The long lens of the law

There's something shifty about the Police Federation’s u-turn on speed cameras.

Austin Williams

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The Police Federation has long been at the forefront of defending speed cameras – sitting on advisory panels alongside local authorities and highways agencies to determine their location. It has apparently had a change of heart in recent weeks. At the federation’s annual conference, its chair Jan Berry supported a new stance on the issue. So what has changed, and why?

The federation’s concerns are three-fold. First, there is the sense that the harsh penalties imposed by speed cameras on erstwhile law-abiding citizens is causing the good burghers of Middle England to lose faith in the police service. ‘Speed cameras’, said Berry, ‘have no discretionary powers. There is no constable in the land that would arrest you on the basis that you were driving at 35 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour limit at two o’clock in the morning on a long straight run with nothing else on the road.’

At last, a bit of common sense – or so I thought. The federation’s vice-chairman Rod Dalley added: ‘A traffic policeman can offer advice – tell you about the dangers of speeding, the increased stopping distances required, and point out the added risks that you might be taking.’ So it seems that the police will probably still stop you at two in the morning, but simply to offer counselling. This is (almost) enough to make you sympathetic to speed cameras. Give me a £30 fine any day, rather than a spotty young copper trying to advise me to go on an anger management course.

It reminds me of a scheme launched in Norwich a few years ago, where police officers would flag down drivers to congratulate them on their good driving. Not only that – those who demonstrated courteousness, good road sense or an awareness of other road users were entered into a police prize draw where they were entitled to choose from an array of constabulary-branded goodies, from key-fobs to biros. It’s a true story, but it didn’t catch on.

It seems that camera operators are now responding to criticism by moving towards variable fines dependent on the extent of the speed breach. However, the police are primarily concerned about cameras doing the work of bobbies.

Berry’s second point was that people are trying to evade camera detection by various illicit activities: by refusing to register their vehicles, for example, or using stolen or altered license plates. The suggestion is that ordinary people are actually being lured into breaking the law by cameras that are intended to enforce the law.

Moreover, Berry said that cameras tended to penalise what she called speeding ‘misdemeanours’, while leaving real crime undetected. She pointed out that important arrests ‘have come from traffic police carrying out routine checks’. If cameras are deemed to be a problem because they are remote, this can surely only result in a call for more interventionist policing, such as random stop-and-search powers, suss laws and checkpoint policing. So much for the softly softly counselling.

Her third concern was that the police are being marginalised – losing staff, losing funding and losing a sense of purpose. The installation of 4500 speed cameras has coincided with the loss of between 500 and 600 traffic police (although Berry shied away from making the direct causal link).

Berry tried to back up her criticisms of cameras by saying that many speed cameras were incorrectly sited and were cash cows rather than safety devices. When it was pointed out that the Department for Transport says that cameras are correctly sited, Berry fell back on the argument that there should be a public consultation to justify the placement of each camera. If the federation was really taking a new stance on the issue, this might have been the time for Berry to define the problem and suggest a solution – but instead she just asked the public for answers on a postcard. No wonder the police force has an identity crisis.

It is unlikely that the police can somehow regain the confidence of the people by publicly slating a government-backed speed camera scheme and criticising the cash-raising motivation of local authorities. Initially, the populist nature of its campaign (its conference session was entitled ‘Highway Robbery’) will win it friends. But ultimately, given that the police are meant to be at the service of the state, not pandering to dissent, the undignified sight of the Police Federation’s top brass whinging about speed cameras will do little for its credibility in the long run.

Austin Williams is the co-author of The Macro World of the Microcar, Black Dog Publications, August 2004 (email info@bdp.demon.co.uk).

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