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Speed cameras: The Anatomy of a story

I’ve recently been invoived in a deep argument on a mailing list over the thorny issue of speed cameras. Digging around, I’ve found an awful lot of information about them that never seems to get any attention, thanks largely to the government’s reluctance to take on the powerful and vocal motoring lobby.
So I decided to take a single news story, that’s fairly typical of the kind of thing that’s being published about speed cameras, and have a look at it. The story was chosen pretty much at random – but it repeats much of the blatant falsehoods that have become common currency in the debate.

Feb 12 2004
By Jeff Edwards
BRITAIN’S leading policeman has slammed greedy forces who use speed cameras to raise cash.

So far, so good. I can’t really argue that this is an exclusive, thanks to young Mr Edwards phoning up “Britain’s leading policeman”.

Met Commissioner Sir John Stevens said in an exclusive interview: “I don’t approve of using speed cameras as money making devices. Their proper use is to lower accident rates.”
He also told the Mirror the public had a right to defend themselves and that he was prepared to quiz Royals and spy chiefs over the death of Princess Diana.
Sir John, 61, spoke out amid national outrage at the soaring number of cameras which land speeding drivers with a £60 fine and penalty points on their licence. He said: “I insist all Met cameras are deployed in places where there is a history of serious accidents.

Let’s ignore the bizarre reference to Princess Di, and look at two other elements from this section: “national outrage”, and Sir John’s insistence on placement in accident spots. Far from there being national outrage about cameras, a ‘poll of polls’ from Transport 2000 found that 74% of the public approved of the use of speed cameras. A Department for Transport poll found that 80% of people living in areas where cameras were being piloted agreed that “cameras are meant to encourage drivers to keep to the speed limit, not to punish them” – hardly a result that suggests national outrage.
Next there’s Sir John’s comment that “I insist all Met cameras are deployed in places where there is a history of serious accidents.” In fact, Safety Camera Partnerships (SCP), the bodies which place and maintain speed cameras, have a legal right to place cameras only in areas where there have been at least four fatalities in a 1.5km stretch, and where 20% of drivers have been exceeding the speed limit. This has been the case since 2002, but – given his other responsibilities – it’s perhaps not a surprise that Sir John doesn’t know the law.

“I’m not after people on a school run exceeding the limit by five miles an hour. I want to target the dangerous motorists and menaces driving unlicenced and uninsured.”

In fact, the Association of Chief Police Officers recommends that drivers are generally only charged when exceeding the speed limit by 10% + 2mph – 35mph in the case of a 30mph limit. So what Sir John says is, in fact, the recommended common practice. However, I’d question whether his example is a good one. People on school runs are most likely to be driving near schools, and often in a hurry – exactly the combination of circumstances that can lead to careless accidents. What’s more, the survivability rate of an accident for a child drops significantly between 30 and 35mph. At 35mph, a driver is twice as likely to kill a pedestrian than at 30mph.

The AA said: “This marks a sensible approach to traffic policing.”
Protesters claim speed cameras unfairly penalise safe drivers and have failed to curb the road death toll.

I’m sure they do, but without any kind of quote, who can tell?

In Hampshire, where motorcycle deaths have almost doubled in a year, six new cameras are netting police an estimated £30,000 a month in fines.

In fact, the police aren’t getting a penny from fines. Fines are split two ways: the costs for administering, placing and maintaining cameras goes to the SCP, with the rest going to the Exchequer. Neither the police nor local authorities get any revenue from speed cameras.

But the devices, which photograph cars from the front, cannot trap motorcycles as bikes do not have a front number plate.

I’m not quite sure of the logic here. According to this, speed cameras aren’t effective because a kind of traffic which they can’t catch aren’t being caught? What?

While drivers complain at too many cameras, a survey showed there were just six on 21 miles of Britain’s most dangerous roads.

Here, we just have a bit of lazy journalism. The survey referred to was by Autocar magazine and the RAC Foundation, but uses data gathered from 1997 to 2001. During this period, the national system of cameras was only in a pilot scheme phase – and most of the roads involved weren’t in the pilot scheme.
There are numerous articles like this, and the worrying thing is the government is doing nothing to counter them. All the information to show these “news” stories are baloney is there – but when will a government minister be brave enough to stand up and tell it how it is?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://www.gyford.com/ Phil

    Great stuff Ian. I completely fail to understand most people who complain about speed cameras. Saying they “unfairly penalise safe drivers” is nonsensical – you’re penalised if you go over the speed limit, and therefore break the law. If you can’t tell what speed you’re going, you shouldn’t be driving. It seems bizarre that people complain about getting caught when they break a law that’s designed to protect their and others’ safety.

    On Radio 4’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ this week, Laurie Taylor spoke to a statistician about this stuff, which was interesting ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/thinkingallowed.shtml ). Among other things, they talked about how so many people say “speed limits are often too low, and I can drive perfectly safely at slightly higher speeds” to the attitude to drinking and driving a few years ago. People used to say “I’m fine after a couple of drinks,” but these days, in most of society, that’s just not the done thing – attitudes have been changed, and they need to change about speeding.

