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14 December, 2003

Is this a good thing?

When this information was circulated via e-mail at work, I thought it had the characteristics of urban myth, even including 'friend of a friend' references, but having checked the website of the system's manufacturer, it seems true.

For much of its route through Lancashire, the M6 motorway has recently received upgraded signage, including the latest style of variable message signs. It seems these units also feature speed cameras*. These operate in a way that was totally new to me.
'Ordinary' speed cameras detect someone speeding, photograph the number plate, and the DVLA (UK Driver & Vehicle Licencing Authority) database identifies the person to whom a fine or court summons should be sent. The UK also has a 'points' system; in addition to a fine, speeding adds 3 (I think) points to the offender's licence; collect a dozen or so points, and the licence is invalidated. There are various means to resist these speed cameras, mainly involving travelling past them at legal speeds. As A. pointed out to me last night, on a motorway these cameras would be too dangerous, as drivers might be distracted by the camera flash or suddenly decelerate when they spot a nearby camera.
The new (to me) SPECS system works differently. Every single passing number plate is recorded, whatever the speed of the passing vehicle. There's no flash, and since it's a passive system, speed camera detectors won't work.
Some time later, the vehicle passes the next camera, and is logged again. The controlling computer then calculates the vehicle's average speed over the known distance between this and the previous 1, 2, 4, etc. cameras. If this average means the vehicle must have been speeding, an offence is recorded and the normal fine/points penalty is invoked.

This is quite a conceptual leap: logging vehicle registration numbers, and hence potentially logging peoples' locations at a given moment, irrespective of whether or not an offence has been committed. Logic dictates that once they're no longer needed, the data are deleted, but it wouldn't be difficult for the data to be cross-checked against a list of those the police/'security services' would wish to monitor, diverting the information to a different database.
Some would say that's a good thing, keeping suspected criminals and terrorists under observation, but the key word there is 'suspected', not proven, and there's a long history of 'the authorities' illicitly watching entirely legal dissenters - political activists, investigative journalists, even hippies.

Oh; one of those 'urban myth' details that initially made me doubt the whole story: allegedly there's no limit to the number of speeding offences that can be recorded, so if someone blasts past several monitored road sections in a single trip, multiple fines/penalty points will be incurred. There's a story of a commercial traveller who left home with a clean licence and returned at the end of the day having lost his licence, and hence job.

*: to clarify: I mean the gantries include mounting points for the SPECS cameras, in plain view, not that the signs themselves contain concealed cameras!


I personally know of one person who was hit by 3 speed cameras on the trot on the East Lancs Road (A580) not long after they were introduced, 9 points on his licecnce and 3 fines all withing the space of 20 minutes.

As for the SPECS system it's been in operation ov the M6 between Wigan and junction 20 for ages, on various road improvement schemes, nast pieces of work they are, especially when the road is empty at midnight, it is very easy to forget about them.

Posted by coffdrop at December 15, 2003 12:44 PM

Aye, the manufacturer's site mentions the system had been used on roadworks before; I've seen the cameras myself on the Thelwall viaduct, though I'd thought they were CCTV and hadn't realised every vehicle was being logged.
In the context of roadworks, I rather support the use of speed cameras - these are inherently dangerous environments, with unexpected changes in camber or surface, limited visibility, etc., so speed limits make sense.
However, on a clear motorway, in dry conditions, at 2am, I don't have a problem with driving at 80-odd.

Posted by NRT at December 15, 2003 01:11 PM

The introduction of the new SPECS cameras are certainly a cause for concern once they start deploying them all over the country. Especially when the government starts to use them a revenue generator. However they seem to still be shrouded in myth. I regularly use the M6 and can confirm there are about 5 of them in the area of the roadworks on the Thelwell Viaduct. They are situated within the framework of the overhead signs with a bright orange backboard for visability. However they do not stretch up the M6 as far as Wigan, the last one is in the first overhead sign after the Thelwell Viaduct going northbound. Another myth is they are inside the new electronic information boards that are every few miles along the M6. According to the Road Traffic Act speed cameras have to be visable to the motorist (but not necessarily bright colours) and have warning signs to make motorists aware of them. I agree completely with Ministry, they are essential at roadworks etc but not on clear stretches of motorways. And I can also confirm there are no SPECS on the East Lancs Road so the chap that got caught 3 times has only himself to blame.

Posted by Atomic_bog_roll at January 2, 2004 06:12 AM

As someone who travels extensively on the M6 along with M55, M56, M57, M58, M60, M61, M62, M65, M66 and coutless camera covered A-class roads, I am very concerned.

I can clearly see the Gatso devices as most forces seemed to want to create a deterrent and deflect criticism that they are just a cash generator, however there are more & more rumours. SPECS have been used in roadworks more recently and I agree that they probably improve road safety, but what about general, unpublicised depolyment?

Is there any documentation to confirm that the M6 is now SPECS monitored from Knustford to Preston? I have seen contradidcting information and a friend who manages contracts on motorway maintenance is unaware of installation, so who can confirm one way or the other?

Posted by Mortgage man at January 13, 2004 11:13 AM
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