So the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police and speed-camera evangelist Meredydd Hughes has been found guilty of travelling at 90mph on a road with a 60mph limit. That it happened in North Wales, where chief constable Richard Brunstrom practises an almost Taliban-like intolerance of speed, makes the discomfiture doubly ironic. No, make that a treble irony, for Hughes was, until this difficulty, the road-safety committee chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers. Ha, ha!
He has a six-week driving ban and a 350 fine, lenient for one who really should have known better. So you would expect an unholy alliance of safety zealots and driver's-interest organisations to be baying for Hughes's blood, or at least his resignation.
True to form, road-safety charity Brake offered this knee-jerk response. "It is shocking," said Brake's Jools Townsend, "that someone with Hughes's experience... should drive in a way that endangers lives. Speeding is a reckless and selfish act... By committing this deadly crime, Hughes undermines the work of traffic police to protect the safety of road users... He should seriously consider his position as a result."
The Association of British Drivers, meanwhile, is revelling in the hypocrisy. Before the court case, it asked: "Will [the magistrates] take into account his publicly stated views that exceeding a speed limit by any margin is always extremely dangerous?
"Or will they see him as a safe, highly trained professional driver who has broken the law without putting anyone at risk, and tend towards leniency? If they do, they will deepen the double standard that is driving a wedge between the public and the police."
But let's be charitable here. I think we should give Hughes another chance. He has hanged himself, and he is now in a uniquely high-profile position from which to see the intense feeling of injustice and of being mindlessly controlled that speed cameras can produce in people who know right from wrong, understand fair play and are responsible adults.
Many speed limits are hopelessly inappropriate, seemingly based on a car with bad brakes and bald tyres and a half-blind driver with a five-second reaction time. And we should stop being scared to say so. Most of us are pretty good at anticipating hazards and assessing risk, most of us can sense when a speed is right for the conditions, and there could be times and places where 90mph on a two-way road which happens to have the default 60mph limit is indeed safe. Shocking, but true.
The vital part is never to go faster than is safe for the circumstances, but every one of us with a beating heart breaks speed limits sometimes, maybe intentionally. Yet some of us have become so paranoid about breaking lowest-common-denominator limits that we drive with one eye permanently on the speedometer, lose any pride we had in the skills of good driving and no longer dare to overtake.
And, thanks to this insidious deskilling which leaves little place in the modern, repressive world for worthy bodies such as the Institute of Advanced Motorists, we seemingly crash as often as we did pre-camera, anyway. Nowadays, exercising skill and judgement will, likely as not, put you outside the law.
So "Med" Hughes, as he has become in the media, now has a new use: explaining to roads experts why he judged his speed to be safe, squashing the increasingly vicious restrict-and-punish culture, and encouraging trust in drivers' own risk-assessment abilities. It will require a conversion of Damascene dimensions, but if he can help to shift the emphasis away from repression and towards the responsibility and common sense that he probably still believes he exercised, he'd be doing us all a great big favour.Reuse content