Speeding motorists targeted by automatic cameras: Terry Kirby looks at the photographic evidence that can convict motorists

THE DETECTION of crime by electronic surveillance takes another step forward this week when the first batch of cameras to automatically photograph speeding motorists comes into operation in London.

Since the Road Traffic Act became law in July, police can prosecute speeding motorists on the basis of photographs alone. This week, after extensive trials, the first devices, called Gatso Cameras after the Dutch racing driver who invented a prototype in 1953, begin clicking throughout a large area of west London.

Errant motorists, who will be expected to have seen the flash in their rear mirrors, will receive notices of prosecution once their numbers have been traced; a motorist who sped past a series of cameras could, in theory, tot up enough points in a single journey to lose his or her licence.

The London scheme is the most extensive use yet of the cameras, which have been praised by police but criticised by motorists and civil liberties groups.

Police and the Department of Transport hope the speed cameras will have the same effect of reducing accident rates as the red light detection cameras in use on a handful of main junctions in the area for just over a year.

Although it is hoped that motorists will be once-fined, twice-shy of speeding, deterrence is the main aim. There will also be roadside notices, warning motorists they are in a speed camera zone.

'If no one is prosecuted, we will be delighted,' Chief Superintendent Kevin Delaney, head of the Metropolitan Police traffic branch, said. 'These cameras are not out to trap people who are breaking the law. We want to get people to moderate their speed; we want them to drive as though there is a police car in their rear-view mirror.'

The number of camera boxes over several dozen miles of trunk road will eventually be no more than 20. They are situated where speeding is common, backed up by a small number of mobile cameras that can be positioned where police choose. By the end of this week, only about a dozen will have been permanently installed.

Not all of the cameras will be operating all the time; there will be periods when some will flash, but there will not be a camera inside or the film will have run out.

'The motorist will not know whether he has been photographed or not and we hope this will contribute to the deterrent effect,' Superintendent Tony Carman, who is in charge of the scheme, said.

Police are coy about the speed at which the camera will be triggered. Each film has 700 frames and each infringement will mean two photographs taken within a few seconds - an evidential requirement. If the film is set just above the speed limit, it would be used up in a matter of minutes. So the cameras are likely to work at around 10 miles per hour above the speed limit. The cameras are triggered by a radar beam or electronic sensors buried in the road.

At present, they are confined to the area termed the 'West London Wedge' by police, a rough triangle of trunk roads with more than 160 fatal accidents and 1,300 serious-injury accidents in the past five years. They are also operating on part of the Red Route - the A1 in Islington in north London. Red-light cameras have also been positioned on the A1.

The Department of Transport estimates that a one mile per hour reduction in overall speed levels will mean a 10 per cent drop in the number of accidents. One forecast is of more than 400 Gatso cameras in London and pounds 10m savings.

Their introduction elsewhere has been kept to a minimum by financially restricted police forces and local authorities. A number do have red-light cameras while two - Devon and Cornwall and the West Midlands - have limited speed-camera trials. Some may opt for the successful, but low-tech, approach of Lancashire Police: a fibreglass cut-out of a police Range Rover by the side of the M55.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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