Posted by: wesleyjohnston | October 3, 2012

The “Wrong Way” issue on Joy Street, Belfast

Conor Macauley of the BBC has put together a great article and a TV segment about an unusual problem affecting a street in Belfast City Centre.

Joy Street runs south from May Street. The northernmost part of the street has been One Way northbound for decades, enforced by a “No Entry” sign at May Street until January 2011. Google Streetview dates from before the change, so you can see this “No Entry” sign here:

This No Entry sign was removed early in 2011, and replaced by two signs:

These signs mean (top) “no motor vehicles” and (bottom) “recommended cycle route”. Effectively this bans all vehicles except bicycles from turning into Joy Street, which is only slightly different in meaning from the old “No Entry” sign. Permitting non-motorised vehicles is the only difference.

The result? Hundreds of cars every day committing an offence by turning into Joy Street from May Street, driving local residents up the wall, as Conor Macauley’s article notes.

So what has created this problem?

The first thing to clear up is that Joy Street is not a one-way road. For several decades, the stretch from Little May Street to May Street was one-way northbound, as defined most recently in the The One-Way Traffic (Belfast) Order (Northern Ireland) 2009. This legal order said:

A person shall not, except upon the direction or with the permission of a constable in uniform cause or permit any vehicle to proceed on [this part of Joy Street] in a direction other than [northerly].

This was correctly enforced with No Entry signs at the May Street junction at the northern end. The problem is that Roads Service wanted to add a cycle lane to allow bicycles to travel south along Joy Street. Since it is an offence for a bicycle to travel the wrong way along a one-way road, this meant that Roads Service had no choice but to remove the One-Way Traffic Order from Joy Street. You could, of course, have just put up a sign stating that bicycles were permitted, but this would have been unenforceable as any bicycle so doing would be breaking the law, and the sign itself could not be enforced in court if it were ever challenged (eg if a cyclist hit a car while travelling the wrong direction).

The One-Way restriction on Joy Street was hence removed on 17 January 2011 via The Control of Traffic (Joy Street, Belfast) Order (Northern Ireland) 2010. (Sorry about all this captivating legislation.) This legal order says:

…a person shall not, except upon the direction or with the permission of a constable in uniform cause or permit any vehicle other than a cycle to enter Joy Street, Belfast from its junction with May Street.

Note that this is not the same thing at all. All this does is ban vehicles from turning into Joy Street from May Street. There is no longer any legislation enforcing a one-way system on Joy Street itself. Therefore a vehicle could travel north along Joy Street all the way to the May Street junction, do a u-turn, and travel south along Joy Street again and (while rather pointless) it would be perfectly legal. So vehicles actually travelling south along Joy Street are not doing anything wrong. What a vehicle can not do is turn left off May Street into Joy Street, something which is of course happening regularly.

Hence the problem…

Now, Roads Service had to removed the generic, unqualified “No Entry” sign because certain vehicles (cycles) are allowed to enter this road. A straight No Entry sign would make it an offence for cyclists to go past it. So they had to replace it with a “no motor vehicles” sign, which as previously noted, looks like this:

This sign is unambiguous, though it is commonly misunderstood. It is an offence to drive past this sign in a motor vehicle, and anyone caught doing so is liable to be charged with a motoring offence. The sign below it:

is purely advisory, and is not actually required. It simply states that this is a recommended cycle route. The “no motor vehicles” sign alone implicitly permits bicycles without requiring additional signs like this one.

So we need to be clear that Roads Service have done nothing wrong. The signs that are there today are legal, correct and unambiguous.

The problem seems to be that drivers either do not understand the “no motor vehicles” sign, or don’t care. To be fair, to the average driver the sign isn’t very clear. Although most prohibition signs are like this – pictograms in red circles – many drivers still misunderstand them to be an instruction rather than a prohibition. In other words they think that the sign actually means something like “cars and motorbikes allowed”. Of course, signs that specifically allow something, rather than banning it, are generally blue. A more intuitive sign could be created by putting a diagonal line across the sign to reinforce the idea that motor vehicles are actually banned, but this would require a change in the law.

There are two approaches that can be taken to this problem. The first is driver education. Drivers are required by law to be familiar with the Highway Code and being ignorant of the meaning of a sign is no defence, and should not be an excuse. Educating drivers as to the meaning of this sign would be useful. However, this takes lots of time and so a second, more pragmatic, approach is to change the signage to make the meaning clearer.

So, what could be done? There are at least three options:

  1. The sign could be replaced by a No Entry sign with a text plate below it indicating an exception. This would look like this:
    This sign is pretty clear, and it’s hard to see how any driver could drive past it and claim not to have been aware of the rules. It’s not clear, however, whether this sign is permitted in law, as Northern Ireland’s road sign rules differ from those used in the rest of the United Kingdom (road signs are devolved to Stormont). Roads Service appear to be leaning towards this idea. They can probably achieve it by making an “exception”, something that is allowed for in the law.
  2. Alternatively, since it’s only turning into Joy Street that is an offence, not driving along it, a “no left turn” sign could be installed on May Street, indicating to drivers that they cannot turn left:

    However, to prevent cyclists inadvertently committing an offence by passing this sign, it would probably also need an “Except cycles” plate below, and I’m not sure if this variant is permitted. This is permitted. Thanks Andy.
  3. I am of the view that engineering solutions that physically prevent people flouting the law are much more effective than laws and signs. So, finally, some kind of engineering solution could be used to make it effectively impossible for people to use the road in this way. One obvious way to do this is to add a traffic island that would make the left turn only wide enough for bicycles, eg:
    However, this would be more expensive than simply adding a sign.

At the minute it looks as if Roads Service are going to put up a “No Entry” sign with “Except Cycles” plate below.

With apologies to those who do not live in Belfast for writing several Belfast articles in a row! I promise the next article will not be about the city!

With thanks to Andy Boal for advice on the legal points raised in this issue.

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Responses

  1. Drove past last night, ‘No Entry’ painted across the bus lane. Forgot to notice signage though.


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