Fears over new type of speed camera

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A new type of speed camera that measures a driver's average speed has received the backing of the new Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, as an alternative to traditional "fixed" cameras. Mr Hoon admitted yesterday that the "spot" cameras currently used, which measure a car's speed at just one point, were resented by many motorists for being "arbitrary" and "unfair".

The new cameras would encourage safer driving and help reduce fuel consumption, said Mr Hoon, who was made Transport Secretary in last month's reshuffle. It is the first time a transport secretary has admitted problems with the current cameras.

"Spot speed cameras are seen by some people as unfair because, when you are driving along, you perhaps don't notice your speed," he said. "What is interesting about average-speed cameras is that [limits] are largely observed by motorists."

Fixed speed cameras have become the target of much ire from motorists, many of whom see them more as money making devices for the Government than as road safety tools. Since Labour came to power, the number of fixed penalty notices handed out for speeding has almost trebled to two million.

Mr Hoon did not discuss plans to encourage the use of the new type of camera, but said the evidence suggested they were effective. "There is an area between my home and my constituency where they are widening the M1 and there are average-speed cameras," he said. "By encouraging that smoother flow of traffic you are getting greater reliability."

The Department for Transport said use of the new cameras was a matter for local authorities. "Whether to use safety cameras, and if so which sort of camera, are decisions for local road safety partnerships in light of the identified road safety problem," a spokeswoman said.

Not all drivers have been cheered by the forthcoming change. Some have described the new cameras as even worse than the fixed type. The new cameras, the manufacturers claim, are impossible to evade because they cover every entry and exit point and never run out of film.

Drivers who slow down briefly or who make a detour from the main route will still be caught because up to 50 cameras will work together in a network. They can be positioned more than 15 miles apart and will automatically read number plates and transmit data to a penalty processing centre.

Existing average-speed cameras cover a maximum of six miles, work in pairs and have to be connected by a cable, so their installation is costly and time consuming. Drivers can also escape detection by turning off the route between the cameras.

"Fixed cameras had some logic behind them, in that they could be used in specific accident black spots, like dangerous junctions, to make dozy drivers think about what they were doing," said Nigel Humphries from the Association of British Drivers. "Average-speed cameras will just make drivers switch off their brains and turn them into cruise control missiles."

The AA also has concerns over the new cameras, which it argues could cause drivers to drive too close together. "Everyone sticks to just under the speed limit but there are those who always want to be ahead of the pack and this results in bunching and tailgating. That is just as dangerous as speeding," said Edmund King, the president of the AA.

Mr Hoon also hinted he would reopen the debate over the lowering of Britain's drink-driving limit. The legal limit in the UK is currently 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. Most European countries have a limit of 50 milligrams.

He said he was "completely open-minded" about the limit, but said most accidents involved people many times over the limit. Research suggests that lowering the legal limit would save around 65 lives a year in Britain.