After the Cameras

How should traffic law be enforced once most of the cameras have gone?


Those of us who criticise current speed camera policy often say we would like to see the number of cameras greatly reduced (if not entirely eliminated) and a substantial increase in the number of trained traffic police officers on the roads.

But how would those officers actually go about their business? And would more high-profile traffic policing resurrect the accusations of arbitrary and unreasonable behaviour that were common in the past, particularly from people driving performance cars or coming from ethnic minorities?

Why Traffic Police are Better than Cameras

In my view, the most important aspect of traffic enforcement after the camera era must be that it is overwhelmingly carried out by real-life traffic police officers who are able to speak with the driver face-to-face at the time of the alleged offence.

There are numerous advantages to this:

  1. they can detect various offences rather than just the one that a camera can identify, in particular drink and drugs offences and unlicensed driving
  2. they can exercise discretion where appropriate, for example knowing not to book an ambulance on blues and twos and being able to let someone go who is rushing a sick child to hospital
  3. they can pass on a safety advice to drivers. When the risks of their behaviour are explained to drivers they are much more likely to modify it in future
  4. the inherent limitation on the number of tickets issued means that they are compelled to target their efforts where it is most effective rather than on maximising the number of convictions. If you can only make 20 bookings in a day, there’s little value in catching 20 people doing 36 in a 30 or rolling past a Stop sign
Live Policing had its Problems

However, live traffic police are not without their drawbacks. Many of the people who currently complain about cameras are the same people who used to complain about heavy-handed enforcement by live officers. It has always been the case that motorcyclists and those driving sporty cars have felt they have received a disproportionate amount of police attention.

There was also a widespread feeling that the police would too often pull up generally responsible drivers for trivial transgressions. So, even though, in general, enforcement caused much less ill-feeling than it does at present, the old-time traffic police were widely disliked.

A related, and arguably even more serious, problem is the harassment of ethnic minorities. One black man in Birmingham was stopped by the police while driving over forty times in a year, but never charged with anything. This kind of thing is obviously totally unacceptable. Traffic police must concentrate on the offence, not the offender. I suspect it may well be the case that ethnic minorities are even more poorly represented in traffic police sections than in the force as a whole.

As post-camera enforcement will depend very heavily on experienced traffic police offers exercising discretion, it is essential that they are trained to use that discretion in an appropriate manner that is focused on promoting safety rather than pursuing irrelevant vendettas against particular ethnic groups or types of road user. I am wholly confident that trained present-day traffic officers can do this, but the evidence of abuse in past years is so strong that public reassurance is needed.

Another long-standing problem of traffic enforcement is that tends to be concentrated on the roads where it is easiest to spot and pull over offenders – typically motorways and major arterial routes. The most dangerous roads, particularly those in urban areas, see relatively little enforcement. This is another issue that a new era of traffic policing must address.

How It Should be Done

In principle, road traffic law should be self-enforcing, as indeed most of it is, most of the time, anyway. Few sets of traffic lights have cameras, yet running red lights (as opposed to sneaking through just after they have changed) is very rare indeed. While we do need more traffic officers, this should not mean a heavy-handed police presence constantly pulling people up for trivial offences. This would alienate the public while producing little or not safety benefit. Enforcement needs to be proportionate and clearly targeted on genuinely dangerous behaviour.

The traditional method of identifying and apprehending traffic offenders has been by pursuit – a traffic officer in a car or on a motorbike observes an offence being committed, follows the vehicle in question and pulls it over to the side of the road either by flashing lights or by overtaking it. However, there is always an element of danger to this, particularly if the offending driver attempts to make a run for it. It is also best suited to roads with good visibility and clear sightlines which, as pointed out above, by definition are the least dangerous. It tends to encourage the concentration of enforcement where least danger is caused by offenders.

I would suggest in many circumstances a “trap and catch” method is preferable. This involves one police officer observing the behaviour of road users at a particular point, and another some way down the road pulling them over for questioning. This eliminates many of the risks associated with pursuit and is more appropriate for use in urban areas. It can be used for any strict liability offence such as speeding, using a handheld mobile phone or defective lights, and also – through profiling – can be used to target those suspected of drink or drug-driving.

While the police in theory have the right to stop any vehicle without giving a reason, roadblocks or speculative stops are fundamentally objectionable – police should always in practice have reasonable grounds for making a stop.

One disadvantage of the “trap and catch” approach is that it is not suited to identifying offences of dangerous or careless driving. However, in practice, offences of this nature are difficult to detect until after the event when an accident has occurred, and at worst the situation would be no worse than relying on camera enforcement.

