Analysis: News flash: speed cameras are making our roads safer

Department for Transport figures suggest that, for all their unpopularity, roadside cameras have dramatically reduced traffic casualties
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Some drivers can be rendered apoplectic by the very mention of speed cameras. One device on the M11 near Woodford in Essex – which caught 2,000 drivers speeding in 24 hours – was destroyed when someone deliberately reversed a lorry into it.

Some drivers can be rendered apoplectic by the very mention of speed cameras. One device on the M11 near Woodford in Essex – which caught 2,000 drivers speeding in 24 hours – was destroyed when someone deliberately reversed a lorry into it.

Few, however, have gone as far as the motorist who recently used explosives to blow up a camera near Oundle, Northamptonshire.

Predictably there are a number of exotic theories about how to avoid detection. Some drivers swear by Boots facial glitter – the kind beloved of teenage girls – which they spray on their number plates supposedly to make them unreadable. Boy racers argue that if a vehicle travels fast enough the camera will fail to spot it, a myth debunked by the BBC2 programme Top Gear which found that a car would have to travel at more than 171mph to avoid detection.

The favourite argument against speed cameras is that they cause as many crashes as they prevent. Drivers routinely ignore the limit until they encounter the lines across the road used to detect excessive speed and then brake sharply, endangering drivers behind.

However, the assertion that the cameras cause accidents rather than prevent them is not borne out by official statistics published yesterday. A report compiled for the Government said the number of deaths and serious injuries fell by 35 per cent where speed cameras were in operation. According to a Department for Transport calculation, 280 people would either have died or been seriously injured if the cameras had not been in place.

The findings refer to pilot schemes in eight areas of the UK: Cleveland, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Strathclyde, Essex, South Wales and the Thames Valley. Out of £27m collected in speeding fines in the areas over two years, the authorities were allowed to keep £21m to invest in more cameras. Another 25 areas have joined the project and the Department for Transport said it hoped others would sign up. Officials estimate the benefit to society from the fall in casualties was £112m. The number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured fell by 5 per cent in areas around cameras, while accidents involving personal injury fell by 14 per cent.

The number of vehicles speeding at camera sites dropped by 67 per cent. The average speed at sites fell by 10 per cent, while in urban areas the average speed fell by 12 to 13 per cent. The number of people killed or seriously injured fell by 67 per cent in Strathclyde, 62 per cent in Lincolnshire and 53 per cent in Cleveland, the report into the schemes found.

But opponents of the schemes point to the fact that the number of deaths and serious injuries within 500 metres of speed cameras in Essex and the Thames Valley rose by 15 per cent and 14 per cent respectively. Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, conceded that the Essex and Thames Valley results were disappointing. He believes other measures may have to be introduced and the position of the cameras reconsidered.

The report was given a qualified welcome by public transport and safety groups. The road safety charity Brake praised the cut in the number of deaths but said the Government needed to do more to change drivers' views.

A spokesman said: "People need to appreciate that cameras are there to save lives and they are not there to trap drivers. We want to see a change in attitude, because when you tell people that a person only has a 10 per cent chance of surviving if they are hit at 40mph, they start to listen." He argued that the Government should consider increasing fines. "If somebody thinks they will get a £60 ticket, that's a deterrent but it won't necessarily stop them. If the fine was much higher, then they would think twice."

Motoring organisations suspect that only one in ten of the roadside "boxes" has a functioning camera inside, although all will flash cars that exceed the limit.

Where the boxes are fully equipped, they can be set as much as 8mph above the legal limit. Even then police officers will use their discretion if, for instance, the road is empty and weather conditions perfect. The problem is that different police forces have different policies, some more liberal than others.

The pressure group Transport 2000 is angered by the recent requirement for authorities to paint speed cameras in bright colours so motorists can see them, and will challenge the practice in the High Court on 20 March.

The AA conceded that the figures released by the Government were "fairly dramatic". But it argued that while the cameras in most of the eight pilot areas were sited scientifically, elsewhere they are "peppered all over the place" at the whim of local police forces. A spokesman for the motoring organisation said nearly 80 per cent of motorists supported speed cameras. But he added: "They tend to lose patience and their enthusiasm for the cameras where they are sited simply so that the police can win easy convictions or where they feel entrapped. They also tend to catch drivers who are new to a stretch of road, more rarely catching locals who know where the cameras are sited."

Motoring organisations fear police may have taken their eye off the ball to secure speeding convictions. While speeding convictions have soared from 448,000 in 1990 to more than a million, far fewer drivers have been caught for more serious offences. Prosecutions for dangerous driving in the past 10 years have dropped from 7,600 to 5,200. Convictions for careless driving more than halved from 86,000 to 41,000.

The AA spokesman said: "We know there has been a decline in drunken driving, but we doubt whether that accounts for all the reduction. No one would say that the standards of driving are better. The fact is that it is time-consuming and incredibly expensive to pursue the more serious offences."

Brian Gregory, chairman of the Association of British Drivers, believes the Government may have "fiddled" the figures relating to the pilot schemes and that the raw data does not support the Government's assertions.

Mr Gregory argues that while speed increases the impact of a crash, only a tiny proportion of accidents are caused by motorists exceeding the limit. He believes that accident "blackspots" are often caused by poor road engineering and argues that 84 per cent crashes involving pedestrians were not the fault of the driver.

There was a "wealth of anecdotal evidence" that drivers slowing down to avoid being caught by a camera had caused accidents, he said.

Mr Darling said cameras did not constitute "the whole answer". He said a series of measures had to be applied such as better education and the introduction of speed humps. Mr Darling confirmed that his department was reviewing the level of penalty points and fines.

'Deterrent' that trapped a million drivers

The money raised

Motorists were trapped 1.1 million times by speed and traffic light cameras in 2001, a rise of 39 per cent. At £40 per fixed penalty notice, that means a revenue of £44m. This will grow with the increase in cameras (see right) and a recent rise in the fixed penalty fine to £60.

How many are there?

Reliable figures are hard to obtain because police forces administer their own schemes, but one estimate is 4,500. Thousands more are planned, including 1,000 in London, where there are now 650. More mobile cameras will be installed in police vans sent to accident blackspots.

Camera facts

Each camera costs between £30,000 and £40,000. About 600 speeding fines pay for one. Motorists have come up with all manner of ruses to disable them, from dumping tyres on them to blowing them up. This week the first driver was arrested for using a laser "jammer" to stop a camera working.