Drivers in dark over new bus lane signs

By Mathew Dearnaley

Cameras, signs and markers will be popping up at bus lanes over the next month. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Cameras, signs and markers will be popping up at bus lanes over the next month. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Auckland City parking wardens will install new signs and markers on some bus lanes today - but drivers will be left guessing where they will be and even what they look like.

The city council is refusing to say where on its 36km network of bus lanes it will put the signs, citing advice from a research company involved in a month-long trial that giving drivers advance notice could invalidate the exercise.

It will say only that the trial will operate on up to four bus lanes at a time, involving a mix of new signs and road markers warning drivers that a video camera is operating and showing the start of 50m zones where general traffic is allowed to enter the lanes to turn left.

Parking group manager Dale Clements said yesterday it was important for the trial to be rigorous, to help the council determine whether the extra signs changed driver behaviour.

He had accepted advice from the research company that "undue prior publicity" about what the signs looked like would affect driver behaviour "and possible invalidate the trial".

Council transport committee chairman Ken Baguley acknowledged a likelihood that such secrecy would be hard to maintain for long, and that many drivers would indulge in a new sport of trying to spot the markers.

"I realise that, and everyone's going to bitch and moan because their street hasn't got one," he said.

Asked how revealing the signs and their locations could threaten the trial, he said he had not been involved in designing it, but was bound to consider the advice of technical experts.

"They are the traffic engineers - in the end you have to listen to their advice," he said. "The fact is that they are doing the trial, I'm delighted about that and let's get on with it."

The trial follows a public uproar after the council revealed that it issued almost $6.2 million in bus lane infringement notices in the 12 months to June, many to drivers who complained of difficulty judging how far 50m was.

That compares with $900 in fines issued by Manukau City for six breaches of its 3km of bus lanes, where signs warn drivers of penalties and parking wardens put out cones 60m from intersections.

Although Mr Baguley says his council is enforcing government regulations by allowing general drivers to travel only 50m in the bus lanes before turning, an Auckland University law professor considers a defence exists for those who believe they need more leeway for safety reasons.

Associate Professor Kenneth Palmer yesterday identified two sections of bus lanes in central Auckland where he believed it was often too dangerous at peak times to observe the 50m rule, in which case he said the council should accept a general defence applying to offences under the Local Government Act.

One was at the bottom of Anzac Ave, where the bus lane ends 50m off the busy intersection with Beach Rd, and all city-bound traffic has to move from the centre lane into just one left-turning lane.

The other was in Quay St, where traffic has only 20m to turn left into Tangihua St beyond a bus stop.

Dr Palmer, a specialist in local government law, said drivers leaving it too late to get into the left-turning lane in Anzac St risked being sideswiped by other traffic and those heading for Tangihua St had to watch out for buses pulling away from the stop.

"If the bus starts off just as you're trying to cut in to turn left, you're almost certain to have a collision with the bus," he said.

An even more extreme example is in the northbound Albert St bus lane, where a bus stop ends just 4m from the intersection with Wyndham St.

Dr Palmer acknowledged that the bus lanes were enforced under regulations, rather than the Local Government Act, but said the council still had discretion to consider a defence in cases where driving in them was necessary to protect life or health, or prevent injury or serious property damage.

Triple ticket whammy angers

A woman caught driving in a bus lane on three consecutive days says Auckland City has broken an undertaking to consider letting her off two fines if she paid for one offence.

Philippa Oemcke received a letter from a council officer in June saying that if she paid a $150 fine for one offence, and he received confirmation that she had done so, he would reconsider the remaining two notices for driving in the Quay St bus lane.

She sent a letter to the officer with her payment soon afterwards, and assumed that was the end of the matter after hearing nothing back.

But on Saturday, she received two court notices demanding payment for two more fines of $150, and costs of $30 on each of these - a total of $360.

Mrs Oemcke said others at her former workplace in Tangihua St, which she has since left to care for her new baby daughter, received warning notices for using the bus lane about the same time she unknowingly incurred the fines over three days in April.

"Had I known, I wouldn't have used the bus lane on the next two days," she said yesterday. "I would have paid one fine and not have done it again."

Her husband, Mark Oemcke, said the couple intended challenging the fines in court.

"Given the publicity and the Government's direction to the council, we are surprised at this treatment - we are appalled," he said.

He was referring to a call by Transport Minister Steven Joyce to the council last week for leniency in its bus lane enforcement "so people don't see it as a revenue-gathering exercise".

Council parking group manager Dale Clements said he could not comment on individual cases, but Mrs Oemcke should contact the council again as "we want to be fair and equitable".

City transport committee chairman Ken Baguley said "if there is an undertaking in writing from the council I would expect the council to honour it".

Have you seen the bus lane markers?

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- NZ Herald

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