Sunday, January 22, 2006

#13: Camera Action

I haven’t written anything about speed cameras for a while, so I thought I’d better bring myself up to date. There’ve been a number of recent announcements that make interesting contributions to the seemingly perpetual discourse that surround these electronic sentinels of “safety”, but I’m going to try and take a look from the government’s perspective.

November year last saw the “shock” decision from the government to rein in the increasingly fast-paced proliferation of camera-blight on our highways. Sceptics look upon this as some kind of popularity drive – but I would question this claim simply on the basis of why then? There had been no louder uproar than usual about anything in particular in relation to these infernal devices – unless you count the limited coverage surrounding the upscaling of so-called “Gatso 2” Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras, or Road Safety Minister Stephen Ladyman’s appearance on Top Gear. If you really want me to be cynical the first of these may bare some further contemplation; however…

This is an occasion where I would really like to believe the official version of the truth, that the relevant agencies and departments really have reached the conclusion the effectiveness of the safety camera has reached a plateau, prompting consideration of alternative methods including better education and other means of enforcement not accusable of being exploited as a revenue raising technique. This is a supposition that’s supported by the government’s companion insistence that the camera systems are no longer to be allowed to pay for their own replication. The public, while no doubt keen to see the number of road deaths reduced, is uncomfortable with the justification for existing methods, and is looking for better accountability – especially when non-penalising schemes such as active speed warning signs are seen to work just as well.

There are a number of other “issues” with the camera strategy that I haven’t really touched on before. Firstly, there’s contemporary analysis of the number of police officers caught exceeding the limit by the cameras in comparison to the number of £60/three point fines issued. As the headline in the Mirror put it “45,741 COPS CAUGHT BY SPEED CAMERAS 934 COPS PUNISHED FOR SPEEDING”; that works out as two percent. Now there’s obviously a problem with recognising how many of these represent an emergency response, but Kevin Delaney of the RAC is certainly convinced that something is ‘clearly wrong’, even if Essex Police rightfully point out that ‘Cars going to one incident can cause several cameras to go off.’

Another problem is the issue of wrongly issued tickets. This not only occurs in cases of mistaken identity, but also when there are apparent difficulties with the accuracy of the equipment. The tractor story I posted earlier this week involved a vehicle capable of a maximum speed of 26mph, yet saw its registered keeper issued with a ticket for doing 85mph on a road it had never been on because “somehow” the number plate had been misread. On the icWales website there is a story from late December about a biker who was wrongly accused of doing 46mph in a 30; by getting hold of the photographs from the camera and properly analysing the road markings he was able to prove that his actual speed was in fact only 18mph. It took him seven months to clear his name.

And there’s a further argument now being advanced by Safe Speed’s Paul Smith. Writing in The Scotsman, Smith suggests that speed cameras are actually ‘killing us’ because they are altering our perception of what’s important in safely negotiating road travel. I’m not going to outline his argument in detail, but you can access the opinion here. He also has some interesting things to say about the statistics surrounding the 30mph limit as well, which nicely segweys me into my next point.

I can see the government’s problem. They have to be seen trying to do something about road safety and the legal limitations on public speed, when the reality is that our road networks actually work rather well. Take motorways: everyone knows that they are supposed to do 70mph, but also that they work perfectly well the majority of users are travelling at 80-85, or even 90mph. The difficulty is that if the limit was raised to legitimise these velocities (which modern cars are more than capable of withstanding) more people would then start to travel at 100, or 110. At which point, due to the sheer weight of traffic, things might start to get interesting.

Similar principles apply at urban speeds. While I welcome moves like the Road Safety Bill which seeks to reduce the number of points endorsed for minor offences, the problem is it makes exceeding the urban limit appear as a minor offence – when all the time we are being told that the speed makes a massive difference to the likelihood of survival should a child unfortunately wander into the way.

My solution remains clearly visible, sensible policing by actual police officers, who are best placed and well trained to make informed judgements on individual circumstances. What are the chances?


Links:

I've got lots of links for you on this one (but then I haven't embedded as many as usual), including a few that are not directly relevent, but along a similar theme.

T#5: Aneurism [internal]

March of speed cameras halted @ Times Online

Speed Camera Onslaught Halted @ Pistonheads

45,741 COPS CAUGHT BY SPEED CAMERAS 934 COPS PUNISHED FOR SPEEDING @ Mirror.co.uk

Motorist proves that cameras can lie... @ icWales

Safety vanishes in a flash with cameras
@ Scotsman.com

Demonstrating why such things are deemed necessary, from the SundayMirror.co.uk today:
151MPH BIKER LOON [Oh, and please don't be thinking I'm a regular Mirror reader; the recent mentions are all Google's fault and just a coincidence.]

UK Speed Cameras
is a site about...speed cameras.

Speedcam.co.uk is a site loosely dedicated to opposing speed cameras in the West Midlands ('Gatso capital of the UK' apparently); has some amusing pictures of blown up cameras, if you're into that sort of thing.

And finally, here is the Department of Transport's Safety Camera site.

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