Stuck in traffic? Nipping into the bus lane is likely to cost you, says Robert Verkaik

Your car has just joined a three-lane queue of traffic that is slowly snaking its way through the town. There is a fourth lane, which, apart from a couple of pigeons oblivious to the human misery of a London logjam, is completely empty.

There's not a traffic warden in sight and the temptation is just too great. A shift into reverse, a turn of the wheel and you are clean away. Last year 835,454 London drivers succumbed to the allure of an open bus lane and paid a very high price indeed - £84m in fines.

This is an increase of 10 per cent from the year before and demonstrates that councils have woken up to the huge revenues to be made from adopting a zero-tolerance policy for bus-lane violations. The most effective enforcers were the traffic wardens of Lambeth with 65,907 charges, compared with 60,770 the previous-year. Second was Ealing with 63,967 (54,519), third was Islington with 58,377 (25,286) and fourth was Haringey with 54,659 (42,591). But overall Transport for London (TfL) issued the most fines, according to figures from the Association of London Government (ALG).

The growth in bus-lane fines can be attributed to the proliferation of CCTV cameras that transport policy makers now recognise as a convenient and cost-effective method of bringing in revenue. Yet every day thousands of miles of British bus lanes seem to stand idly by in deliberate provocation of the motoring public.

Now, drivers are beginning to question the wisdom of a policy that puts profitability over smooth traffic flow by enforcing mandatory bus lanes to operate 24 hours a day. One motorist was so infuriated by his borough's inflexible application of the law that he asked Hackney Council to explain its policy for imposing fines for cases where vehicles have only strayed into the bus lane. The council declined to give him a reason and so the motorist made a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

The council again refused to make known its policy. But last month the Information Commissioner, the FOI watchdog, ruled against Hackney and the council agreed to disclose the relevant documents. What emerged should be of interest to all urban motorists. The code of practice of CCTV operation in Hackney states: "The (CCTV) operator's observation of the contravention is the primary evidence of a contravention. The issued penalty charge notice is the enforcing authority's declaration that a clear and indisputable contravention has been observed."

This suggests a fine can only be imposed if it can be shown the driver has fully crossed into the restricted bus zone. According to the code the case should be "indisputable". A partial breach or forced violation, for example if pulling over for an ambulance, may not constitute an offence.

This should provide motorists with a useful line of argument when they decide to appeal their bus-lane fine and particularly drivers living in Haringey. According to another report, last year one camera was responsible for 20,953 motorists being fined £100 after being captured on film at Broad Lane, Haringey. It's no surprise that Broad Lane is the most lucrative TfL bus lane camera in the capital.

Haringey offers motorists who want to contest the fine the chance to make an appointment to view the video of the contravention. Those who take them up on this offer will have their case put on hold and will still be able to benefit from the 50 per cent reduction for paying the fine within 14 days.

The five grounds for bringing an appeal are: "I bought the vehicle after the date of the contravention; I have never owned the vehicle; the contravention did not occur; the contravention has already been dealt with by police/traffic warden/parking attendant."

But be warned. There are more CCTV cameras per capita in Britain than in any country in the world, which means that Britons are the most closely watched people on earth. If you are going to challenge a bus lane fine you had better be sure of your case.

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