Speed CamerasThe road lobby has been orchestrating a virulent media attack against the use of cameras to enforce the law on speeding. Regrettably certain newspapers have joined this reckless campaign. However, we reproduce below two hard-hitting articles vigorously denouncing this irresponsible hypocrisy.
Wednesday January 14, 2004
The road hog right is a peculiar beast: its conviction that freedom to drive fast is God-given inhabits the same quirk in rightwing brains as their belief in freedom not to pay taxes. So speed cameras are to them the perfect devilish red plot against the innocent speeding middle classes.
The Times, Mail, Sun, Telegraph and the rest have been foaming at the mouth over speed cameras for the last year - despite, or because of, the cameras' ever-greater success at slowing down drivers, collecting fines and cutting road deaths. Yesterday their road rage knew no bounds as the home secretary defiantly proposed a £5-£30 surcharge on top of existing fixed penalties for drivers. It was a rare moment when David Blunkett faced down a populist campaign.
The extra fines will go to a fund offering support for crime victims with much-needed money for Victim Support, rape crisis centres, women's refuges and an ombudsman for victims and witnesses who feel badly treated. Brake, the road safety campaign, is delighted that there will be money at last for the bereaved of traffic accidents, who are often left with no practical help once the police have delivered their terrible news. The wrath of the road hog right has been most enjoyable: after all, they are usually the ones complaining that all the sympathy goes to understanding criminals too much and the victims too little.
But then they are not rational beasts; they want to drive fast, end of story. The cacophony of bluster about speed-camera highway robbery is wonderfully contrary from the very same papers that hype up public terror over any tiny new risk they can find - except for the one clear and present danger that faces us all every day of our lives, the killer car.
Forget toxic salmon, death-dealing deodorants, lethal neon lighting and the thousand other front-page shock-horrors that offer us a daily fright. This is what to fear: you stand a one in 200 chance of dying horribly and brutally on the roads. (It says so in bold type on the back of the Highway Code.) Every year 3,600 die, and around 40,000 suffer serious injury. Roads are the biggest killer of 12- to 16-year-olds.
Now compare that to the mere 800 who have died of Sars worldwide, causing global panic and economic calamity. Road accidents are not acts of God, but a man-made horror that can and is being reduced with man-made measures by this government. It is one of Labour's big success stories - just about their only transport success. A target to cut death and injury by 40% by 2010 had already reached one third of that by the end of 2002. Two-thirds of the target to reduce child deaths by 50% has also already been reached years early.
But road deaths fail to frighten; they have never been high politics, compared with GM, mad cow or cancer waiting times. It is extraordinary how little this splattering of human body parts on the roads frightens the very same newspapers that love to terrify their readers. But if any of their scares from obscure, unrepeated tests on rats had a death rate like the roads, there would be mass hysteria. What's more, if most of the deaths were preventable, yet the negligent government did nothing, it would cause instant regime change at Westminster.
But cars are in a zone somewhere outside the normal rules of politics, panic and blame. The bizarre anti-speed-camera campaign sweeps along usually sensible commentators in its car-mad wake. Their outrage focuses on the idea that this is a new "stealth tax" to be paid by "motorists whose offences are usually victimless". The Mail leader yesterday stormed: "Isn't it time the police focused on catching violent criminals rather than acting as uniformed tax collectors?"
Simon Jenkins calls speed cameras the Dick Turpins of the highways, nabbing law-abiding middle-class folk doing a couple of miles over the speed limit on empty straight stretches at night just to land cash for the chancellor (42% of road deaths are at night). As for "victimless" speeding, some might not think so, including parents of the 200 children killed annually - the equivalent of more than 13 Dunblanes every year.
The irrefutable proven facts are these: higher speeds mean more crashes and more deaths. A pedestrian struck by a car going 20mph has a 90% chance of survival. At 30mph, that chance of surviving drops to 50%, and at every mph over that it drops very rapidly, reaching just a 10% life chance at 40mph. Has every driver in the land speeded at some time? Yes, probably. Should we? No. Is it bang to rights if we get caught? Of course. Does catching people make them drive slower in future? Certainly. Speed cameras have cut deaths by 35%, despite spurious arguments that they are all in the wrong places, or some outrageous abuse of statistics purporting to show that they actually increase road deaths.
Widely quoted factoids from the drivers' lobbies include some straight untruths. The RAC claims those caught by cameras are middle-aged male company car drivers doing high mileage, whereas young drivers cause most accidents. The figures show it is these same middle-aged company car men who are also 50% more likely to be involved in accidents than others, even after their longer road hours are discounted.
