Confusing parking signs net thousands of tickets against drivers

WASHINGTON — One of the most common parking signs in the District of Columbia is confusing. So confusing that the city has netted thousands of dollars from drivers unaware they are breaking the rules.

It’s confusing enough that Department of Transportation will be replacing them.

The signs tell drivers they can park for up to two hours from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during the week, then says, “No Time Limit Parking, 6:30PM-10PM.”

“I tell myself, ‘Oh 6:30 to 10, no time limit.’ So I’m thinking that means I can park there as long as I want and don’t have to pay,” says Sharlyne Smith, who got a ticket.

Most those who contacted WTOP Ticketbuster read the sign the same way Smith did. They parked after 6:30 p.m., saw the sign, and believed it meant that they didn’t have to feed the meter.

The majority of confused drivers live in Maryland and Virginia — not the District.

“I like to consider myself a reasonably intelligent man, and I am always careful to follow the rules. So if I’m confused, then I can imagine that many other people would be as well,” says Nick Stewart, who works at Quantico and lives in Fairfax County.

The tickets are being issued because the signs do not mean drivers don’t have to pay. The signs are informing drivers that until 6:30 p.m., the driver can only pay to park for up to two hours.

Between 6:30 and 10 p.m., the driver still must feed the meter, but can remain parked for three hours and 30 minutes.

“My intention is not to cheat the system. I want to follow the rules and be a law-abiding citizen. But you need tell me what I need do in a clear way,” says Smith.

While it’s unclear exactly how many drivers have been affected, this type of violation — parking at an expired meter — is the most common ticket written in the District.

The Office of the Inspector General reports that 231,305 tickets were written for expired meters in fiscal year 2013. While that number includes all times of day, every ticket written after 6:30 p.m. could be due to confusion. Say, for example, 5 percent of expired meter tickets were written after 6:30 p.m., that would total more than 10,000 such citations.

The fine is $25, so at 5 percent, such violations would generate $250,000 for the city.

“Who writes these things? There is no way I get from that wording that I have to pay until 10 p.m. I wonder if they purposely make these confusing to get the most money out of people, or if they are just illiterate,” says Kate Theisen, who also received such a ticket.

DDOT to fix the signs

Not only has WTOP Ticketbuster received many of these complaints since early 2013, but DDOT has also received them.

“The signs are changing because some customers are confused,” says DDOT spokeswoman Michelle Phipps-Evans. “The new sign clearly states now they have a 3.5-hour time limit between 6:30 and 10 p.m., which will state clearly ‘pay to park at all times.'”

DDOT has already begun replacing the signs, including near the Archives Metro station near 7th and Indiana Avenue NW. In addition, DDOT added these new signs to 400 5th St NW.

DDOT will change the signs citywide between now and fall 2015.

“We are moving hastily to remove conflicting signage throughout the city,” says DDOT spokesman Reggie Sanders.

He could not provide us a precise number on how many signs will be replaced, but it is a common sign. DDOT Director Matt Brown recently told the City Council that the city has approximately 750,000 parking signs in total.

Stewart, one of the drivers cited, says it’s good DDOT admits the signs could be more clear, and wonders whether the city will be more lenient while it replaces signage.

But that isn’t likely to happen since DDOT takes the position that these tickets are legally valid.

Confusing signs are not a legal defense under D.C. law – only that the signs are obscured or missing.

That means parking enforcers could write many more tickets to confused drivers before the new signs are up across the District.

If you think you’re the victim of a bogus speed camera, red light camera or parking ticket in D.C., Maryland or Virginia, WTOP may be able to help you cut the red tape.

Send your case along with any documentation to ticketbuster@wtop.com.

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