Speed cameras have come in for a kicking of late. But do their opponents have a leg to stand on?
Andrew Mylius investigates.
It's late, dark and rain is lashing down. The traffic's been snarled up and now you have a clear run. You can't wait to get home. We've all been there.
The first thing you know about the speed camera is when a flash of white light bounces off the rear view mirror.
Three points on the licence and £60 down the loo, all for creeping six or seven miles an hour over the speed limit. God, it makes you furious!
Many angry words have been spoken and written about speed cameras over the last couple of months: they are 'sneak cameras' and 'greed cameras', say the UK tabloid press.
The chief allegation is that there are just too many cameras.
Drivers' groups the AA, RAC and Association of British Drivers (ABD) complain that they have proliferated far beyond accident blackspots and now litter the verges of any road where drivers can open up the throttle. Cameras are there purely to catch the unwary and generate revenue for local authorities and police forces.
'Cameras are out of control.
One and a half million people are caught by cameras each year, ' says a spokesman for the AA Foundation. 'By the end of next year the number could well be 3M a year. You are looking at tens of millions of pounds in fines.'
A government consultation launched in mid-January on levying a £5 surcharge on speed fines to compensate road accident victims 'lets the cat out of the bag', he says. 'The consultation sets dangerous precedent.
Crimes are being punished because there's a financial benefit to it. If the levy goes ahead it'll be crystal clear that the cameras are there to raise revenue, and drivers are bound to feel they're victims of the system.'
The ABD even claims that speed cameras cost lives, pointing out that in the decade since they were first introduced to the UK the death toll on the roads has risen. Drivers are so preoccupied with spotting cameras, and peering over their shoulders for a flash when they pass one that their attention to the road is seriously impaired.
Late last year shadow transport secretary Damian Green committed the Conservatives, if they won the next general election, to a review the siting of all speed cameras, scrapping most in the process. The pay-off for road safety would be lower speed limits in speed-sensitive areas, for example near schools, shops, hospitals or old people's homes.
The government has been so rattled by the anticamera invective that at the start of January it wrote to all of the bodies responsible for installing and operating cameras, known as national safety camera partnerships, demanding that they check all cameras comply with guidelines on siting and visibility (see box).
Little has been heard from road safety campaigners and civil engineers in the recent hubbub, but their reaction to the attack on cameras and the government's response is one of incredulity.
'Most of what has been said is completely spurious, ' fumes Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents head of road safety Kevin Clinton. 'There's a small section of the public and media that's opposed to cameras, but a 'poll of polls' by Transport 2000 found over 70% of people are generally in favour of cameras.
We get people calling us up asking for them.'
Most individuals will be affected by a road accident at some point in their life - either directly, or a family member, friend or colleague. Every day 10 people die and 70 are seriously injured on UK roads, says the Office of National Statistics.
'Excessive speed is a major contributory factor in at least one third of all road crashes, making it the single most important contributory factor to casualties on our roads, ' the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) reported in December. PACTS based its assertion on the crash history of 300 sections of road, two million measurements of speed and the self-reported crash history of 10,000 drivers.
To reinforce its point, the committee pointed to the US where, since 1995, 22 states have raised the highway speed limit from 55mph to 70-75mph and have seen a 35% increase in death rates. The reverse was measured when the 55mph limit was introduced during the oil crisis in 1974 and fatality rates dropped by 50%.
Consultant TRL has found that on urban roads accidents are cut by between 2% and 7% per 1mph reduction in average speed.
'Simple physics dictate that injury severity increases with speed, ' the council added.
Under the government's guidelines a speed camera can only be erected on a stretch of road if there have been four or more fatal or serious accidents.
They must have been clustered within 1km of each other and have occurred within two years.
There are an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 cameras in the UK.
Studies in eight police areas conducted from 2000-02 shows collisions have fallen by 35% on roads where speed cameras operate. The number of vehicles speeding at camera sites was down by 57% and average speeds fell by 10%. This translated into a 47% reduction in deaths and serious injuries - the equivalent of 109 lives saved.
Campaign co-ordinator of the Slower Speeds Initiative Paige Mitchell argues that, as the speed limit is law, there should be 'no reason to apologise for enforcing it'. Indeed, she would like to see more cameras. 'Just because a crash hasn't happened yet doesn't mean an accident won't happen. The view that we can't enforce the law until several people have died isn't defensible.
'Guidance on speed cameras says they should be sited only at casualty sites. They should actually be sited wherever the road width and geometry makes accidents likely, ' Mitchell says.
London deputy mayor Jenny Jones has found the anti-camera clamour 'infuriating'.
'In London every safety camera more or less saves a life each year, ' she says. 'Deaths are the tip of an iceberg. We lose a primary school worth of children every year in London. Is that OK?
'We talk about deaths because they're so clear, but there are many times more injuries. If you're knocked down and live, you may not be able to earn living or raise a family.
'There is a huge amount of social injustice. The victims of speeding are predominantly children and the poor. If you are poor you're more likely to live next to a road and are less likely to have garden to play in.' Speeding also raises noise and air pollution, which undermine mental and physical health.
Jones pours water on the accusation that speed cameras yield vast profits to local authorities and police forces. 'They're effective but expensive.'
Kent camera safety partnership - an alliance of Kent County Council, the local police force, paramedic and health services, fire service, Highways Agency and local magistrates - reports that each camera costs £22,500 to buy and £19,000 to install.
There are just six UK police authority areas still to sign up to the safety camera partnership scheme. The 43 partnerships up and running are obliged to foot the bill themselves for setting cameras up and all revenue from fines goes straight to the Treasury. Camera partnerships can recoup capital and operating costs, but no more. The system prevents either the police or local authorities from profiteering. And the government is hardly raking in money. After operating costs had been covered last year it was left with a £7M surplus from a total revenue of £73M.
And Mitchell is certain there are no rogue cameras beyond the government's reach. 'Camera partnerships face dissolution if they don't abide by the government's guidelines - they'd lose their ability to recoup costs. It is possible there are cameras that don't meet guidelines but they are probably in 'roadside storage'.
They're in place but not in use.'
Where the government does win is on reduced emergency services and hospital care bills.
A two year pilot study of cameras in six counties saw 280 fewer people killed or seriously injured at camera sites than would normally be expected.
Some £58M was saved in recovering and treating casualties.
Extrapolated across the UK the savings are major.
Why on earth are drivers upset about that? Cars still represent personal liberty, reckons chairman of the ICE Municipal Engineering Board John Sanders.
Even though drivers are allowed a 10% plus 2mph tolerance before being prosecuted speed cameras put a lid on that liberty.
'They're about tempering freedom of the individual with the interests of society more widely, ' he says.
Sanders' criticism of cameras is that they protect only individual spots. 'There should be enough enforcement measures in place to encourage drivers to go at the right speed for the area all the time.' Until entire networks can be monitored remotely, say by satellite, and until it becomes possible to vary speed limits according to time of day or weather conditions, more cameras are the best way forward. 'People need to perceive there's a reasonable chance of being caught.'
Seen to be fair
Cameras must be located only in casualty blackspots with a history of speed-related collisions.
There must be evidence that proposed sites have the greatest casualty problems.
Speed surveys are needed to ensure cameras are only placed where speeding is a problem.
The scheme's purpose must be explained to the public well before it starts.
Scheme start up costs must be found locally.
Fine revenue will be ringfenced and will only cover capital and operating costs.
Cameras cannot be located for political or revenuegenerating purposes.
No organisation is allowed to make a profit out of the scheme.
Surplus has to be turned over to the Treasury.
Cameras must be signed and highly visible. The public must be able to find out where they are sited.