Wednesday 15 April 2015

Stealth Cameras

It seems that Labour was getting all hot under the collar about "stealth" speed cameras on the motorway network over the weekend, although it was old news recycled to have a pop at the Conservatives who had allowed all of these hidden cameras to be installed.

The outrage was reported by many newspapers, including the Daily Mail (naturally!) - if you would rather not click on the link, the thrust of the news report was related to the enforcement of variable speed limits on the motorway network;

  • 112,000 drivers given penalty notices in 12 months because of the cameras
  • Increase due to 'grey cameras' on motorways with variable speed limits
  • Critics say the measures are used to catch out drivers and make money
  • Numbers of drivers fined will rise as system is extended across the country
Well, let's have a look at those four points before I return to the politics. First, 112,000 drivers received fines because they were driving too fast and yes, if it wasn't for those pesky cameras keeping everyone safe they would have gotten away with it.

Yes, many of the cameras in use are grey, but as this image of a gantry on the M6 shows, the cameras sit behind the variable speed signs over each traffic lane and yellow cameras wouldn't be much help to drivers not wishing to pick up fines. (Images from Google Streetview). There are plenty other systems running, some with yellow cameras, some grey.

I guess that people getting fines and those who purport to be representing them might be called "critics", but as for catching out motorists, I simply cannot accept it. Presumably, people know what the speed limit is on the motorways and when the variable speed limit is in operation, there are some big signs on the gantries above the road and as one enters a variable limit section from a slip road; so how are people being "caught out"? Perhaps people feel ashamed and their representatives feel the group shame!

As for the numbers of people fined going up as "smart motorways" are rolled out, that may well be true, but as it becomes normal to stick to the speed limit, then I am certain that the numbers will drop and as a percentage of annual trips on the motorway, the numbers being fined are already supremely tiny to the point where this isn't really a story and me commenting is a waste of time!

Back to the politics. Labour issued a press release at the beginning of February where it quoted Michael Dughar MP, Shadow Transport Secretary;

This camera on a Transport for London road is new
and yellow!
“The previous Labour Government issued strict guidelines that speed cameras should be in accident blackspots and that they should be painted yellow. At the same time, we worked to deliver the best road safety record in the EU.

“Under this Conservative Government we have seen a proliferation of grey, hidden 'stealth’ cameras, and at the same time road safety has deteriorated.

“This Government’s belated and half hearted review is insufficient. We should have one universal standard whereby all fixed speed cameras are in accident blackspots and are painted yellow. Ministers should issue guidelines to the Highways Agency today to stop treating motorists like a cash cow.”

The first paragraph is true, although they were guidelines and so not following them never would have invalidated enforcement activity; although most camera operating authorities and partnerships did as they were told. The point about having the best road safety record in the EU is highly questionable, although in 2010, the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition introduced swingeing cuts to road safety work, including the removal of revenue from camera fines being reinvested in safety camera partnerships.

The whole issue about treating motorists as cash cows was, is and always will be nonsense when it comes to law enforcement and to say otherwise is populist nonsense. At the simplistic level, one could say that if you stick to the speed limit, then you have nothing to fear and that is OK to some extent. The wider issue is that people should drive according to the conditions and for sure, automatic cameras cannot police this and this brings the gradual cuts to traffic policing in the UK into sharp relief.

If our politicians (all of them) were more serious about speeding, they would be calling for changes in the law to tighten up on penelities, stopping serial offenders from driving whilst banned and ending the nonsense that allows people to carry on driving with more than 12 points. Of course, this is all about motorways and I think far more is needed in enforcing speed limits on local roads. Cameras will have their place, but they cannot be a substitute for roads policing.

If you want to find out the detail of how safety cameras (speed and red signal) have been funded and kicked around as a political football, then the House of Commons Library Standard Note 350 will be of interest.


  1. It is fun translating some of the statements about speed cameras into "ordinary" crime.

    "police should only patrol crime hotspots; they should always be in uniform and never in plain clothes"

    Additionally, the police should always broadcast their position so that owners of GPS devices are aware of where they are, so they don't commit a crime with police in the vicinity.

    It just demonstrates the attitude that speeding isn't really breaking the law.

    1. Yes, driving-related crime (because the police enforce it) is continually being watered down to the level of annoyance or even acceptability; and because of the points system, people are given chances to change their behaviour.

      My post was more about the motorways which are highly regulated and controlled - increasingly so with Smart Motorways. The variable speed limits are there to control and regiment drivers to create smooth traffic flow conditions and therefore maximise capacity at any given time as well as reacting to collisions and breakdowns.

      Speeding under the variable limit may not be dangerous all of the time, but too many people doing it will destabilise the flow which is part of the reason to enforce the speed limit.

      Away from motorways, I would guess that far more trips are made by people speeding and the impacts are often greater because of where they are speeding, but enforcement is so sporadic, many people don't see it is the criminal activity that it is.

    2. "It just demonstrates the attitude that speeding isn't really breaking the law." - isn't there some statistic, where 80-something percent of drivers surveyed said that they never broke the law, and 90-something percent admitted to speeding and red light jumping.