Overconfident men cause crashes, old and young, of all car-owning classes. Another fox to be shot is the claim that cameras are a big tax revenue spinner. Local police and councils only keep enough to cover the cost of the cameras, the Treasury only gets a small surplus; £73m came in from camera fines last year and there was only a measly £7m for the Treasury. Hardly worth inciting road hog fury, if cameras didn't save lives.
The government is entirely right to ignore the noise of the drivers - and the Tories and Lib Dems look cynically opportunistic for trying to attach themselves to the anti-camera brigade. They plainly haven't examined the six main polls taken on this subject, which show consistently that three-quarters of the public support speed cameras.
That's just as well, for this highly efficient policing is about to be greatly expanded. Following pilot trials, a new generation of digital cameras can catch 3,000 car number plates an hour, automatically checking them against police computers, ready to despatch nearby police cars after millions of unlicensed, uninsured or disqualified drivers, as well as stolen cars and suspected criminals. In the pilots it has lead to a tenfold increase in arrests, with large amounts of stolen property recovered and car crime cut sharply.
The Treasury wouldn't put up the money for it - they increasingly demand all new initiatives must be self-financing. So the new higher fixed penalties will pay for new cameras that are becoming one of the most effective and efficient forms of policing. All this is cause for celebration: Britain now has one of the lowest road accident and death rates in Europe.
Editorial in New Statesman (Jan 2004)
What a strange attitude we have to lawbreakers in cars. Attempts to enforce speed limits are denounced as interference with ancient English liberties. Motorists who drive too fast are excused on the grounds that they are "otherwise law-abiding", a description that may as easily be applied to wife-beaters or child molesters. Upright citizens boast of victories over breathalysers, speed cameras and parking tickets. The Sun launches a "stop the highway robbery" campaign against the cameras while a lunatic fringe attacks them with hammers and airguns, and threatens explosives. Traffic wardens - who it is proposed should have powers to book drivers for disobeying "no right turn" signs or loitering in yellow box junctions - are derided even by that paragon of metropolitan chatterers, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Ministers tremble at the tabloids' wrath and agree to consider proposals to remove cameras where they do not "protect" the public. This is an incoherent thought even by today's standards. If a legal limit on speed exists, it is worth enforcing.
Our love affair with the motor car blinds us to logic and common sense. We strain every sinew to protect children from paedophile murderers. Yet, the number of child pedestrians killed on the roads annually is ten times greater than the number killed by perverted strangers. It is also higher than in France or Germany. The yearly toll of death on the roads exceeds that exacted by Osama Bin Laden's madmen in New York in 2001, and is vastly higher than the number of Britons killed in all recent terrorist attacks. On any sane risk assessment, speed cameras on roads - which have been shown to cut deaths and serious injuries by 35 per cent - are more necessary than armed marshals on aeroplanes.
There is no argument whatever for treating errant motorists more leniently than any other class of offender, or for making less determined efforts to catch them. Even an ignored "no right turn" sign can cause death or injury to innocent people. An illegally parked car - which may itself lead to an accident - is simply theft of road space, an expensive and scarce commodity. Retailers stuff their stores with cameras to deter shoplifters who cause no physical harm to anybody. It is hardly possible to walk a hundred yards along a high street or a few feet across an airport lounge without surveillance. Why should it be different when we get into a motor vehicle? The police are said to hound lawbreaking motorists in preference to pursuing burglars. Why is this such a reprehensible order of priorities? Burglars cause loss and distress, but rarely kill or maim.
The argument that exceeding the speed limit is acceptable when the road is deserted or the schools are on holiday is preposterous. Children are more, not less, likely to be wandering around in the holidays, and pedestrians may unwittingly put themselves at risk in the belief that the limit is being observed. In any case, a pedestrian hit by a vehicle travelling at 40mph will almost certainly be killed, while one hit at 20mph will almost certainly survive. Nor is it so scandalous that revenue from motoring fines swells police and Treasury coffers. Raising money from the taxation of socially undesirable behaviour - whether it be smoking, emitting greenhouse gases or parking at road junctions - is a perfectly sound principle. Indeed, the Tory proposal that motorists who exceed the limit by small margins should pay higher fines rather than suffer licence endorsements has - unusually - some merit.
Cars seem to create a state of arrested adolescence in many users. Behind the wheel, middle-class, middle-aged men (and the worst drivers are nearly always men) become as reckless and heedless as teenagers. They resemble naughty schoolboys not only in their determination to flout authority, but in their resentment when they are "picked on". Yet a car is potentially a lethal weapon. The use of it is a privilege, not a right; the minority who forget that deserve to be hounded as mercilessly as any housebreaker or teenage vandal.