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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

From Across The Pond: With A Sit-Down Stand, A Briton Kicks The Boot

Here's the story from The New York Times:
LONDON — In the land of the embattled motorist, Haroon Zafaryab emerged on Tuesday as the people’s champion, a sort of Steven Slater of the roadways.

For years, more than 2,000 private clamping companies have waged a war against drivers parking illegally on private land.
 
Mr. Zafaryab, 27, defied a tow-truck team by sitting in his car for 30 hours, eventually running up more than $6,000 in parking fines, as towing company officials, supporters of Mr. Zafaryab and police officers gathered in the delivery area behind a shopping plaza where he had started it all by parking for two hours in a restricted zone.

Eventually, with the popular hubbub rising, the towing company relented, after plastering Mr. Zafaryab’s windshield with more than 40 tickets, and settled for a $160 fine. But the episode, which occurred last Wednesday, had reverberations far beyond the showdown at the Plaza Parade in the London neighborhood of Wembley, where Mr. Zafaryab parked to visit a nearby mosque for his noon prayers — then decided to make a stand, as he put it, for “the little man.”

On Tuesday, the British government announced that it would introduce legislation in the fall banning private companies from clamping — the British term for what Americans know as “booting” — or towing any vehicle parked on private land, and limiting the companies to a regulated system of parking tickets.

Henceforth, only the police, or companies authorized by local councils, will have the power to authorize use of a boot, and only in public places, except where a parked vehicle was a safety hazard or blocked access to a hospital or other essential site.

For years, more than 2,000 private clamping companies have waged a war against drivers parking illegally on private land, lying in wait in areas known for their lack of approved parking areas, immobilizing offending vehicles, then demanding hundreds of dollars in cash to release them. A common tactic has been to post “no parking” signs in oblique spots, often with lettering that can only be read close up, in what drivers’ organizations have said has amounted to entrapment.

Those organizations have identified the clamping industry, which has boasted of revenues exceeding $1.5 billion a year, as Public Enemy No. 1 in a nation where car owners face some of the world’s highest gasoline prices (about $7 a gallon), plus punitive levels of tax and insurance.

The government made no reference in its announcement to Mr. Zafaryab. But Prime Minister David Cameron, three months in office, faces an uphill battle to sustain popular backing for some of the sharpest cuts in public spending in living memory. With 33 million vehicles registered in Britain, moving against the clamping companies after the Wembley dispute may have been too tempting an opportunity to miss.

Mr. Zafaryab told reporters he took a stand against the tow-truck team when they resorted to “scaremongering tactics,” demanding immediate payment of a $570 fine to remove the clamp from his wheel, then clamping all four wheels and plastering his windshield with a new ticket every 30 minutes.

“The amount they wanted me to pay is half my monthly wages,” he said. “It was ridiculous.” When word reached mosque officials, they shuttled food to the site through the night and the following day before the clamping company relented. “Everyone was shaking my hand,” Mr. Zafaryab said. “The little man won against the clampers.”

Lynne Featherstone, a minister in the Home Office, responsible for law and order, told the BBC that the government was “committed to ending the menace of rogue, private-sector wheel-clampers once and for all.”

The transport minister, Norman Baker, said “cowboy clampers” had “ample opportunity to mend their ways, but the cases of bullying and extortion persisted.” Edmund King, president of the Automobile Association, with 15 million members, said the private clampers had been engaging in “legalized mugging.”

But Nick Jones, a manager at the Citywatch Enforcement company, which was involved in the confrontation with Mr. Zafaryab, said it had no apology to make. “He ignored perfectly clear signs and parked illegally,” he said. “If people parked legally all the time, we’d be out of a job.”

Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 18, 2010

An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect figure for the fines Haroon Zafaryab received. They totaled over $6,000, not $5,560.

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