The Government’s “bonfire of the traffic signs” risks turning into a flood of litigation as drivers appeal against parking and speeding fines on the grounds of insufficient signage, writes Joe Dunn.
The warning comes in the wake of new powers given to councils aimed at decluttering Britain’s roads, which come into effect today.
Under the new system, councils have the power to remove signs they deem unnecessary, including those indicating residents’ parking spaces as well as speed limit repeater signs, which appear on many of the country’s roads.
The Government claims the move will reduce “pointless” road signs and is a key part of its drive to deregulate the transport network. It will also save councils an estimated £30 million over the next four years in upkeep costs.
Motoring experts, however, claim that the changes are a “mess” and may result in drivers being unfairly penalised. They say many will be within their rights to appeal against speeding fines and parking penalty charges issued on roads where signs have been removed, and that courts will be more likely to find in their favour.
The confusion has echoes of the Government’s previous attempts at deregulating transport policy when it abolished the tax disc last year and axed the paper counterpart driving licence. Both moves quickly turned to farce as thousands of drivers found themselves clamped after forgetting to renew their tax without the visual reminder in their windscreen, while holidaymakers found they couldn’t hire cars without their paper counterpart licence.
The new powers, contained in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD), were unveiled last week and came into effect yesterday. However, when designing roads and signs, many councils rely on guidelines laid out in a 187-page document called the Traffic Signs Manual, or TSM. It specifies how and where signs should be displayed: on a 50mph road, for example, repeater signs, used to remind drivers of the prevailing limit, should be spaced a maximum of 450 metres (1,476ft) apart. On a 40mph road the distance should be no more than 350 metres (1,148ft). Signs indicating parking restrictions are recommended to be placed 30 metres (98ft) apart.
The guidelines can also be used by courts and parking appeal panels to help decide whether a driver was guilty of an offence in cases where the driver claims there was insufficient signage.
Critics point out that these guidelines have not been updated in anticipation of the changes contained in the new regulations, and that no guidance on the new rules has been issued to councils. They say the oversight means that in cases in which councils have removed speed limit repeater signs or parking restriction signs in line with government recommendations, courts and parking appeal panels are more likely to find in the driver’s favour.
Simon Morgan, of the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE), who represented the body during the Government’s consultation process on the new law, said the IHE was broadly in favour of reducing roadside clutter but that important issues had not been thought through. He said: “Until more guidance is available on using the new [sign removal] options, many authorities are uncertain how parking adjudicators and the courts will handle any problems of public understanding.
“Reducing clutter is an admirable objective, but for it to work there needs to be information for road users to help them understand a regime of fewer signs.”
Legal experts say the new rules could open the floodgates to drivers appealing against speeding tickets. Nick Freeman, the lawyer known as “Mr Loophole” after defending celebrities such as David Beckham and Jeremy Clarkson in speeding cases, said: “Insufficient signage is a very strong defence and courts look favourably on it. It is a legal requirement that the signs are clear and it is made obvious to the driver what the speed limit is.
“Each case would be judged on its merits, but in cases where the driver is genuinely unaware of the limit because the signs weren’t there, or had been removed, I would expect a positive outcome.”
Inadequate signage is already a common reason for which to appeal against and penalty charges. The Traffic Penalty Tribunal, which hears appeals against penalties for parking, bus lane and moving traffic contraventions in England and Wales outside London, says that in 2015 about 2,000 drivers who appealed (about 10 per cent) their parking charge used the “insufficient signage” defence – of which approximately half were successful.
Caroline Shepherd, chief adjudicator at the Traffic Penalty Tribunal, said: “It may be the case that residents know that a road is restricted to permit holders and they may feel signs clutter the street. But the restrictions should be clear to visitors or strangers, too. We will have to wait and see what effect the new rules have.
“It may well be that in its early days, if a motorist feels the signing isn’t clear the council will accept that and explain it is still working out how to use signage and will not enforce the fine. If it does decide to enforce, it will be up to the adjudicators to decide on a case-by-case basis.”
The Department for Transport defended the changes, saying a new TSM was in the process of being drawn up and further guidance was being issued. A spokesman said: “Councils are still required to put in place signs where restrictions are in force to ensure that motorists are properly informed, and they can continue to refer to the current Traffic Signs Manual.”
For all the latest news, advice and reviews from Telegraph Cars, sign up to our weekly newsletter by entering your email here