Friday, November 18, 2005

T#5: Aneurism

Note on the following entry. It's late, I'm tired, and I've opened a mental can of worms with the discussion of the ANPR system (see text below for explanation!). I hate to make excuses but there will be better things written on this, and as a consequence I reserve the right to pull this entry entirely should I need to - on the basis that I've expanded on the discussion and consequently it conflicts with a coursework requirement! Blah.

Richard Porter. Now there’s a man whose sense of humour often eludes me.

However, his column in Evo magazine this month is exactly on the button. By using the French as a contra-example, he successfully exposes the absurdities of the bad habits of British motoring that are causing our tarmac arteries to clog up. Poor lane-discipline, idiotic speeds in the wet, slothful rural progress, the lost art of overtaking – all these things are aiming us towards some kind of automotive aneurism. My God, when you come across five cars sitting sedately in the middle lane of the M1, travelling at a whole 65mph, with nothing between them and the hard shoulder except two white lines and what passes for fresh air – doesn’t it just make you mad? What is wrong with these people? Do they not realise that the vehicles streaming passed their right-hand windows, nose-to-tail in the outside lane at 70, 80, 90mph, could travel more safely and with less chance of aggravation if they just moved over?

Lane discipline is my particular abhorrence at the moment. But that’s only because the majority of the driving I’m doing is either on multilane carriageways, or around Coventry (a unique experience unto only itself). Same journey as above: travelling fast in the outside lane I come up behind someone in Merc ragtop – with two empty lanes inside of them. I flash my headlights, because it’s obvious in spite of the speed differential between us and what should have been the sudden appearance of a large white car in their mirrors, they haven’t seen me. They dutifully move over – but as soon as I’m passed they move back, and carry on with three white lines and what passes for fresh air between them and the hard shoulder. What can you do?

Well, you could undertake. And thus the first pulsations of the aneurism flicker and twitch. I never undertake – unless, as the Highway Code says, I’m travelling in a queue that’s moving faster than the one outside of it. People do though, and this just frustrates the poor individuals stuck behind the slower moving traffic that refuses to budge over. Tension mounts, stupidity occurs. I very vividly remember once watching two duelling Mondeos on the M25 – they began cutting each other up at insane speeds as a direct result of this. The red mists descend and accidents…they loom in the background like visions of the undead, waiting.

Ok, so this is getting a little melodramatic. And actually it’s not the accidents that worry me – these are merely more symptoms of the disease that’s eating away at the road network that provides the lifeblood to every area of this country. What really concerns me is that as we, the motoring public, prove incapable – too lazy, apathetic – of doing anything about these issues ourselves, so someone else out there is looking for the answer, for a cure. And that someone is the ACPO – the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Richard Porter also introduced the French theory on speed camera placement in his recent column – sensible placement, good visibility, and a whacking great sign to tell you one’s coming. How’s that compare to the UK? Starting with the Sunday Times on November 13th, a number of news articles have appeared this week regarding the Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras that have suddenly sprung up around the country. Go back a bit further and you’ll see that these started off being touted as a way to rid our streets of the scourge that is the uninsured driver. I’m all for that – and I expect you are, too.

But – sorry, was it obvious that was coming? – take a look at the way these cameras work. They scan the numberplate of every vehicle that passes, and process it through an enormous computer database. This has vast crime-fighting applications, yes, as it will effectively track vehicle movement throughout the UK and be useful for following suspicious activity. But it also has massive privacy implications as well, because regardless of whether you are doing anything wrong, the data from the cameras will apparently be kept on file for two years. Ignoring the fact that’s a pretty gigantic amount of storage space they’re going to need, expand the remit once again: if these things are tracking vehicle movement they can be used to measure speed.

Plans to place them every 400 yards on the motorway are afoot. This is the utopian dream of Meredydd Hughes, ACPO’s head of traffic policing. As everyone else who has picked up on this comments, that’s an extremely repetitive checking regime – so it’s got to be about enforcing the speed limit.

The justification given is variability – the management of traffic flow. This is the opening gambit of a trial on the M42; even before the crime prevention part kicks in they enforce the variable speed limit. Anyone else suspect this is at least partially due to the revenue raising prospects available in catching the “ordinary” driver in a moment of mishap? These cameras have to pay for themselves, you know.

But managing the flow is important – it’s vital, because more and more of us need to get places and we’re going by car. If we can’t sort our own problems out then it’s going to be done for us. I.e.: if you’re sat pointlessly in the middle or outside “overtaking” lanes you are holding someone up.

Speeds ascend as discipline declines – the frustration of sitting behind someone in the wrong lane sends your foot further into the carpet when the road clears. Greater velocity leads to all kinds of consequences – not the least the increased possibility of a speeding ticket. Bad driving habits cause tremors, and every tremor can become a spike – an accident, a tailback, an interruption in the flow, pressure on the artery. The debate – not argument – we should be having is about the use of public money: driver training vs. increasing revenue collection. I’ve hardly scarred the paintwork so far as talking about ANPR is concerned, a topic that shall return, but it is apparent that certain people in this country see it as an elixir – even for symptoms that shouldn’t exist.

It’s up to us – the motoring public – to do something about this. Before the cameras go Big Brother on us, and our motoring life is reduced to data entries on an electronic list.

In order to avoid confusion, I’ll point out that I’m referring to the Richard Porter that scripts much of the Top Gear TV prog, is author of Crap Cars (of which there's an American version out by the way), and the originator of

For more information about ANPR follow the links:

VIP news on uninsured drivers

The Sunday Times on "spy cameras"

The Register on "Gatso 2 rollout"

Pistonheads on "Gatso 2"

Picture of ANPR camera from


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