There is a place for some officers driving around in unmarked cars on the lookout for people committing offences or driving badly, but this should not be a major part of traffic policing. There is also a place for a visible police presence in marked cars to act as a deterrent and also to catch the really unobservant offenders. But targeted enforcement on specific offences should be the core of traffic policing.

Targeting drivers using hand-held mobile phones may seem to be a relatively trivial aspect of enforcement. However, I firmly believe that this specifically illegal behaviour is a good indicator of a poor attitude to driving in general, and pulling people for this offence may well give them a salutary warning, as well as potentially allowing the police to detect other offences.

Perhaps controversially, I believe the police should be able to set covert speed traps, so long as the offenders are spoken to by a police officer at the time of the offence rather than just receiving an envelope in the mail. This could easily be done by a trap and catch method. As it is manpower intensive, the police would need to target enforcement selectively, and also typically apply relatively high tolerances. It is actually important that enforcement should be covert so drivers don’t try to spot it and avoid it. The objective is not to reduce speeds at particular locations but to apprehend drivers whose speed is genuinely dangerous and attempt to modify their behaviour. It is essential that this method of enforcement is targeted only on gross speeding and is not used as a method of catching responsible drivers only a few mph above the limit.

Unlicensed Drivers

Unlicensed, disqualified and uninsured drivers pose a major safety problem on our roads. Some police forces have found that up to 50% of vehicles caught by cameras are untraceable. Although they are reckoned to account for only about 5% of total mileage, they are involved in a quarter of all fatal accidents. Doing more to catch drivers in these categories must make a major contribution to improving safety, and the use of ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras combined with an officer down the road to stop suspicious vehicles must be an effective way of doing this that holds no fears for the responsible majority.

Drink and Drugs Offences

After many years of decline, there has recently been an increase in the number of accidents attributed to excess alcohol. There may be a case for giving the police unfettered discretion to test individual drivers for drink and drugs (i.e. not mount roadblocks for this purpose) but there would need to be safeguards against victimisation directed both at individuals and at specific premises. However, as it is fairly pointless to stop and test drivers where the police have no reason to believe they may be impaired, unfettered discretion is not really necessary. One would assume the police had fairly good information about who typical offenders are, when they are likely to be driving, what kind of journeys they make, and the type of vehicles they drive, which would make it relatively easy to target them. Possibly unfettered discretion to make stops could be permitted only when a profiling approach was being taken.

Should Any Cameras Remain?

Some campaigners against the current application of speed cameras have argued that they have been abused to such an extent that credibility can only be restored to road safety policy if every single one is removed. Personally I believe there is a case for retaining some cameras in locations where other techniques had not succeeded and a significant minority of drivers continued to exceed a properly set speed limit by a significant amount (perhaps 5% more than 30% above the posted limit). All cameras should be clearly signed in advance and preceded by an illuminated speed warning board. If cameras were used much more sparingly (I would envisage under 500 in the whole of the UK) and always signed in advance (a conventional red-bordered triangular warning sign with a speed camera symbol and a plate saying “200 yds”) then the distraction argument would be eliminated. Maybe a different sign would be needed for speed averaging cameras, with another showing the end of the section over which speed is measured. In my view no cameras should be used on roads with limits higher than 40 mph.

Obviously the above assumes that the speed limit is set correctly in the first place. If most drivers continue to exceed the posted limit by a significant margin at a particular location it suggests that either the limit is wrong or that engineering measures are required to align the character of the road to the environment.

I have no problem with red light cameras so long as they are set with reasonable tolerances (e.g. the camera is not triggered until at least a full second after the lights have turned to red). Nobody ever complains about these being used as revenue earners. However, the statistics are far from clear that red light cameras actually reduce traffic light accidents, and if there is a problem, extending the all-red phase may be a more effective solution. If red light cameras are to be deployed it might well be better to do so in conjunction with an on-the-spot stop by a traffic officer.


The current "four strikes and you're out" penalty point system is broadly reasonable, and I would not propose any major changes. Indeed my suggestions above would help restore the original intent of the scheme by eliminating the possibility of getting points for safe driving marginally above the speed limit. However, much more use could be made of driver improvement courses, which should be offered as options for most first offences of speeding and careless driving. Obviously such courses would concentrate on general driver attitude, not narrow speed limit compliance. But the "soft option" of a course should perhaps also include a small possibility of being referred for retesting if it revealed serious incompetence or a genuinely bad attitude to other road users.

This article is intended purely as a discussion document. If there’s anything you disagree with, please let me know. But I do believe it is incumbent on those who say “fewer cameras, more traffic police” to set out how they believe an enhanced traffic police presence would go about their work, and how they would avoid the problems encountered in the past.

(June 2004)

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