John Harris: How I learnt to love the speed cameras

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The Independent Online

Strange things are happening in the wilds of Middle England. While provincial Tories squirm with horror at the idea of abandoning their stiff-backed moralism in favour of the touchy-feely world of "inclusiveness", many of their peers have already pulled off a yet-more unlikely metamorphosis. It started on Monday: droves of adherents to the Rule of Law suddenly mutated into anarchists ­ village-green Kropotkinites, one and all.

The source of their anger was the Government's plans to multiply the number of what are officially known as "police enforcement cameras". The target, apparently, is to fine 10 million drivers a year at £60 a pop ­ raising money, reportedly, to buy "still more speed cameras". This, at least, seems deeply unlikely. Do the math: £600m would buy so many of the devices that driving along the A1 would feel like exiting the Met Bar in the company of Michael Jackson.

Whatever the arithmetic, speed cameras are a fascinating addition to modern life. Why, for example, is the stylised camera on the sign a decidedly Victorian model? Visiting foreigners must think this is yet another example of British quaintness: top-hatted photographers fidgeting under an expanse of black sheet somewhere behind a shrub on the embankment. The image suggests that those who fear getting caught should drive faster ­ at Fox-Talbot-era shutter speeds they'll come out as a spectral blur.

In reality, of course, they work a treat. Last week, I had the pleasure of spending two hours wending my way up the A34 between Birmingham and Manchester. I presume the Government has no plans for that stretch of highway, because that night there were many more speed cameras than cars.

At every stage of the journey, the resulting tableau brought a tear to the eye: every motorist ­ even plasterers in white vans and fat blokes driving Audis ­ obediently sticking to the rules, while children and small animals happily frolicked on the pavement. It was election night. "There is such a thing as society," I mused, "even if it takes Orwellian surveillance methods and the threat of a fine to pull it all together."

I should, confess, mind you, that I take a great deal of pleasure in seeing the UK's speed freaks forced to slow down. A fortnight back, I was pulled over in the Rugby area, having gaily made my way up north at 101mph. And fair play, too: though, for some reason or other I was not taken to court and so did not join Chris Evans and Geri Halliwell in the ranks of the successfully prosecuted, I learned my lesson. I am now a "take refuge behind that Eddie Stobart lorry at a steady 65" kind of guy. A-roads tend to force me into the bracket of old dears in their wheezing Austins.

So, I've learned to love to the speed camera. As for the seething RAC-endorsed insurrectionists, I'm reminded of that classic bit of TV footage, filmed around the time when the Government first moved against drink-driving "This is a matter of personal liberty," spat a man with his car keys in one hand and a pint in the other. "I've been drinking a gallon of bitter and driving past schools at half past three in the afternoon since 1912. The police should concentrate on tracking that Biggs fellow. Incidentally, you're my besht mate, you are."

On sober reflection, the latter-day heirs to this proud libertarian tradition will doubtless see sense. They have nothing to lose but their Emerson Fitipaldi fantasies. In return, they'll get a life free of four of the curses of modern motoring: 1) Rejected insurance claims, 2)Irate policemen, 3) Monday morning visits to the nick with one's "documents", and 4) The heart-stopping clang of bodies bouncing off their bonnet. That's why, if anyone cruises past me, hugging the kerb and listening to Classic FM, they'll see that I'm wearing a very big smile indeed.

johnrhys.harris@virgin.nets

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