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Parking scan cars boost revenue for towns, but 15% of fines are unjustified
Number plate-scanning cars are the latest parking control tool – generating increased parking fine revenue for many municipalities – but they are leading to thousands of unjustified fines being issued in error, a new investigation has revealed.
With cameras on its roof and a computer on board, the Scan Car can methodically monitor up to 1,200 vehicles per hour. Ideally this enhanced level of control will lead to the desired rotation of parking space use. Francophone broadcaster RTBF decided to investigate and find out how this is working out.
First, RTBF contacted seven municipalities in which Scan Cars have been used: the City of Brussels, Ixelles, Schaerbeek, Uccle, Charleroi, Liège and La Louvière. It asked them to reveal the revenue from parking fines before and after the Scan Cars were deployed.
Only two municipalities provided complete data: Ixelles (whose parking is managed by the public entity parking.brussels) and La Louvière (whose parking is managed by the private company City Parking).
The Régie Communale Autonome, an entity responsible for parking in Charleroi, where the Scan Car has been running since 2017, reported that parking revenues were "around €1.5 million for 2020" but didn’t provide any before and after comparisons.
The other municipalities evaded the question, answered in an incomplete manner, or did not bother to respond.
However, the figures provided by Ixelles and La Louvière show that the arrival of the Scan Car coincided with a marked increase in parking revenues. In Ixelles for instance, 2017 and 2018 each generated €5 million. But in 2019, which from 1 April included Scan Car use, the revenues totalled €9 million.
Despite these figures, according to the municipalities, the use of the Scan Car is not primarily about profit. "There is a need to regulate parking, in order to ensure a rotation," said William Leroy, mobility manager at La Louvière. So the Scan Car is a way to “increase the number of parking spaces and promote the attractiveness of the city center”.
However there are problems; the Scan Car was deployed before being fully vetted and made errors in between 20 and 25% of cases, RTBF reports. In other words out of 100 vehicles that the Scan Car points out as being in violation, 20 to 25 are in fact correctly parked.
Parking.brussels spokesman Pierre Vassart admitted that the launch conditions were not ideal. “There was no expertise available for this technology, and to master it you just had to dive in. There is no other choice but to learn on the job.”
To counter this very high error rate, a “Desk Force” was put in place. It is made up of people who analyse the photos taken by the Scan Car and thus correct the errors, before the parking tickets are sent. But since the Scan Car "takes five or six photos per vehicle, the Desk Force officers find themselves having to check some 100 photos per hour, a pace that can lead to errors.
The unreliability of the Scan Car on the one hand and the excessively fast pace of checks on the other means that many errors are not seen in time and thousands of residents in the Brussels region have paid totally unjustified fees. For parking.brussels, this translates into "endless protests" with one former employee recalling "5,000 to 6,000 protest emails" that couldn’t be processed on time.
To counter this problem, the fines for April, May and June 2019 will be cancelled but only for those people who request a reimbursement, according to internal memos that the RTBF obtained.
The Scan Car is more reliable today but is still in error 15% of the time as opposed to a 3% rate of error for parking foot patrol agents. And there is a separate major problem with Scan Car enforcement. This electronic parking control does not recognise disabled badges, so people with reduced mobility (PRM) are being fined while legally parked. La Clé, a Brussels-based non-profit organisation for deaf children and adolescents receives multiple fines weekly.
The organisation’s director, Isabelle Van Cutsem, has mastered an unwelcome routine that she has to perform three to five times a week. She crosses out with a large cross the sum she is supposed to pay, adds in pencil and in capital letters the words "PRM CARD" at the top of the fee and attaches a photocopy of the PRM card in question. Coming up with a solution such as an electronic PRM card will take time - they would need to be determined at a European level.
Some municipalities, such as Etterbeek, have chosen to do without the Scan Car "so as not to discriminate against people with reduced mobility", said mayor Vincent De Wolf. In La Louvière, the use of the Scan Car was validated but only "accompanied by a human check for each vehicle in violation,” said Nancy Castillo, alderwoman for mobility for whom the Scan Car "reversed the burden of proof". For her, it was out of the question to ask "people who have a PRM card to justify themselves every time." The double check only lasted two months in La Louvière, where the Scan Car is no longer running.