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14 January, 2004

The fast... and the furious

That same article I mentioned earlier discussed speed cameras, the topic that has attracted the greatest number of comments (to date) on this blog.  Most have been critical of cameras, but I don't entirely agree, and similarly disagree with the stance of the 'roads lobby', quoted in the Guardian article.
The point of my earlier posting related to the routine logging of number plates, not speed cameras themselves.

The focus of the article is:

Are speed cameras crucial to the country's road safety or a cynical ploy to extract money from the motorist and an assault on personal freedom?

My own view is broadly close to the former, and I have negligible patience with the latter.

The Guardian reports a campaign by The Sun for 'sneaky' cameras to be removed. I'm not sure what is meant by 'sneaky'. Cameras on the exits of blind corners, where they can't be seen until too late? Should drivers exceed the speed limit anyway, particularly through blind corners? I'd say such cameras are entirely justified.

Later in the article:

The opposition groups argue that cameras are deliberately placed where they will generate most money rather than in locations where speed contributes to a high accident rate.

Yes, some cameras are poorly sited, but I believe them to be the minority, and insufficient reason to criticise the majority, or the very concept of enforcement by automated cameras.

Speed camera on A6, near Lancaster University. Copyright NRT, 2004The section of the A6 passing the junction with the University's main entrance is level and almost entirely straight for about a mile. Visibility is good, and there are few side roads. Drivers might feel the national speed limit (or greater) would be safe and acceptable, yet there's a 50 mph speed limit, and a Gatso camera about halfway along the straight section, just past the Uni. entrance as one heads into Lancaster. It seems someone thought it an inappropriate location, as the camera was destroyed by fire a couple of months ago (there's a rumour that a fresh camera is inside the blackened case).
A couple of facts to balance this apparent situation: over the decade I've been regularly using this road, I've seen 5-6 police signs requesting witnesses to serious accidents. Something else that high-speed drivers mightn't notice is that one of the lampposts always has fresh flowers at its base; evidently someone still remembers a fatality. The seemingly safe road and inappropriate camera aren't as they seem.

They claim that... speed is not an indicator of safety.

True, it's not the sole factor, but it's a major one, and encountering an entirely different hazard at too great a speed can magnify the consequences. To allege it's not an indicator at all is ludicrous.
Crucially, they view fines as a tax, rather than a fine levied to enforce the law.

This is where I really disagree. Taxation is when a charge is applied to an entirely legitimate activity, such as refuelling a car (fuel tax), using the public highways at all (road tax), buying a house (stamp duty) or shopping (VAT). Driving in excess of the legal speed limit is not a 'right', and is not a legitimate activity. A 'tax' on illegal practices is called a 'fine'. Use of the term 'taxation' by the roads lobby is disingenuous, extending a convenient metaphor to a distortion of the facts, a.k.a. a downright lie.
Like death, taxes are a fixed aspect of human existence; it's impossible to get through everyday life without incurring them. However, speeding fines can be simply avoided: don't exceed the speed limit.

Please don't mistake this for self-righteousness - I've driven over the speed limit too; 80mph is a comfortable motorway cruising speed, and 70 seems reasonable in some cases where the imposed limit is 60. However, I don't regard it as a 'right', and if a speed camera, obvious or concealed, caught me, I'd accept the penalty as fair, as the simple unavoidable fact would be that I'd have broken the law.

Whether the imposed speed limits are correct is an entirely different issue; the cameras enforce the limits, but don't set them. It seems the real point behind the complaints of the roads lobby is that speed limits are too low, so drivers should be permitted to use their own judgement in ignoring the limits. In my view, that's unworkable.
Limits have to be set at a level safe for drivers of all standards of experience, whether a 17-year old heading home from the test centre with his/her brand new licence, or a sales rep who has driven tens of thousands of miles in all weather and road conditions.
Secondly, legal processes can't operate on matters of opinion ("Well, officer, I thought it was safe to go that fast"), especially when misjudgement can be fatal.
There have to be fixed limits; by all means campaign to have them changed, but whilst doing so, one has to remain within the existing ones, or accept the consequences.

"Brian Gregory [head of the Association of British Drivers (ABD), a pressure group opposed to cameras] says the emphasis on speed cameras amounts to an abuse of personal liberty.
"This whole question is about freedom personally and freedom of movement. In my view the motor car has contributed more to individual freedom than any invention in human history," he says. "We are opposed to the reliance on speed cameras because it represents persecution of ordinary hard-working people...""

Perhaps this quote is only a summary of a better-argued position, but as it stands, it's utter rubbish.
Speed limits, and hence cameras, don't prevent the use of cars, nor do they damage this pretentiously lofty rhetorical concept of 'freedom' (his characterisation of speeding offenders as 'hard-working' is interesting - perhaps the non-hard-working don't speed, or deserve to be fined - as is his description of government policies as obeying the 'Goebbels Principle', casually implying fascism. Emotive crap.)
Anyone with the basic qualification of having passed a driving test can drive anywhere on the UK network of public highways; cameras have no effect on that fact.

The alleged 'freedom' seems to be to drive at whatever speed the driver chooses, unrestricted and unquestioned. Presumably the ABD would also argue for the unrestricted use of shotguns. No? Why not? Both driving and gun laws restrict 'freedom' by setting limits on how people can behave. The UK shotgun regulations allow people to own and use the weapons, in a safe manner in appropriate situations. Likewise with speeding laws; no-one is prevented from driving, so long as they remain within the predetermined limits.

What about penalty points and the loss of licences? If someone persistently fails to observe the limitations determined by society, the right to use public highways can, and usually should, be withheld, for the safety of others.
Freedom of mobility is not remotely the same as a right to act irresponsibly.

"The ABD and other groups profess to be interested in road safety, and cite a levelling-off of the year-on-year reduction in fatalities as evidence that speed cameras do not work. According to the Department of Transport, however, they do; its figures for 2002-03 show a 35% reduction in death or injuries where cameras have been introduced. The anti-camera lobby counters that this is coincidence..."

Hilarious! The DoT's statistics are 'coincidence', whereas the ABD's are utterly reliable. Interesting debating technique.
"... an argument refuted by Benjamin Heydecker, professor of transport studies at UCL. "Our studies show that cameras work to reduce death and serious injuries. The anti-camera groups select statistics that fit their arguments.""

Quite. I wonder what they'd make of this one, quoted by the Guardian:
"85% of people believe speed cameras save lives"

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