    3. I can see the rationale for a stable flow of traffic but I suspect that a lot of the general public just don't understand. Many will simply think, go faster = get there quicker, irrespective of the fact that their actions will destabilise the flow and increase the journey times for those behind.

    4. Yes, not sure many people understand slower but steady versus quicker but chaotic - journey times key of course over speed.

  2. Speeding on motorways is a tricky one. To drivers, it feels very safe, especially if everyone around you is doing the same speed (and it is 'safe' in terms of the absence of lots of hazards that you'd find on a normal street). But the potential consequences of a collision are far more horrific than at lower speeds, and if anything does happen then with such slim windows to react and huge stopping distances you're fooked.

  3. A bit OT, but my wife is scared of "smart motorways". We have one near here (M4/M5) and she is always worried about what happens if she breaks down and has no safe refuge, and is dependent only upon the cameras picking her up and being smart quickly enough to save her life (and make the hard shoulder a hard shoulder again).

  4. Some speed limits could and should justifiably be raised, on clear and wide motorways then the limit could hop up to 130 km/h, but equally they should also be lowered on a good bunch of the roadway system. 80 for distributor roads in rural areas, 60 for access roads in rural areas, and 100 km/h for the limited access roads with one lane per direction, some grade separation and a minimum speed of 60 km/h, and no bicycles or pedestrians. Dual carriageways should be redesigned to have a shoulder and a parallel route of high quality so that the dual carriageway can be made into a motorway, and same with minor side streets.

    1. There might be a fair need to adjust the limits on road types more generally. For some motorways and high speed roads, the slip roads are not really designed for much higher speeds which can be an issue.

  5. There is a lot of preconception that punishment will reduce crime. It rarely does. It's actually by far more related to the chance of getting caught.

    I suggest a lot of things to make the police more able to catch offenders.

    First, redesign roads the Dutch way to reduce the number of offenses in the first place. The roadway design suggests the speed to go at legally and it feels comfortable to go that speed, so far less speeding. Roundabouts could be much more common, so fewer red lights. Parking bays designed into a function of the street and defined by curbs makes it very easy to figure out where to park, so fewer parking offenses. Independent right turn (for the UK, left turns in right side countries) lanes at traffic light junctions with independent signals. No repeater signals as explained by PedestrianiseLondon, cut down on those who go beyond the stop line. The Dutch method of providing for cyclists and pedestrians, so as to switch the traffic onto those modes and fewer on cars, and provide well defined bicycle parking.

    The road signage could be simpler. A website called globonsomeday has a large list of ideas on how to deal with road signage and make it simpler and largely language independent. Less confusion, and people claiming confusion, there.

    Make the public transport system better, higher speed, double tracked railways, fewer level crossings (another cause of traffic offenses) and with barrier protected crossings for the remainder, and bus traffic light priority systems, to switch more traffic onto those, and better freight train systems to switch more HGV traffic onto those and less opportunity for truck drivers to screw up.

    This should reduce the demand side of things, as in, the amount of opportunities car drivers have to screw up and a system that self enforces it's rules.

    To provide more police officers and a justice system behind it that can in fact find road users and deal with misbehaving ones, decriminalize drug possession and small scale dealing now, like a 10 pound fine that's just a ticket like a parking ticket, less paperwork, and set up a regulated system for it's production, distribution and sale. This should really cut down on the crimes that one would have to dealt with, and especially in the US and Canada, reduce the number of police officers who have to intervene with naloxone. And adopt the prison and criminal justice system of the Netherlands and Norway, really effective in cutting down the number of crimes. And mental health care, the police aren't the ones who are best suited to deal with them.

    A few other changes I'd make, I'd lower the BAC limit for drink driving to .05% BAC and .02% or maybe 0% for new drivers. A GDL system is also quite effective and is one of the few things that the English speaking aside from the UK world does well with car driving. I'd also introduce clearly defined drugged driving limits that would make it easier to decide although any impairment is an issue, like 5 ng/mL blood THC, and make sure that opioid painkiller users know that with certain doses, they can't drive safely.

    Now to deal with the offenses we actually have. Use automatic cameras for fairly routine offenses like speeding by up to say 15 km/h over the speed limit and make it automatically call an officer to respond if a certain speed is reached, automatic cameras can also enforce red lights and bus lane violations as well as intruding upon car free zones like city centres perhaps or cycle paths that have a history of being invaded.

    Penalties should be made proportional to the income of the offender. Finland has a mathematical system for dealing with this. It also reduces the number of low income people who are just one ticket away from homelessness or jail or something like that. With drink driving, while I don't think you should go to jail, I don't think that you'll learn your lesson best there, why not focus on the part of the offense that was the issue, the alcohol and the car?

  6. A panel of binding arbitration with alcohol/drug counselors, road safety experts, victims of drink driving, etc, can help sort out a person's problems, like with fines, suspension of license, probation, prohibition of drinking above .05% BAC for say 2 years, etc. Similar panels can be used to deal with more serious than just a roadside ticket offenses like parking tickets or speeding by 10 over.

    Community service should also be tacked onto driving offenses. Probation isn't usually justified, but a fine is just a monetary amount lost, community service makes you do something good in return.

    Sounds good Mark?