    Many people can drive safely at faster speeds, but only until the moment someone unexpectedly walks out in front of them. And that’s a main reason why we have speed limits and cameras.

  • http://2lmc.org/spool/?id=4124 2lmc spool

    2004/03/13 11:40

    Technovia on speed cameras

  • http://www.dange.co.uk Mike

    “I’m not quite sure of the logic here. According to this, speed cameras aren’t effective because a kind of traffic which they can’t catch aren’t being caught? What?”

    The logic is that the cameras have been installed due to an increase in serious accidents, the accidents mostly involving motorcycles, which is slightly pointless as the cameras can’t catch motorcyclists.

    The fact of the matter is that speed limits allow people not to think. The speed that is appropriate changes depending on an almost infinite number of factors, sometimes the speed limit is too high a speed, sometimes far too low (is it neccessary to drive at 30mph doen an empty high street at 2am? No, you could probably safely do 60).

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    Mike, you’re making a big assumption: that the motorcyclists were the ones that were speeding and caused the accidents that killed them (and remember, in order for a camera to be installed by an SCP, there have to be four fatal accidents in a 1.5klm stretch over three years).

    Secondly, if you’re arguing for no speed limits, your argument makes no sense. If, as you say, the right speed for a particular stretch of road in particular conditions “involves an almost infinite number of factors”, it’s unlikely that any driver will be able to correctly work out what the optimum speed is in the time available to him. In this case, it’s better to err on the side of caution – and introduce a low speed limit.

    What’s more, you’re neglecting a further factor: in addition to being a contribution to the occurance of an accident, high speed effectively converts a non-fatal accident into a fatal one. At 30mph, a pedestrian hit by a car has a 10% of being killed. At 40mph, that rises to 80%. Even assuming you’re right that driving down a road at 60mph you may not be significantly more likely to have an accident (in fact, you are – but that’s another story), if you do have an accident, it’s almost certainly going to be fatal.

    Accidents happen – that’s why they’re accidents, and not deliberate acts. Lowering the risk of turning an accident into a fatal one is worth the price of reducing the pleasure that drivers get from driving (and speed is very, very rarely about anything other than giving the driver a buzz).

  • http://www.dange.co.uk Mike

    I agree, its an assumption, but it does seem to be what the article infers, whether its what the actual statistic say or not I don’t know. I’m not arguing for no speed limit (that is quite clearly stupid), I’m just arguing that the speed limit system is and always will be inadequate. I agree that reducing accidents is a good aim, but accidents will always happen, so it pays to be realistic about how far you can reduce them. Perhaps it is better to focus on reducing their severity – and I admit driving at slower speeds will do that. Safer cars also have a role to play.

    I think a good system would be GPS enforced speed limits (ie your car will physically not exceed the speed limit) within urban areas (perhaps they could change depending on the time of day – I was caught doing 36mph in a 30mph area at 2am when nobody was about, and fined and given points) and unenforced (as in not GPS controlled, not as in not enforced by the police), more relaxed speed limits on countryside roads/motorways. , where if you have an accident it is more likely only to injure you and not others. It’s all about controlled risk basically.

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    Mike, I couldn’t agree more with you about the potential for technology to give us “a better speed limit”, as it were. However, I’ve found from debating this with the pro-car lobby that if there’s one thing they hate more than limits, it’s the notion of limiters – even intelligent ones!

  • http://www.hegemony.org.uk/ Jim Smith

    That’s because you’re confusing the car as utility (transport) with the car as pleasure (expression of personal freedom), which is usually where car-sceptics go wrong. The limiter takes away the pleasure of control, which is why it gets treated with such hostility.

    As to the motorcycle issue, the Hampshire problem is riders who kill themselves by losing control at speed in country roads (MCN has been running a long and tedious campaign on the issue). Speed cameras that can’t act as a deterrent are obviously useless. In towns things are different: you’re more likely to die in an incident with another road user. In the countryside it’s just you and your stupidity.

    The main issue to my mind is the asymmetric relationship between the driver of a modern car and the rest of the world. Modern cars are more than twice as powerful as cars were when the 70mph top speed limit was introduced in 1967, and yet driver deaths have fallen proportionally. Modern cars are swathed with safety technology to ensure the survival of their occupants.

    Crash an original mini at 60 and a transverse-mounted engine would land in your lap. Crash a BMW designed mini at the same speed and the six airbags will inflate instantly to coddle you, the crumple zones at the front and rear will collapse to reduce momentum, and the super-rigid frame will ensure that the car doesn’t collapse on you. The new Mini even features a traction control system that detects over and understeer and corrects your course so even idiots can drive faster.

    Meanwhile those of us on the outside of the car fair no better than we did in 1967: in fact probably worse off given the increased salesof flat-nosed people carriers and 4x4s.

    Hence the current emphasis on speed over all other safety parameters: people can speed without consideration of their own safety. I think speed needs to be looked at as part of the whole package. Improved training and driving attitude need to be looked at as well: sticking a camera up is just a cheap fix.