Local authorities need to stop punitive treatment of motorists confused by complex road systems - Jayne Dowle

If you’ve ever driven through an unfamiliar town or city, you’ll have sympathy with Zachary Dean, from Scotland, who has vowed never to visit Sheffield again after being landed with a penalty charge notice for driving through the new Arundel Gate bus gate.

Mr Dean, who has complained to Sheffield City Council on the grounds that signage is not clear, has even lived in the city in the past and thought he knew Sheffield’s roads well.

It’s easy to understand his frustration. I travel regularly around our region and often spend the journey home wondering if I’ve accidentally managed to breach some local rule relating to one-way streets, bus lanes/gates, or zones which suddenly forbid vehicles of a certain kind.

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This happens even in cities I’m familiar with, including Leeds, which finds fresh ways to boggle my motoring mind every time I visit.

An information sign for the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) on Brownhill Road in Lewisham, south London. PIC: Yui Mok/PA WireAn information sign for the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) on Brownhill Road in Lewisham, south London. PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire
An information sign for the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) on Brownhill Road in Lewisham, south London. PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Even if I’ve convinced myself that I’ve not committed any ‘offence’ I still keep a wary eye on the letterbox, convinced I’ve made a mistake somewhere along the road and that financial retribution will follow.

If the government wants to know why so many British people – one in five of us - admit to feeling anxious most or all of the time, according to research by the Mental Health Foundation, they might want to factor in increasingly draconian laws putting ever more pressure on those of us who drive.

The vast majority of motorists are law-abiding, but should we err, we’re captured by the cold and unforgiving eye of ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras which snap vehicle registrations.

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Why don’t local authorities allow a policy of forgiveness for a first offence? This would support those making a genuine mistake. I recall the relief some years ago when I forgot to pay to drive through the Dartford Tunnel in Kent when visiting family. I got a penalty notice.

But there was kindness, not condemnation when I rang up the helpline to sort it out. Finding the funds to pay a penalty when your household budget is already straining at the seams could tip many people over the edge.

Mr Dean has written to Sheffield City Council and asked if the parking charge notice can be reviewed and the penalty reversed, calling for clearer signage at Arundel Gate.

In response to his complaint, Coun Ben Miskell, chair of the Transport, Regeneration and Climate Policy Committee, said: “Bus gates are an important way of ensuring that public transport is given priority over general traffic in busy cities to improve journey time reliability and reduce delay for bus users.

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“They also assist in reducing pollution levels from traffic in highly-polluted areas, improve road safety and more.”

Interestingly, I note, Sheffield City Council sees fit to loop together ‘Transport, Regeneration and Climate Policy’.

In other words, in the interests of clean air, cars are not welcome in Sheffield city centre, even if their drivers happen to be disabled – as Mr Dean is – and rely on being able to drive or to be driven to get around safely.

No wonder there was an outcry of more than 800 complaints from locals when the bus gate was put in place in March. Residents said there would be an adverse effect on businesses and that levels of pollution would remain as drivers will take longer routes to get to their desired locations.

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But Sheffield is by no means alone in this disconnect between council policy and the practical concerns of local people. We have seen this with London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s blanket expansion of the ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) across suburbs of the capital, imposing a daily charge of £12.50 on all vehicles which fail to meet ULEZ emissions standards, inflicting yet more financial misery on hard-working people already suffering under the cost of living crisis.

And it is getting worse. Drivers received an estimated £2.61bn of parking and traffic fines in the last financial year (2021-22) following a record 12 months that saw 32.17 million requests made for vehicle-keeper details from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, according to research by motoring website Carwow.

The 2022/23 financial year is likely to see those numbers rise even further based on results for the first quarter, with a projected £2.91bn worth of penalties set to be issued.

The Arundel Gate bus gate is being implemented through an Experimental Traffic Regulation Order (ETRO) and will run for up to 18 months before a decision is made whether the bus gate may be retained permanently. Whether it stays or not, the message is clear.