Mark McArthur-Christie: Speed cameras - simple, neat... and wrong

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Indy Lifestyle Online

In 1901 Richard Moffat Ford became the first person in the UK to fall victim to a speed trap. It was nothing more technologically advanced than a constable hiding in a hedge with a stopwatch. Today camera partnerships can call on fixed speed cameras, mobile speed cameras and even cameras that measure your average speed and issue a ticket automatically. The chief constable for North Wales upped the stakes for drivers last week when he called for cameras to be sited on all roads in the UK - not just those with a history of accidents.

In 1901 Richard Moffat Ford became the first person in the UK to fall victim to a speed trap. It was nothing more technologically advanced than a constable hiding in a hedge with a stopwatch. Today camera partnerships can call on fixed speed cameras, mobile speed cameras and even cameras that measure your average speed and issue a ticket automatically. The chief constable for North Wales upped the stakes for drivers last week when he called for cameras to be sited on all roads in the UK - not just those with a history of accidents.

Actually, this is a little disingenuous of Mr Brunstrom. It's happening already by default. According to Home Office guidelines, cameras can be used up to 5km away from accident sites. Also, the accidents concerned do not need to have speed as a factor; they can have been caused by a blind junction, a slippery road or simply plain old driver inattention. Perhaps this explains why many straight, clear sections of road are now home to a camera.

Back in 1992, when cameras were introduced, they caught a mere 290 speeding drivers. By the end of 1997, the UK's 1,300-strong camera network pushed that to 390,000. In 2002, more than 1,630,000 drivers saw the unmistakable double flash in their mirrors and heard the thud of a thick manila envelope hitting the doormat. Around 20 per cent of the driving public now have speeding points on their licences. But road deaths are up. Last year, despite millions spent on Kill Your Speed cameras, lower limits and tougher enforcement, road deaths increased by 2 per cent.

Why is Mr Brunstrom's hardline speed-enforcement policy not working? For the same reasons that the "speed kills" policy underlying it has not worked. It makes three dangerous assumptions, none of which is backed by fact. The first leap is that exceeding speed limits causes crashes; the second is that adhering to a posted speed limit will stop drivers crashing; the third is that enforcing those speed limits absolutely will reduce deaths.

Speed is certainly a simple enough issue to address superficially. Put up cameras, paint them whatever colour you like, raise fines, put in new blanket speed limits and propose stiff new penalties for exceeding them, then watch the accident figures tumble. Sadly, as we have seen, they are not falling.

HL Mencken said: "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." Speed cameras are a simple solution to a hugely complex problem. They completely fail to differentiate between exceeding a speed limit and an inappropriate speed for the conditions. They take no account of observation, anticipation, hazard management or driving skill and reduce road safety to a sort of mindless "driving by numbers".

Of course, we are required to observe speed limits at all times, but is there any physical law that makes 30mph safe and 35mph deadly? Yes - one can stop quicker if one is driving slower; assuming good brakes, quick reactions, good tyres and... but there we go already, adding caveats to what is supposed to be an absolute and simple rule. Is it really that simple?

Speed cameras, traffic calming and lowered speed limits encourage the majority of drivers to think that it's easy - by sticking to a limit they are safe - when nothing could be further from the truth. Poor drivers driving slowly crash at lower speeds - but they still crash and they still kill people. Do we believe this is acceptable?

We need to refocus the road safety debate away from speed limits and on to the much more complex and politically unpalatable subject of driver standards, education and training. It's only when we recognise how complex the driving process is and educate all road users accordingly that we'll start to reduce crashes.

The writer is Road Safety Spokesman for the Association of British Drivers

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