The speed-cam debate: calm down, dears!

Speed cameras are neither scarily Orwellian devices nor the saviours of pedestrians from rampaging motorists.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

This week’s decision by Oxfordshire county council in England to end funding for speed cameras has been praised and condemned in equal measure. The news brought cheers from those who see the cameras as a cynical way of extorting money from drivers, and was condemned by opposition politicians and road-safety campaigners on the basis that it would endanger lives. It’s time for someone to put their foot down on this overwrought debate.

According to reports in the Oxfordshire press, every speed camera in the county will be switched off this weekend following the council’s decision to cut £600,000 from its funding for the Thames Valley Safer Roads Partnership, which coordinates road safety in the area. The speeding laws will continue to be enforced, but the automated photographing and fining of motorists will come to an end.

Oxford East’s Labour MP, Andrew Smith, said: ‘I think it is really irresponsible to turn these cameras off because the evidence is there that they save lives and prevent accidents by cutting speed. The vast majority of motorists are responsible, but there is a tiny minority which will see this as a green light to drive at higher speed, which will mean more accidents, deaths and injuries.’

The cuts in Oxfordshire have been justified by the fact that the Lib-Con coalition government is ending central funding for speed cameras. The road safety minister, Mike Penning, declared that: ‘In the coalition agreement the government made clear it would end central funding for fixed speed cameras. Local authorities have relied too heavily on safety cameras for far too long, so I am pleased that some councils are now focusing on other measures to reduce road casualties. This is another example of this government delivering on its pledge to end the war on the motorist.’

The policy has not gone down well with road-safety campaigners. The campaign group Brake issued a statement arguing that, ‘Turning cameras off, and pulling the plug on other important road-safety work, is a disastrous blow for those communities relying on cameras to protect them, and an insult to those crying out for measures to cut speeds in their neighbourhoods and those families so traumatically bereaved by speed.’

The bandying around of phrases like ‘war on the motorist’, and the suggestions that changing the method of speeding law enforcement is an ‘insult’ to the bereaved, only illustrates how much this debate has been hyped up.

There is no doubt that the use of speed cameras is profoundly irritating. A great many of the fines dished out as a result of the images taken by these cameras will have been to drivers who weren’t consciously speeding and who felt they were driving in a safe manner. For example, it is often easy to miss when the speed limit on a road changes from 40mph to 30mph, yet drivers can be punished for this honest mistake. Speed limits take no account of road conditions: bombing up the M6 at 120mph in the wee small hours may be perfectly safe (if utterly illegal) if the conditions are right, while doing 25mph outside a school at hometime may be reckless. While it is useful to have standards so that other road users – like pedestrians – can anticipate what will happen when they use the roads, most people breaking the speed limit are not driving dangerously.

The obsession with speed seems to be out of all proportion to the risks involved. According to statistics for Great Britain in 2008, there were 2,170 accidents that involved a fatality. In 313 (14 per cent) of these, exceeding the speed limit was deemed to be a contributory factor. Given that cars travel about 300 billion miles per year on Britain’s roads, that is – very roughly – one fatal accident for every billion miles travelled where exceeding the speed limit seemed to be a contributory factor to the police officer who attended the scene.

Of course, these are very rough statistics. It would be impossible to know how many of those 300 billion miles will have been driven in excess of the speed limit, nor is it possible to know if the police officers who make judgements at the scene about the causes of an accident are right or wrong. But what should be clear is that our roads are remarkably safe given the sheer number of miles travelled in motorised vehicles, and that exceeding the speed limit actually causes relatively few serious accidents. Moreover, unless speed cameras were placed on every road, most of those deaths would still occur.

The trouble is that there is a great deal of bad faith when it comes to the discussion of road safety. For all the talk about saving lives, the truth is that many (though by no means all) road campaigners actually just don’t like cars per se. They would far rather we ditched all those Fords, Toyotas, Vauxhalls and the rest for the sake of The Planet, forcing us to work, shop and live ‘local’ instead. Since most people are really rather keen on their cars, there’s a snowball in hell’s chance of cars being banned any time soon. So, the next best thing is to make getting behind the wheel as much of a pain in the neck as possible. Cameras, congestion charging, speed humps and convoluted re-routing schemes are all designed to slow traffic down, contrary to the logic of getting from A to B as quickly as possible.

If we were really going to tackle the ‘carnage’ (a word much beloved of those who hate cars) on our roads, the best thing to do would be to ban anything with two wheels immediately. In 2008, cars were involved in 7.1 fatal or serious accidents per 100million kilometres travelled. For pedal bikes, it was 57 accidents per 100million kilometres; the figure for motorbikes was 124. It’s incredible that some campaigner somewhere hasn’t come up with a hysterical term like ‘cyclo-genocide’ to describe this level of suffering. In reality – by any sensible assessment of risk – cars, bicycles and motorbikes are safe. Of course, no one is going to ban bicycles because, as Brendan O’Neill noted on spiked last week, the humble cyclist has been crowned as the eco-friendly saviour of the planet.

On the other hand, the idea that motorists have been the particular target for authoritarian government action is misplaced, too. It wasn’t personal: the New Labour government hated everyone, creating over 3,000 criminal offences in an effort to control our various errant behaviours and make us conform to its view of the world. The Labour government’s motto might well have been: impose a fine first, ask questions later. This tsunami of legislation wasn’t, by and large, a sneaky plot to fleece the population but a product of the government’s incapacity to convince us about the wisdom of its ideas. Unable to inspire us, New Labour chose to penalise us instead. It will be interesting to see if the new coalition government follows through on its pledge to liberate us from this petty authoritarian legacy.

Speed cameras don’t save many – if any – lives, but they do cause tremendous irritation and produce a kind of conveyor belt system of enforcement that has the perverse consequence of undermining respect for the law. If this new government policy means the death of those yellow boxes on our roads, there won’t be many mourners at the wake.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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