A parking error affecting more than 1200 motorists in Melbourne came down to the fact that the number zero and capital letter O are “virtually indistinguishable” on registration plates, with fines now set to be waived.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass tabled her report to parliament on Wednesday after an investigation into the review of City of Melbourne parking fines, arising from a whistleblower alleging the misuse of powers to raise revenue.
She stated the situation was “driven by an entrenched, overzealous attitude” of some senior management and a “mindset that the customer is usually wrong”.
The council had applied “an overly rigid approach to parking errors” in the past few years, she said.
The current penalty for a standard parking fine issued by the City of Melbourne is $83. The council covers 37.7 square kilometres including the CBD, Southbank, Carlton and Docklands.
RELATED: Lane merge road rule quiz baffles drivers
WHAT WAS THE ERROR?
Ms Glass said more than 1200 motorists were estimated to have been affected by a “mistake” when paying for parking with the PayStay mobile application, “which the council could easily have checked when the driver requested a review”.
“They also knew the number 0 and letter O were virtually indistinguishable on registration plates, and drivers would not be aware they had made an error,” she said.
Use of the app requires drivers to enter the parking zone their car is parked in, followed by their vehicle registration number. Payment is then made by entering their credit card details.
RELATED: ‘Dangerous’ road rule stumps motorists
The investigation looked at a random sample of parking fine reviews between July 1, 2018 and July 1, 2019 before a new decision matrix was introduced in October last year.
“These 350 infringement reviews showed that in approximately 10 per cent of reviews where the fine was upheld, the driver had made an error but had otherwise paid for parking or made reasonable attempts to comply with Road Rules,” the paper states.
One of the scenarios involved a driver paying the parking fee but accidentally putting the wrong car registration into the PayStay app.
Such “simple errors” included mistaking the number zero for the letter O when entering their vehicle registration number into PayStay, mixing up other letters and numbers – such as mistaking the number 1 for the letter I, putting the wrong parking zone number in the app and choosing the wrong vehicle registration if they had registered more than one vehicle’s details.
The Ombudsman found about 30 of 450 weekly reviews by the Infringement Review team related to the “wrong registration” errors and the most common of these was the zero/O error.
The mistake resulted in no payment being recorded against each vehicle’s correct registration despite a payment being made by the driver.
“The investigation estimates there were likely to be at least 1200 drivers who had their infringements upheld in these periods, being about 700 in the 2017-18 period and 500 in the 2018-19 period,” the report states.
“The number of drivers who took these matters to court is likely to be less than 200 in total.
“The individual impact on drivers who received these fines should not be understated.
“Even though the infringements upheld over the past three years may be a small proportion of the overall revenue generated from parking fines, a fine of $83 may be a considerable expense to some. Drivers who elected to take these matters to court are likely to have incurred further expense.”
RELATED: Australia’s worst congests roads revealed
Ms Glass said the investigation did not expose improper conduct “but a worryingly poor understanding by some in senior management of basic principles of fairness”.
“The allegation that the council was improperly raising revenue was not substantiated. The council was losing money taking these matters to court, although the practical outcome of inflexible decision making undoubtedly made a not unhealthy contribution to the council’s bottom line,” she said.
“No, these actions were apparently driven by an entrenched, overzealous attitude of some in senior management in the parking branch, a mindset that the customer is usually wrong and drivers must be punished for their infractions, no matter how small the offence or how great the mitigation.
“This attitude continued for years, despite some council officers expressing concerns about it to management.”
The City of Melbourne has accepted all of the Ombudsman’s recommendations including a review of PayStay zero/O error fines dating back to July 2017 and a refund of fines “where the Council now considers the infringement would have been withdrawn if the revised decision matrix had been in place at the time of the review”.
City of Melbourne chief executive Justin Hanney told the Herald Sun the council had so far identified 450 drivers it believes should not have been fined, who will also receive a written apology.
Ms Glass said: “The council has not shirked its responsibility for years of unfair decisions and has agreed to make amends, both on an individual and systemic level.
“I commend them for their response, and hope this report is a reminder to all who exercise discretion of the need to keep fairness at its heart.”
Originally published as $100k in fines refunded over rego error