Tom Sutcliffe: Speed cameras... just a flash in the pan?

Social Studies: The British motorist won't give up his right to park on a zebra-crossing so he can buy the children a croissant

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The war against motorists. Dear God, it's been tough. I lost good friends in the Battle of the M11 Slip Road and I've got plenty of scars of my own, old wounds that throb on those rainy cold nights when parking spaces are rare.

They all have a story to tell, these welts, of the long struggle against those who hate liberty and love public transport – the kind of road safety Nazi who simply doesn't understand that parking your car on a zebra-crossing so that you can buy the children a breakfast croissant is the kind of humble entitlement the British motorist won't yield up without a fight. But now at least we can glimpse the prospect of peace. The road safety minister, Mike Penning, has promised as much – announcing that central funding for speed cameras is to end. "This is another example of this government delivering on its pledge to end the war on the motorist," he told a grateful nation.

We had a street party round our way – pooling our fake disabled parking stickers to make bunting and ensuring that the trestle tables didn't impede the flow of traffic. Sadly, a passing motorist took out one of the neighbours who strayed from the pavement in all the excitement. But the rest of us agreed that it was a small price to pay for the right to drive at 40mph down a residential street.

I was a tiny bit puzzled by one thing though. One of the beliefs that kept us going through the dark days, after all, had been our leaders' assurances that speed cameras didn't have anything to do with safety but really existed to raise revenue for greedy councils. It wasn't an instrument of civil governance, we were told, it was a kind of highway robbery, designed to channel money from our pockets towards the kind of thug bureaucrat who'd think nothing of putting a cycle-path across your favourite rat-run.

I remember the dizzying figures being bandied about – and how our fighting spirit rose at the thought of this stealth tax on petrol-heads. But now it seems as if they weren't even covering their own costs. If the subsidy goes so do they.

I confess that left me rattled for a moment. I even found myself wondering whether the war against motorists had ever truly existed. Sounds utterly crazy, I know. All that pain, all those penalty-charge cheques. The terrible, dehumanising experience of being forced to travel at (or just under) the posted speed limit. But could it be that we'd been lied to, that the war was just an invention to stop us asking too many questions about road subsidies and congestion and the power of the motoring lobby?

You'll be glad to know I've come to my senses now. I don't really know why I doubted. And I'll be there for the Victory Drive down Whitehall. I understand Jeremy Clarkson's going to lead it.

I fear for those whose faces don't fit



Barring a courtroom success for Barack Obama, a large-scale human experiment will begin in Arizona later this week, where a new law making it a crime to be an illegal immigrant takes effect from Thursday. The law requires the police to investigate the status of anyone they encounter in the course of a lawful stoppage if they have "reasonable suspicion" that they are illegal immigrants. Opponents have pointed out that the possession of Latino features is likely to count as a rather literal form of prima facie evidence – exposing all Hispanic citizens to discriminatory treatment, both official and unofficial.

Already many illegal immigrants are packing up and heading for the Arizona border – not with Mexico, because, ironically, that's too difficult to cross these days – but for neighbouring states not seeking "attrition through enforcement" (part of the official wording of the new bill). The experiment is simple – will the expulsion of illegal immigrants lead to economic upturn for Arizona – with rising wages and falling unemployment, as supporters claim? Or will it lead to economic stagnation and falling tax rolls, as opponents of the law suggest?

Questions of human charity, social justice and basic civil rights will play little part in assessing the results – and, one fears, won't count for a great deal if Arizona's hardliners show that it pays to have your own version of a Nuremberg law on the books.







Deterrents that may have the reverse effect



In any debate on prison and criminology I would usually expect to find myself on the liberal wing – open to the idea of restorative justice and sceptical about "short sharp shock". But listening to a radio report about young offenders the other day I did find myself wondering whether there might be one drawback to holding off on incarceration until all other approaches had failed.

Various contributors described the mounting ratchet of supervision orders, probation and community service which often preceded a custodial sentence – and it occurred to me that in our current arrangements we may simply be boiling frogs – effectively getting offenders accustomed to various deterrents so that they barely notice the increasing heat. At each stage their sense of themselves as uncontrollable – by others or themselves – is toughened a little further.

Might there be grounds for a very short spell of something bracingly uncomfortable to be followed (after just two or three days) with the liberal (and more effective) interventions – so that supervision orders or community service look like privileges worth fighting to keep, rather than a nuisance worth ignoring?

Perhaps it would simply be too expensive. Perhaps I've gravely underestimated the foresight of those involved. But starting with the thick end of the wedge might provide some of them with a better incentive to make the thin end work.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk



For further reading :

'Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)' by Tom Vanderbilt, published by Penguin

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