Parking Ticket Geek

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The Mystery Of The Missing Meter Minutes

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The Parking Ticket Geek

The Geek is an idiot, who gets a lot of parking tickets, and knows how to fight back.

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Meter box vs. Radio Shack atomic clock

One minute.

Sixty seconds.

What can happen in a lone, single, solitary, minute?

Time is such a slippery and elusive concept.

A minute is not a very long time...or is it?

When it comes to a parking in a metered space, the difference of a minute could mean getting a $50 ticket for an expired meter if you are just one minute or even one second late returning to your vehicle.

This website receives many an e-mail complaint from many an irate driver venting about being ticketed at the exact minute their meter or receipt expired. Or coming back to their vehicle to see a cop or ticket writer issuing them a ticket for a freshly expired meter.

Up until now, advice to drivers ticketed right at the wire has been to bluntly explain--that's the way it works. You snooze, you lose. Pay it if you can't fight it. Try to get back sooner next time.

But there's a little problem now.

It seems the clocks on the 3000 new Cale Parking meter pay boxes installed by LAZ, are chronically slow. In fact, of the nearly 60 pay boxes observed, most are off at least a minute and in some cases, nearly 2 minutes from what is "actual" time.

But, be it 10 seconds or 59 seconds slow, the driver can lose a full minute of "actual" time on their receipt if they pay for their time before the time on the meter's digital display changes to the next minute. This is because the receipt doesn't print out to the second--but prints the most current  minute displayed.

If the pay box clock is slow by over a minute, the driver's receipt can be off by a full two minutes.

To be clear, the receipt prints out the full increment of time you paid for. However, the receipt, in many cases is 1-2 minutes behind what the "actual" time is.

So, what's the big deal? You're still getting the full 15 minutes of time you paid for on your receipt.

But the problem is not with the receipt, but with the time on those high tech handheld ticketing computers Chicago Parking Enforcement Aides (PEA) carry around called the AutoCITE.

Reportedly, they are quite accurate as the time on these units is adjusted (if necessary) every night when the units are synced up to the main computer.

So the problem you see is, if your receipt is 1-2 minutes behind, it's possible, if you return to your car in exactly 15 minutes (or whatever amount of time you purchased), you still could be hit with a ticket.

In essence, it seems City of Chicago enforcement has a 1-2 minute head start on you.

Different Machines, Different Time

"Pay boxes contact a central server every night wirelessly," explains  Avis LaVelle, spokesperson for Chicago Parking Meters, LLC via e-mail about the process the meters go through to retain an accurate time. "At that time, the pay box programs are updated and refreshed, and the pay box clock synchronizes with the server clock. The server clock is an atomic clock, and atomic clocks conform to the most accurate timekeeping standards."

But LaVelle feels these differences in time can be accounted for as just the inherent lack of reliability with the technology of time.

"However, as with all technologies as simple as a wristwatch and as complex as a spacecraft, there are no absolutes," continues LaVelle.  "Though the likelihood that a pay box clock might notably become 'out of synch' with the server clock is low, the clocks are synchronized nightly in an effort to mitigate this risk."

But if that's the case, and the meters are connecting with servers connected to an atomic clock every evening, why would the clocks be off as much as they are? Isn't the loss of 10 seconds to nearly two minutes every 24 hours, a less than acceptable accuracy rate for a clock? It seems a rooster could keep more accurate time.

The most confounding thing is the lack of time continuity between the different pay boxes on the street. Each unit seems to keep time independent of the next.

It's this inconsistency that makes one realize this timing issue is not some insidious plot by Mayor Daley to increase revenue, but as innocuous as the difference in time between clocks within your own home.

However, when one considers that even a cheap cell phone has a clock that is consistently updated via the closest cell tower, why can't a high tech parking meter with a cost between $6000-$9000 per unit keep accurate time?

If the units truly are updating every night, there still seems to be some major flaws in these machine's time keeping abilities.

In another city which employs Cale Parking hardware and software, their machines update time several times during the day. According to Tracy Bruch, Parking Manager for Clearwater, Florida, the pay box machines are supposed to update their clocks automatically via the cellular network.

"Every four hours it (the unit) gives a refresh," says Bruch. "Everything is basically in real time."

Enforcement Weighs In

Parking Enforcement Aides (PEA) for the city have mixed thoughts on this issue.

"The first part to consider is : what is the true time? Is it the time displayed
on the Kronos System (swipe clock), is it the time on a watch, cell phone, AutoCITE, or city computer?", asked one PEA who asked not to be identified,  in response to my questions. "1 to 2 minutes doesn't seem like a lot, but it can be very big deal. As a PEA, it can make or break my productivity...That couple of minutes really does add up."

