without the new charging scheme.

2. The council has not made any case at all to justify an extension of their existing parking control powers, or produced a shred of evidence to support their waffled claim that charging bikes to park in existing on-street bays will make anything better.

3. The key reason that WCC gave for charging during the ‘trial’ scheme was to pay for better bike parking facilities, but that was dropped when it came to making the Traffic Orders to make the scheme permanent because as a matter of fact, all on-street motorcycle parking facilities in the form of bays and security devices that are subject to charging under the NEW orders made in January 2010, were all in place and paid for BEFORE the new orders were made.

4. No case has been made to show or evidence produced to prove that the imposition of a new charge for parking in on-street M/C parking bays has any impact whatsoever on WCC’s ability to manage demand for it.

5. The only truly plausible motive and reason for the new charges that Westminster have admitted to is a desire to use surplus revenue from the new scheme to address a fall in revenue from car parking.

The judges have said it may take them up to two weeks to reach a decision and issue a ruling so roll on July 9th…