When did you last see a traffic cop? When did you last see a speed camera? Evidence suggests that robotic enforcement is replacing human policing on our roads.

When did you last see a traffic cop? When did you last see a speed camera? Evidence suggests that robotic enforcement is replacing human policing on our roads.

Does this matter? Yes it does, because, according to the Police Federation, respect for rank-and-file police is being damaged by over-reliance on speed cameras. The RAC Foundation is also worried that a significant drop in the numbers of traffic police in England and Wales is enabling motoring offenders to get away with other serious crimes.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has admitted traffic police numbers dropped by 11 per cent between 1996 and 2001, and justified the fall on the grounds that greater use of cameras compensated for the loss of police numbers. It does not.

The RAC Foundation is calling for urgent action to curb this decline in traffic police and to provide a more visible police presence on roads. Included in the Foundation's suggestions are:

* The re-introduction of traffic policing as a core function. Traffic officers should have a dual role in the detection of traffic and mainstream criminal offences;

* Concentration of speed cameras at accident blackspots and traffic lights, with clear speed limit signs;

* A national scheme of speed awareness courses offered in lieu of fines and penalty points. Pilot courses have been extremely successful in changing people's attitudes towards speeding.

Speed cameras caught one and a half million motorists in 2002, but the success of traffic policing should be measured by reductions in accidents rather than increases in prosecutions. Offences that cannot be caught on camera, such as drink driving, are going largely undetected, while the number of motorists driving without insurance, tax or licences is growing.

The appointment of Highways Agency "Traffic Officers" to patrol motorways should free up police to concentrate on other areas of crime. But, in practice, it could be a further erosion of the human face of policing. Likewise, allowing local authority parking attendants to police other offences will probably mean there are fewer traffic police to pull over the dangerous driver involved in mainstream crime.

The big increase in the use of speed cameras does not justify the decline in numbers of traffic police. Some people now take the chance of drinking and driving because they think that they will not be stopped.

Research for the Home Office shows that people convicted of a serious motoring offence are more likely to have previous convictions for other serious crimes. With traffic police numbers in decline, these criminals are being allowed to get away with it.

Speeding is a serious offence, and cameras have a role to play in reducing accidents, but the camera should be one weapon in the police armoury rather than the entire arsenal.

In a Department for Transport study into contributing factors in UK road accidents, excessive speed was a factor in just 12.5 per cent, putting it in seventh place behind errors such as driver inattention and failure to judge another driver's speed.

Of course, "speed kills" and the horrific death toll on our roads must be reduced. But if we want to make a greater impact on reducing accidents we must understand where and why accidents happen.

The RAC Foundation feels it is time for the Government to instigate an independent audit into the role of safety camera partnerships.

Edmund King is chief executive of the RAC Foundation

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