Speed cameras make a comeback

Back in the summer the cut to the road safety budget catapulted speed cameras to the forefront of the road safety debate. Many councils – Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, some areas in Northamptonshire and Somerset – axed speed cameras, deciding that they were not a top priority in a shrinking road safety budget.

The TPA and the Drivers’ Alliance released a report around this time that studied speed cameras and their impact on casualty rates. The report’s analysis shows that since the implementation of speed cameras in 1992 - coupled with a one-dimensional focus on speed as the centre of road safety policy - road casualty rates have declined more slowly than in prior decades.


Speed graph
A statistical test confirmed that there is a statistically significant difference between the period before the introduction of speed cameras (1978 -1990) and the period after (1991-2007). Indeed if the 1978-1990 trend had continued to 2007 we would expect there to be over 1 million fewer casualties than actually occurred.  While progress would have had to slow eventually, there was no sign of that happening before the early nineties. The graph above shows how sharply the rate of improvement slowed.

In the summer it seemed that local authorities were reforming road safety policy, so that it was not so heavily focussed on enforcing speed limits. However news broke yesterday that Oxfordshire has decided to switch their speed cameras back on after the police force put up the bulk of the cash needed for the cameras to be reactivated after the council cut £600,000 of funding back in the summer.

Quite unsurprisingly supporters of speed cameras in Oxfordshire are still clinging to the old myth that without speed cameras safety will be seriously compromised on the roads. Woodstock town councillor and former mayor Peter Jay said: “I’m delighted that it appears that common sense has prevailed. Cameras are the only mechanism of effectively controlling speed.” 

Interestingly the councillor did not say “Cameras are the only mechanism of effectively controlling the number of accidents on the roads”. Cameras can and do slow drivers down in their immediate vicinity but is it the most effective mechanism to bring down the number of road accidents? Statistical analysis – including ours – seriously brings this into doubt.

It has been reported that a month after the switch-off, radar speed surveys showed drivers committed up to four times more speed offences at some of the camera sites. But what about the number of accidents, have they risen? It would appear not.

The development of speed cameras has not stopped as a new 3D speed camera that can catch drivers committing five offences at the same time could soon be introduced on Britain’s roads. The Assets cameras have been developed through a £7.1 million European Commission project and cost a whopping £50,000 each.

If the camera is rolled out across Britain thousands of taxpayers’ money will be spent on duplicating roles, which are supposed to be fulfilled by public bodies. The camera can read number plates and link into police databases to check for lapsed insurance – but the DVLA is already meant to fulfill this function. The company behind the camera also hopes it will be able to identify poor road surfaces and over-loaded lorries. Does that mean that human inspections will cease and cameras – which often have a high error rate - will be used instead?

Just when drivers thought they would not longer be hunted for fines a local authority is already reactivating cameras, without any evidence that the roads are less safe. There may even be an even more intrusive camera heading onto the roads.

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