Car Wars: Time runs out for drivers who fiddle meters: Oliver Gillie reports on technological advances that will make life difficult for motorists in search of a free parking place

NEW 'tamper proof ' parking meters which register when they are out of order are increasing the number of spaces available to shoppers and traders visiting an area for just one or two hours.

The new meters enable much stricter enforcement of parking restrictions. Motorists who used to get a whole day's free parking by disabling a meter with a piece of metal from a beer can or some other object are now having to pay the full price of parking.

The meters, which have an electronic mechanism with no moving parts, were introduced in the City of London two years ago, but now they are being adopted in various parts of the country after experiments in Westminster, Islington and elsewhere. When the electronic meters are tampered with they register out of order on a small screen and then parking in that bay is illegal, according to new regulations.

Jim Vaughan, parking manager in Islington, said: 'Since these meters have been introduced we have a 20 per cent vacancy in our meter bays on average - so people can get a parking space when they want it. Before they were introduced we had a 96 per cent occupancy of meter bays. Many were purposely jammed because drivers wanted free parking.'

Now the only hope of free parking in one of these bays is to cut off the head of the meter - which, like jamming the meter, is a criminal offence. Following the film, Cool Hand Luke, which featured Paul Newman slicing the heads off meters, this crime has had a certain vogue. And in some areas where meters take pounds 1 coins it is possible to get more than pounds 100 from a meter if it has not been emptied recently.

Hundreds of meters have been vandalised in this way in Bristol and London, particularly Islington and Camden in north London. However, the takings must often be disappointing.

'Police at Tolpuddle Street Station in the East End observed three men cutting the heads off meters,' Mr Vaughan said. 'The men were caught and seven meter heads were returned to us. We found only pounds 82 in them altogether. So it isn't a very profitable crime.'

Local authorities are now taking extraordinary measures to prevent the wave of meter busting. They are replacing soft alloy meter heads with cast-iron heads and are welding steel rods on to the stalks to prevent the use of ring cutters to 'top' the meters. The stalks themselves are attached to a piece of concrete weighing three quarters of a hundredweight (84lb) and are sunk 18 inches into the ground.

Even so, the high cost of replacing vandalised meters is causing a shift towards pay and display machines. But pay and display machines, which may contain pounds 1,000 or more, are vulnerable to ram-rod raiders. Dozens have been attacked in London.

The thinking motorist who is lucky enough to find a headless meter may consider this question - if the stalk did possess a head would it be an electronic one, which indicated that it was out of order? And is a decapitated meter, which is intended to be electronic, out of order, or merely absent?

Similar questions have occupied philosophers for centuries but fortunately this seems to be one parking problem which has been settled in a pragmatic way. 'If the head is missing it can't be out of order because it's not there,' Mr Vaughan said. 'But we are obliged to replace the head as quickly as possible and when we replace the head we put the maximum time possible on the meter.'

This means that people who leave their cars all day at a headless meter risk getting a ticket. Even though the meter head with its instructions are absent, motorists are still apparently subject to regulations written on it, which specify a maximum time for parking. But this is a grey area - the law is enforced by magistrates and the outcome of a case may be as much a result of local custom and practice as it is of the law in a strict sense.

The police can always fall back on the catch-all clause which allows the owner of a car to be penalised for causing an obstruction. And an obstruction is an obstruction when the police say it is. But enforcement of parking controls at meters, in public car parks and on side streets will, in 1993 or 1994, be undertaken by local authorities.

'When we have full enforcement powers we will be able to bring in our own policies,' Mr Vaughan said. 'In future, we may sometimes put a warning note on the windscreen instead of a ticket - when, for example, someone parks incorrectly over the end of the bay.'

(Photograph omitted)