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Cologne to refund 365,000 drivers fined incorrectly

Hundreds of thousands of drivers fined for speeding on Germany's A-3 highway near Cologne last year are hoping for a refund. The tickets were apparently unlawful because there was no sign pointing out a speed limit.

A missing speed limit sign at a construction site on one of Europe's busiest highways, the A-3 near Cologne, is turning out to be a potentially costly matter.

For months, no one noticed anything amiss, and speed radar cameras flashed hundreds of thousands of drivers going more than 60 kilometers per hour (35 mph) from February through December 2016 - raking in 11 million euros ($11.7 million) in fines for the city of Cologne. Reduced temporary speed limits are standard at works sites on the German highways, but they are typically indicated with signs.

The story surfaced early this year and made headlines in the region after a driver successfully filed a suit, which raised the issue of whether everyone who had been wrongfully fined might be entitled to compensation.

After quite a bit of wrangling and conflicting answers from the city of Cologne and the regional government - it seems the latter was responsible for the missing sign - a solution has been found. Intent on trying to simplify what is a complicated legal situation after initially refusing refunds, Cologne's city council is expected to sign off on "voluntary financial compensation" for 365,000 drivers Tuesday.

"Mistakes have to be corrected," read an editorial in the local Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper earlier this month, "even when it's inconvenient for the authorities." 

Fines, points, suspensions

Elke Hübner, who works with consumer issues at Germany's ADAC automotive club, told DW that officials have been reluctant to give out details on Cologne's planned compensation program. But the pressure on the city was so overwhelming that officials had to act, she said: "We have been getting so many calls from angry citizens affected by the glitch who couldn't understand why the city won't simply reimburse them, since they are the ones who wrongfully took in the money."  

traffic ticket (Fotolia/Kautz15)

One-sixth of the 43 million drivers in Germany have penalty points in the register

Administrative proceedings are effectively concluded once drivers have paid fines, and they cannot be easily reopened. Because of that, Cologne's city council will need to agree on the least bureaucratic solution: Drivers who want to retrieve their money must fill out a form - currently being prepared - on the city's website.

That might be a solution for drivers who weren't too far above the alleged speed limit, but courts of law are likely to be involved in cases in which drivers were slapped with points against their records - or perhaps even lost their licenses, which happens after eight points are accumulated, with various infractions earning more points than others.

Drivers caught running red lights can expect one point in the register on top of a fine, for example, and doing 20-25 kilometers over the speed limit also nets a fine and at least one point.

On Monday the Stadt-Anzeiger reported that one woman who had received a fine, a one-month driving suspension and two penalty points as a result of the absent sign. It is not clear how the courts and the regional government plan to solve such cases - or who is to pay for financial consequences of suspended licenses, including public transportation fees and perhaps even the loss of income.

But Inge Schürmann, who leads Cologne's press department, said the city "can only settle financial matters," adding that whatever else follows is beyond the city's power.

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