Another PEA, who also wished to remain anonymous, sees the time difference as a boon to their ticket writing.

"A two minute advantage over the new meters?" said the PEA via e-mail. "That's cool. (It) can really help me out with increasing my ticket count."

Realistically, there usually isn't a PEA standing next to your vehicle waiting for the exact second the time on your meter receipt expires.

But it does happen.

It's happened to this writer twice in his driving career.

"I wish I could tell you how many times that I personally have come across
meters/receipts that may have a minute or 2 remaining," said the first PEA we communicated with. "It has happened so much, that I lost count years ago."

On the other side of the argument is Industrial Designer Tom Koehl who is familiar with cellular technology, and who doesn't really see this problem with the new meters as a legitimate issue.

"I don't think it's a big deal, I really don't," says Koehl. "It's only a few seconds per day. Even if I'm parking for a matter of minutes, I don't see the effect. It makes me distrust the equipment inherently. That's the only explanation for these clocks being off."

How To Contend With An Inaccurate Pay Box

First off, the receipt does print out the time you must return to your vehicle before you can be ticketed. Make sure you double-check the time on the receipt before you place it on your dashboard.

If you do feel you are ticketed improperly, you can contest the violation.

"Motorists may contest a parking meter ticket if a meter runs fast or does not
register time properly," says Ed Walsh, spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Revenue. "This has been a defense for nearly two decades. Should a motorist receive a parking meter violation in error, he or she should contest the violation following the procedure on the ticket. The meter should also be reported to the toll free number on the pay box within 24 hours. Hearing officers have access to reports of malfunctioning meters and will consider this information when rendering a decision."

What Next?

While this is not an "end of the world" type issue, the confidence with everything related to Chicago parking meter lease deal is shaky at best. So it seems that both the city and LAZ/CPM are going to need to address this issue. In other words, both parties need to get on the same page, or perhaps more accurately, same clock.

It stands to reason, with as vibrant as technology is these days, that the meter boxes can somehow be synced to one standard time and be relatively close to the time on the AutoCITE units, so the meters and enforcement can be closer in time than a minute or two.

"As a PEA, I believe it is very important for the Autocite and Pay & Display boxes' times to be as closely in-sync as possible," says our first PEA. "My signature is on that ticket swearing that everything is true an correct. If the time is off (even if no fault of my own) the ticket could be dismissed. Should that happen, I then appear to either be incompetent (at best) or a liar (at worst)."

While many people are still upset with the parking meter lease deal, most rational people would at least like to think they're getting a fair shake when it comes to enforcement. A bit more accuracy between the meter clocks and enforcement clocks would seem a necessity to solidify Chicago drivers' confidence in the parking meter system as a whole.

Big thanks to Don Moseley & Carol Marin from NBC 5 for their tip on this story.

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4 Comments

Ken Green said:

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Or how about a meter that conveniently won't let you add additonal minutes? I was parking on Bryn Mawr just east of Winthrop on the south side of the street, just a block or so away from my apartment. It's about 7:50 p.m. and I plan on putting in enough quarters to last until 9 p.m., when I can be there legally and free. I put in four quarters...and the machine won't let me put in any more quarters. None. Somehow the slot that accepts the quarters has some kind of closure mechanism on the inside and it snapped shut and wouldn't let me put in any additional quarters. Which means I had to print out my ticket/reciept which reads 8:50, leaving a 10 minute window until 9 p.m. for me to receive a ticket. Very strange, I'm thinking. I began having lots of conspiratorial thought...maybe they rigged the machine to shut down just before nine to leave that window open. Maybe it only does that with quarters because the flow of quarters can be controlled more easily than a computer-generated transaction such as a credit card issuing funds into the machine from a bank. I don't know. I just found it strange that it wouldn't let me put in any more quarters to "conveniently" leave a window of ticketing opportunity.

Matt said:

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That area is probably for 1 hour parking. Technically, you should only be in that spot for an hour or less. The system is designed to make it difficult to pay for more time than the the space is alotted for, but not a 'convenient' window to ticket people close to the end of paid parking times. What do the signs around there say?

Expelliarmus said:

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finally someone other than me understands these boxes..

bkim said:

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The whole parking system is fundamentally broken. There's no way to pay for the actual amount of time that you are parked and if you make the mistake of underestimating you get punished severely. A $50 ticket is excessively punitive.

Why does the city hate its constituents? We already pay an expensive wheel tax. Daley and Stroger have no idea how galling it is to get a parking ticket. They have drivers that chauffeur them around. Bloomberg's net worth is many times more than the both of them combined; he takes the subway to work.

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