If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Can it be true?

This Conservative conference has been better than the other two by a country mile, which isn't saying much. But Osborne looks as though he is going to try to win the election by being honest with the electors. This is either foolhardy in the extreme, or a dazzling piece of political judgement - depending, I suppose, on who wins the election. I admire him for it. There is obviously some harsh medicine due to the British patient before he (or she) can begin to be cured, and if he lays it all out now, and the Tories are voted in on the strength of it, then Cameron will be playing a tough game with a reasonable hand.

Even better, rumour has it that speed cameras are going to be curtailed:

... which inspired Theresa Villiers to announce the effective end of speed cameras this week; the Tories won’t fund any more fixed speed cameras and councils will have to demonstrate that they are effective in cutting accidents before they are allowed to use them. The Tories are hoping that vehicle activated signs, which tell people what speed they are driving and are more effective at cutting accidents than speed cameras, will become the default on British roads.

The Times confirms it:

This (rogue clampers) clampdown would be extended to speed cameras, she (Theresa Villiers) said, promising to expose them to “real democratic control". She said: “That means publishing the information that's now kept secret on each speed camera's record on safety and on fines, so local communities can judge for themselves whether a camera should stay or whether it should go.”

I'm a fairly law-abiding bloke, but I break the speed limit almost every time I go out of the house. So, of course, do you, and so do about 95% of the British population. As a consequence, I - who was brought up to respect the law in all its forms, to be polite to and support the Police, and to be a Good Citizen in every way - have been busted a total of four times in 38 years of riding and driving. Four court appearances (or pathetic letters pleading mitigation), four fines, and four sets of points on my licence. I have no criminal record. That, and two parking tickets, are my only transgressions in five-and-a-bit decades on this planet.

It may surprise you to know this, but I am in favour of 20 mph zones and I think speed cameras, especially fully-automatic ones that need no human input, prosecute 100% of transgressions, and win all their cases, are a Good Thing. Yes, really. A speed camera is a devastatingly effective device for cutting the speed at which motorists travel and, used in the right place, can enhance everyone's safety to a large degree.

You will notice that I said "in the right place". That, of course, is the point. If the Government (or the local authority) declared that certain residential streets, and all areas within say 200m of a school or hospital, were to be 20 mph zones, enforced by speed cameras that never slept, and that caught 100% of offenders, I would be fully in support of that. Likewise, if cameras enforced red traffic lights, I would be in favour. People who speed where children play, or who jump red lights, are categorically a danger to everyone.

The point is that I, and I am sure millions like me, don't mind doing as we are told if we can see that there is a good reason. When, however, as is so often the case these days, there appears to be no reason for them or, even worse, that the cameras seem set to trap people who are doing nothing dangerous, then the credibility of the cameras, the speed limit system, and the law itself are all diminished.

Like the one I saw on the M4 between Bath and Reading a year or two ago. Two miles of road works, with an entirely reasonable 50 mph limit, enforced by cameras. Then the road works ended and the carriageway was free of cones, workmen and all signage. Visually, you could not see any trace of road works, and most would have assumed that the speed limit had ended. No signs to confirm or deny that. So most people gradually put their foot down and got back to a decent speed. The speed limit ended about a mile further on, with big national limit signs on either side of the road. And, just in front of the signs - a camera van. I bet they caught thousands that day. The artificial lengthening of the speed limit zone, and the positioning of the camera just within the limit, suggested to me that this was a deliberate attempt to catch as many otherwise law-abiding motorists as they could. To me, that is not just unfair, it's unwise. How many people had their respect for the law just a little bit reduced on that day? I did.

It's not as if they work at their stated purpose - reducing accidents. Indeed, there is an argument that they are worse than useless, and actually kill people. The figures for Killed and Seriously Injured (KSI) since the early 1990s (when speed cameras began to be introduced) have virtually flatlined, whereas they were in a steady decline for the previous 40 years.

I know that you can point to camera sites and show a reduction in accidents at that spot following the siting of a camera, but that is often just a statistical artefact. Look up 'regression to the mean' to see why.

If the Tories can reduce the number of cameras, and make authorities (who have done very nicely out of them) to justify the ones they keep, this can only be a good thing - for safety, for motorists' sanity, and ultimately for respect for the law. Those vehicle-activated signs (which remind the speeder beforehand, rather than punish him after the event) work much better for me and, apparently, for everyone else, as they are more effective at controlling speed than the best Gatso. Speed cameras have, for me, become a symbol of the arbitrary and harsh justice meted out to the otherwise harmless 'ordinary people' of Britain, that has become a characteristic of Labour's period of government. If the Tories can promise to do something sensible about it, they've got my vote.


  1. There's another strange concept with speed cameras in that there is a presumption of guilt before pleading innocent. This does not wash in civilised countries where a picture of the driver is required to achieve a successful prosecution.

  2. Funnily enough, the year before the introduction of Gatsos was a statistical anomaly anyway, in that road deaths actually bucked the trend and rose. At most sites, the post-Gatso reduction only returned those figures to the expected levels - but, inevitably, they were all represented as being directly attributable to the camera placement. Lies, damn lies etc.

    Spot on with the analysis of why people resent the damn things so much, by the way. Unfair, unreasonable and unjustifiable, surprisingly, does not automatically win public support.

    I believe the proposal included: Road Safety Partnerships would be abolished, fines would go direct to government and any retained or new Gatsos would have to be fully funded by the Local Authority in question. Same conditions would apply to "average speed" cameras. Frankly, I'd vote for them just on that policy alone: philosophically, it encapsulates a complete reversal of the unaccountable "big state" mentality that vexes me beyond words.

    And, actually, I suspect there might well be an improvement in overall driving standards if people don't spend half their time staring fixedly at the speedo to make sure they don't wander a couple of mph over the posted limit.

  3. Nikos: I take your point about the presumed guilt. If it wasn't you driving at the time, it is up to you to 'shop' the person who was, or take the penalty yourself. It is possible to claim that you can't remember who was driving - but how successful that would be I don't know. My ex-wife is undergoing this right at the moment (she was caught in the middle of a long journey and genuinely can't remember who was driving). We'll see how that turns out.

    Endo: I wasn't aware that there was an anomaly in the rated in the year before Gatso was introduced, although it doesn't surprise me. I was referring to the statistical observation that the accident rates at all sites will vary naturally over time, as all unpredictable events will do. As a rise in accident figures will trigger the siting of a speed camera (by the rules laid down), new cameras will always be sited where accidents have temporarily risen. Statistically, a peak is usually followed by a reduction towards the average rate for the site - the so-called 'regression to the mean'. So accident rates fall, the camera 'partnership' claim that it's the camera wot did it, and yet another nail is put in the coffin of common sense. The proof that this is happening is the overall accident rates. People can show that siting a camera at an accident black spot reduces accidents at that site. And yet the overall rate of KSI is unchanged. The explanation of this anomaly is not that the cameras move the accidents elsewhere, as some claim. It's that the reductions at camera sites are a statistically predictable feature, and that accident rates are not affected beyond normal variations - they just *appear* to be. If you painted all the trees purple at a junction following a sharp rise in accidents, you would see the same effect. No doubt there would be a victim group campaigning for all trees to be painted purple as a precaution - "if it saves just one life ...".

    The problem, I suppose, is that we are governed by people who are statistically illiterate.


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