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We're MAD as hell...

He's a modern-day folk hero who says speed cameras are highway robbery. His followers have wrecked 750 of them. So, asks Malcolm Macalister Hall, who is Captain Gatso?

Captain Gatso won't meet me face to face, on the grounds that "some of the press wants to expose me". He'll reveal only that he's a "Londoner in his late thirties" and a "family man, with a responsible job". And a mobile number. And a Tony Blair joke-shop mask. That's all. When he calls, it's on his mobile. "Can't let you have my landline," he says conspiratorially. "That would be giving the game away, wouldn't it?"

Captain Gatso won't meet me face to face, on the grounds that "some of the press wants to expose me". He'll reveal only that he's a "Londoner in his late thirties" and a "family man, with a responsible job". And a mobile number. And a Tony Blair joke-shop mask. That's all. When he calls, it's on his mobile. "Can't let you have my landline," he says conspiratorially. "That would be giving the game away, wouldn't it?"

Captain Gatso has become famous for wearing the foolishly-grinning Blair mask on stunts and photo-opportunities to publicise the underground group of pro-car, anti-speed camera activists Motorists Against Detection, or MAD for short. Speed cameras on motorways and open roads, he insists, serve merely to fleece Britain's drivers. "They're part of this Government's continuing war on the motorist - and who's this Government headed by? Mr Blair. That's why I wear the mask."

The mock-superhero name is inspired by Maurice Gatsonides, the Dutch former rally-driver who invented the speed trap named after him - the gatsometer, or gatso. Founded in 1958 and based in the Dutch town of Haarlem, Gatsometer BV now sells its speed-detection equipment to 50 countries. In Britain, its cameras cost £32,000 each. In the past two years, MAD claims to have vandalised, disabled, blown up or destroyed in some manner about 750 speed cameras on our roads. Many of them have been repeatedly attacked.

"It goes," says Captain Gatso, "from very low-level criminal damage: stickers or spray-paint on the lenses. Then 'necklacing', which is a tyre filled with petrol," which is then hung over the camera box and set alight. "Then there's 'decapitation' [where the camera is felled with an angle-grinder], or a vehicle reversing into it to knock it over. Then there's shotguns and things like that, up to e-x-p-l-o-s-i-v-e-s," he says, spelling the word out.

"You can't say it, because then you get the authorities listening in on your calls. But yes, some people have got extreme, and members of ours have worked in quarries and got hold of stuff." Captain Gatso says cameras have been blown up in Northamptonshire, in Northern Ireland, and on the A37 in Somerset.

MAD, he claims, now has almost 300 members, "from Northern Ireland, to the Highlands of Scotland, to the south coast of England, and everywhere in between". Their actions clearly constitute criminal damage, and perhaps conspiracy. So, he says, they keep in touch with each other via encrypted e-mails.

"This is an orchestrated, organised effort. Yes, we do damage the cameras, and yes, the authorities do put them back up and, yes, they do get done again. But we do not touch cameras sited in proper accident black-spots, or built-up areas. Those cameras, we applaud. We want to see more of them. But it's the revenue-generators we go after; the ones on major trunk roads, motorways and main roads. Because 75 per cent of accidents happen in built-up areas, and that's where the cameras should be.

"What we object to is the sheer injustice and the non-discretionary nature of the cameras. Anyone who has access to a motor vehicle will have exceeded a posted speed limit at some time in their life, whether it's a 17-year-old who's just passed his test, or my Nan. Thereby, in the eyes of the law, we are all criminals."

For Britain's 32 million drivers, speed cameras are an increasingly contentious issue, regarded by many as a major daily irritant. A flash from a loaded camera can result in a £60 fine and three penalty points on your licence - even if it's at 5am on a deserted dual carriageway. Drivers paid £73m in speed-camera fines last year.

But in 2002 - the latest year for which figures are available - 3,431 people were killed in UK road accidents and nearly 36,000 seriously injured. This week, if fate deals its usual cards, 66 people will die on Britain's roads. If this slaughter were caused by any other form of transport there'd be uproar. But, amazingly, Britain has the safest roads in Europe, mile for mile.

Captain Gatso, meanwhile, has the unshakeable conviction of the libertarian, single-issue activist. Speed cameras, he says, are "a cancer spreading across the Western world". MAD have been described as "terrorists" by a senior police officer. "The copper should buy himself a dictionary, because all we're terrorising is this Government's and the police's cash machines," retorts Captain Gatso.

"The people doing this are not just a bunch of vandals - there's something more. We wanted to politicise this issue. Questions have been asked about us in the Scottish and British parliaments. And I would suggest that speed cameras will be an important part of any serious party's manifesto at the next general election. With this Government's continuing war against the motorist, the 32-million strong voting, motoring public are coming to the end of their tether.

"We talk about the fun and games and the criminal damage, but it's a much more serious, contentious issue than that. We keep on doing this to keep the issue in the limelight, and then we leave it to 'proper' people, like the motoring organisations, to address it and lobby it correctly."

He says his crusade began in 2000. "It kicked off when a few family members got caught on the same camera in north-west London. I don't really want to say any more. But I'm a fair-weather motorcyclist, and having a lot of biker friends, it mushroomed from there."

On legal advice, he insists that he is purely a spokesman for MAD. "Yes, I do know what goes on, but I'm not going to say to you that I am an architect of the group, or that what I say goes. That may or may not be the case. We have a campaigns director - who may or may not be me - but I can tell you that I have never gone round disabling cameras. But we have plenty of members who do."

If he is ever arrested, he believes, he would face serious charges. "I think that they would probably try to make an example of me. We are very careful because we don't want to be infiltrated. We have had the odd - you know - near miss." So he varies his routes to and from work, and watches for people tailing him.

On the road, he treats speed limits as "purely advisory". He says he owns one of the fastest production motorcycles currently available, with a top speed of about 180mph. "I very rarely look at the speedometer. I will ride to the limits of the bike and myself - but only if the conditions are right." And yet, he insists, he has never been successfully prosecuted on speed-camera evidence.

"I live in central London, but my vehicles are registered miles away, north of the border. I have acquaintances who have wodges of unpaid tickets for motoring offences." He says the boom in fines for speeding and parking offences creates an underclass of motorists who are incorrectly or illegally registering their vehicles to company post-office box numbers or acquaintances' addresses - anywhere the penalty notices won't find them. Already one in 20 motorists is thought to be driving without insurance. "Mayor Ken Livingstone's plan to put cameras all over London will just encourage more people not to register their vehicles properly," he says. "If you go into a pub it's spoken about all the time, and what scams people use to get off tickets. It's a political hot potato."

Road-safety organisations and the Department for Transport say the evidence is that speed cameras do save lives. "We insist on cameras only being installed at sites where there is a history of speeding and casualties," says a spokeswoman for the DfT. "They are there for road-safety reasons only. We don't want to take people's money: we want to slow people down, change driver behaviour and save lives. Where cameras have been placed, we have seen a 35 per cent reduction in deaths and serious injuries. We know they work, and we know they save lives."

Meanwhile, Captain Gatso is scanning his e-mails. "I'm looking at some mails I've got from one of our guys in the Midlands. Somebody is offering his services; he can get stuff from quarries. We're talking e-x-p-l-o-s-i-v-e-s. And another guy says, 'I have a 44-ton truck. I would love to reverse it over anything you fancy...'"