It's time to put the brakes on the clampers
From hearses to cars with kids inside -- there's no escape from the rogue parking police, says Deirdre Reynolds
Clamp:it's not a word anyone wants to hear now, is it? Most of us have been there; you take a gamble on a loading bay or double-park outside the dry-cleaners only to come back and find your motor immobilised by that dreaded yellow triangle and a €100 dent in your credit card.
But while playing Russian roulette with road markings is one thing, across the country some drivers have been left stumped by the logic causing their car to be clamped.
England and Wales have just joined Scotland by slapping a ban on clamping on private land in a bid to stop rogue operators from holding drivers to ransom.
And speaking out about the "dirty business" which has forced some clampers to wear stab-proof vests, the Irish Parking Association -- which represents the country's main clamping companies -- urged resistant Transport Minister Noel Dempsey to do the same here.
For bemused motorists who've been on the receiving end of You've Been Framed-style clamping, regulation couldn't come quickly enough.
Elaine Quinn says she didn't know whether to laugh or cry when she returned from work to find her car clamped.
"Being able to park close to the office when you're heavily pregnant is not so much a nicety as a necessity," says the Castleknock mum.
"I had been driving around for ages before finally finding a parking space in a row of cars parked beside a brand new wooden hoarding in front of a construction site.
"There was nothing to say you couldn't park there, so you can only imagine my face when I arrived back to find freshly painted 'No Parking' signs on the hoarding and my car clamped.
"I was half expecting the You've Been Framed crew to jump out at me," she adds, "but no such luck. It cost me €80 to have it released."
Wyatt Earp-esque parking control hit headlines earlier this year when clampers hoisted a car on to a tow truck with two young children inside in Cork, prompting a stand-off between gardai and the private operators.
Even worse press ensued when a Galway dad rushing his son to hospital with suspected meningitis was clamped outside a GP surgery in 2004 -- and only unclamped after a garda handed over his credit card.
Not even the dead can escape over-zealous clampers -- in 2008, an unattended hearse was clamped with the coffin still inside.
While only the cases fit for a Carry on Clamping movie make the headlines, farcical clamping is an everyday occurrence, according to Eamonn O'Brien of Octane.ie.
"We've heard some truly ridiculous tales of people being clamped," says the editor of Ireland's top rev-head website, "often with little or no recourse for reimbursement -- despite being completely in the right.
"Anecdotally, tourists who are seen as an easy mark seem to be one of the main targets.
"Far from being a solution for illegal or inconsiderate parking, immobilising a vehicle is completely counter-productive to keeping traffic moving in our already congested cities.
"We welcome the UK government's common-sense approach to clamping. But ironically, it seems that the Irish authorities are moving in the opposite direction towards privatised speed cameras."
Dublin project manager John-Graham Archer wound up getting clamped while sitting his driving test.
"I arrived early for my driving test to look over some notes, having failed it the previous year," he says.
"I parked up outside the test centre and couldn't see any signs to say it was pay parking. I went in to take the oral part of the test and came back out 10 minutes later for the practical test only to find my car clamped!
"The driving instructor just looked at me with pity and said he'd try to fit me in after it was unclamped."
Seeing traffic-light red, the engineer tried to take a bolt cutter to the chunk of yellow metal that stood between him and a driving licence.
"When I challenged the clamper, he told me he'd been watching me waiting for him to drive off so I could get away with paying the fee," he fumes. "In reality, I was cramming for the test and hadn't even seen the clamper. Then he said he didn't like my attitude and proceeded to unclamp the others but not me.
"I was so furious that I went across the road to a DIY shop to borrow a bolt cutter -- but that didn't work and I had to wait another hour for the clamping company to send someone else out.
"My test was cancelled, I lost €100 and it took quite a few weeks to see the funny side!"
Other drivers are also trying to play the clampers at their own game -- by clamping their own motor first. A €50 commercial wheel clamp available from Argos, like the one pictured, is flying off shelves.
"We sell quite a few clamps to individuals," says Mark Leech of Micksgarage.ie, who sell a more hardcore €85 wheel clamp at their Dublin warehouse. "It's meant for security, but lots of people use it as a visual deterrent to stop other people from parking where they shouldn't."
'I don't think 'fake' clamps would fool a real clamper though," warns Eamonn O'Brien of Octane.ie. "It's a bit of an old wive's tale; on closer inspection, they look too different from the industrial ones used by clamping companies."
In their frustration, some motorists have resorted to jacking up their car, letting air out of the tyre or even producing an angle grinder from the boot to free their imprisoned vehicle.
In 2008, a Gloucester man lost the plot after being clamped in his own driveway because one of his rear wheels protruded on to the path -- and hacked his car in half.
But even when tested by no warning signs, a clamper with the interpersonal skills of a peanut and a tear-your-hair-out appeals process, AA Ireland's Conor Faughnan urges against revenge by angle grinder.
"The only place that will get you is the civil courts," he says.
"If you're clamped by public clampers, obviously the law requires you to pay the fine. But when you're clamped on private land by a private company, you're in a legal grey area.
"Private clamping firms operate in a legal vacuum," he explains. "In fact, we object to them calling their charges 'fines' since they're not actually a legal entity.
"Nonetheless, if you take an angle grinder to the clamp, in theory you can be held liable for the damage. But if you're able to unlock a clamp without damaging it, I struggle to see the offence committed.
"Ultimately, the best course of action is to appeal the charge or, if you feel genuinely aggrieved, to take a civil case yourself."
Solicitor Maria (not her real name) from Malahide took the high road and successfully had her clamping charge overturned. She even managed to prove that clampers are not a heartless bunch after all.
"My dad was getting chemotherapy a few years back and one day when he was well enough, we out for a meal. We had a disabled permit but it fell down and we were clamped in the restaurant car park.
"My dad had no hair and could barely walk, but the clampers were really rude; so I let rip and told them I'd see them in court.
"I got my money back and the clamping company made a donation to the Irish Cancer Society."
For others, like mum Elaine Quinn, it's a case of "the cheque's in the post".
"I appealed and the clamping company agreed to a refund," she says, "but nearly a year later I still haven't received the money. What galls me is that there didn't seem to be a simple appeals process -- just pay up and shut up."
'To be fair, the situation here isn't nearly as bad as it is in the UK where you have all sorts of horror stories about thugs intimidating motorists," adds Conor Faughnan of AA Ireland, which has called for the licensing of such firms including a public appeals process.
"Most private clamping firms in Ireland want to be regulated and in the absence of proper regulation, some have set up self-regulation bodies. So we have a reasonably responsible industry.
"But one way for the Government to create a free-for-all is to wash their hands of the situation -- which is exactly what they're doing."
And it's not just private firms who get too clamp-happy sometimes. Medical student Alice Cummins from Meath was clamped during a free promotion in Dublin last Christmas.
"It was a promotion to get people into town to do their Christmas shopping," she explains. "I checked the map of free spaces and picked my spot before heading off, but when I got back my car was gone. It had been towed to some dimly lit street I never heard of.
"The next morning, I returned with my camera, typed up an appeal letter and sent it off along with the photos and a copy of the free-parking map.
"At first, my appeal was declined," she adds, "but I appealed it to an independent body and had my €80 refunded.
"Lodging that cheque was the sweetest victory ever!"