Speeding drivers revel in Oxford's great switch-off

When the county council turned off all its Gatso cameras, motorists quickly returned to law-breaking ways, reports Mark Hughes

The A44 Woodstock Road is the type of place for which speed cameras were invented. The pretty, tree-lined street serves as both a busy thoroughfare to Oxford town centre and a bustling residential area, complete with a church and nursery school.

A speed camera in its yellow box still sits on a grass verge at the side of the road, but yesterday drivers took no notice of it, zooming past at speeds well over the 30mph limit with no fear of a fine or points on their licence.

Earlier this month Oxfordshire council switched off every speed camera in the county and, judging by their speeds and the fanfare which accompanied the news, the drivers know it.

What they did not know, however, is that the film was left inside two of the speed cameras for a five-day test period. During that time the cameras secretly recorded the speed of passing cars.

And, while the drivers will face no prosecution, the results of the experiment proved what road safety groups feared: with the Gatso cameras out of action, drivers simply ignored the speed limit.

On Woodstock Road, 110 drivers were caught travelling at more than 35mph along the 30mph road in the five-day test period. That's 18 per cent more than the number of drivers who used to be caught speeding in an average week.

It is a law-breaking trend which, owing to Government budget cuts, could soon be replicated across the country. And it is a situation which has provoked anger from road safety groups and senior police officers who say lives are being put at risk.

The decision to switch off the 72 fixed and 89 mobile speed cameras in Oxfordshire came after the county council had its central-government Road Safety Grant of £1m cut by £300,000. In turn, the council cut the budget of the Thames Valley Safer Roads Partnership – the group which maintains the speed camera network in Oxfordshire – by £600,000 and, in effect, forced the switching off of every speed camera in the county.

The cuts to the road safety grant were mirrored in every council across England and Wales. The Government says it is up to local councils, if they so desire, to fund the speed camera network using money earmarked for other areas.

But this has been ridiculed by road safety groups, who say that cutting a road safety budget is encouraging councils to scrap speed cameras.

Ellen Booth, a spokeswoman for Brake, said: "The government is saying that it is up to local councils and that they have not made anyone turn any cameras off. What we are saying is that if the Government cuts road safety funding, the cameras are going to be switched off."

But, financial motives aside, there is safety to consider. Thames Valley Police and senior officers from other forces have reacted angrily to the decision to remove speed cameras.

They point to statistics published by the Department of Transport in 2005 which highlighted the virtues of speed cameras.

The report examined thousands of cameras installed across England and Wales between 2000 and 2004.

It monitored sites before and after cameras were installed and showed that the cameras brought about a 70 percent reduction in speeding. The report also said that fatal accidents were reduced by 42 per cent, and that serious injuries fell by 22 per cent.

A survey for the AA appears to dampen the suggestion, so often peddled by certain elements of the media, that the Gatso is the scourge of the driver. It shows that 70 per cent of its 15,000 members accept that speed cameras play an important part in road safety.

Chief Constable Mick Giannasi of Gwent Police is the road safety spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo). He said: "Only the minority of people would say that speed cameras are unnecessary. Most sensible and balanced people understand that they are necessary.

"Our position at Acpo is that speed cameras are the cornerstone of reducing speeding and deaths on the road."

Mr Giannasi says that last year 2,222 people died on the roads in England and Wales. He says that a Government target set in 1998 was to reduce deaths by 40 percent by 2010. By last year the reduction was 45 per cent. He added: "There is no doubt in my mind that cameras have helped bring that down. Those who criticise them will say that improved vehicle design and the increasing capabilities of the emergency services have been responsible. And, yes, these things do have an impact, but so do speed cameras.

"With budgets being cut, it is likely we will see other areas going the same way. I know that Wiltshire is set to follow suit. And yes, we will still have officers with speed guns and officers in vans, but it is not going to have the same impact as speed cameras. It is unrealistic to think we can replace a system that has been removed.

"My concern is that we will see the reduction in serious accidents and death being reversed."

The decision by the Government to cut road-safety budgets comes shortly after the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, pledged that the coalition Government would "end the war on motorists".

Mr Giannasi added: "There is not a war on the motorist and there never has been. We are trying to stop people dying on the roads. That is not a war, it is a noble cause. We are disappointed by the statement from the secretary of state and we are not shy about saying so."

Back on the Woodstock Road Carla Bramble, a 45-year-old housewife who has lived there all her life said: "Cars used to slow down when they saw the camera and, because there is another one along the road, they would maintain that speed.

"But now they belt along the road as fast as they like. People have read the papers and they know that all the cameras are off. They know they can go as fast as they want on this road now, and that is what they seem to be doing."

Explainer: Speed cameras

* Introduced onto Britain's roads in 1992, more than 6,000 speed cameras are currently in operation in the UK.

* Far from being a money-making tool for local councils the amount of fines collected per year is usually about £20m fewer than what the Government spends on road safety.

* A Department of Transport report in 2005 found that the average speed of drivers falls by six per cent when passing a camera (about 2mph), while driving faster than the law allows is cut by about 70 per cent. Fatal accidents at camera sites are 42 per cent lower than they were at the same site before a camera was erected. Serious accidents fell by 22 per cent.

* It is accepted that this could be simply because the majority of drivers will slow down before and after a camera and speed up afterwards. This is slowly being eradicated thanks the increasing prevalence of average speed cameras, machines which work out the average speed of a vehicle travelling through a designated area.

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