London Congestion Charge: "Thousands are fined by mistake" claims Evening Standard
"Thousands are fined by mistake" screamed the headlines and billboards of the London Evening Standard on Thursday 20th February. Fact.
But let us have a look at what was in the actual front page story:
Thousands of motorists may have been wrongly sent congestion charge fines because of flaws with the scheme's spy vans
Oh, I thought the headline said "Thousands are fined by mistake", not that thousands of motorists "may have been wrongly sent" Congestion Charge fines. And that is 'sent' them, not required to pay them.
The article goes on to assert that the flaws their undercover operation has discovered:
"seem certain to be the cause of a proportion of the 15,000 fines issued for the first two days of the scheme."
Now the London Evening Standard does not specify the exact proportion of the fines, but referring again to their headline that "thousands are fined by mistake", that implies at least 2,000 - or 13% of the 15,000 fines issued, are as result of the flaw exposed in this story.
According to my calculations the only way that could happen would be if every driver who drove into London on Tuesday was different to the drivers who entered on Monday, and the detector vans had a 100% capture rate of the cars that evaded the fixed cameras, and additionally there was a one in four human error factor in looking at the pictures*.
If the Evening Standard is claiming that people's number plates have been mis-read, which is leading to the fines, doesn't that imply that the people driving the 'unidentified' car may have got away with not paying the charge? And shouldn't the Evening Standard be actively campaigning against these people who are getting a free illegal ride through the city at our expense, rather than campaigning for people who will be able to prove that the photographs do not show their car, as let us be honest, what are the chances that a misread number plate will be on the same make, model and colour of car that the wrongly charged person owns?
And more importantly, shouldn't the Evening Standard's front page be based in fact? Read through Thursday 20th February's front page article again, and despite the headline "C-Charge: Thousands are fined by mistake" it does not actually assert that any one fine has been wrong - but it does provide an email and phone number for people to get in touch and back up the story it wasn't able to find evidence of itself.
Luckily civil servant Fitzgerald Johnson contacted the Evening Standard to complain about wrongly being issued a congestion charge penalty. Mr Johnson "paid £10 to cover him for driving in the zone for a month" as he qualifies for a resident discount, and couldn't understand why he recieved the penalty notice:
"All I can imagine is that the computers can't read the numberplates properly"
Now what I can't imagine is why the Evening Standard is persisting in publishing something totally untrue.
Quite rightly if Fitzgerald Johnson paid, it is wrong that he received the penalty. As a resident he doesn't dispute that his car was in the zone. Even if his car wasn't in the zone, and someone else's numberplate was misread as his, he still should not have got a penalty fine because he had paid. Quite clearly there is a failure of the system in either registering payment or matching numberplates to those who have paid. But the one part of the system that is patently working is detecting Fitzgerald Johnson's numberplate. Why would he get the notice if his numberplate hadn't been read?
*the figures given are that 87,000 and 92,000 people paid to drive into london on the Monday and the Tuesday - 179,000 in total. TfL claim 90% accuracy for their fixed camera positions (of which there are 688 in the congestion zone), which the Evening Standard does not dispute in this article. If we assume that on both days totally different sets of drivers ventured into the capital, that would leave the vans with 10% of these cars [17,900 numberplates] to detect. Assuming the vans saw all of them, and that the Evening Standard's claim of a 40% failure rate of recognition is true -
"as many as four in every 10 registration plates were misread"
- that would leave 7,160 number plates that had evaded the fixed cameras, been caught by the vans, and erroneously identified as non-payers. The human process - "all of the images of registration numbers of vehicles entering the zone are manually checked before any notices are issued" (TfL quoted in the same evening standard article) - would then have to fail in 27% of cases to generate the 2,000 penalty notices.