Hide and Seek

Would a return to hidden speed cameras improve road safety?

In 2001, the government announced that all fixed speed cameras were to be made highly visible. There was considerable evidence that painting cameras "bright" served to reduce both average speeds and accident figures, and the move was also aimed at restoring public trust in the camera enforcement régime.

However, since then, many "road safety" pressure groups have continued to argue that making cameras hidden would be a more effective safety measure. If cameras were hidden, they say, drivers would be encouraged to slow down everywhere, not just at camera sites. This call has recently been echoed by North Wales Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom, the chair of the ACPO Traffic Enforcement Committee, who is notorious for his hard-line views on speed enforcement. But what would be the real impact of hidden cameras?

The first point that must be made is that the old grey cameras were never genuinely hidden, merely inconspicuous. Even the ones concealed behind signs and bushes were clearly visible from the opposite direction. So regular users of a road still knew exactly where the cameras were – it was just that you were somewhat more likely to be caught unawares on an unfamiliar road.

Also, the sight of cameras skulking behind bushes was highly destructive of trust in the enforcement system, as their purpose was so blatantly just to catch people out.

It would be impossible to keep secret the locations of any fixed devices that were clearly visible, and if the authorities went back to sticking grey cameras behind bushes, then the sales of GPS camera location devices such as Origin BlueI and RoadAngel would go through the roof. And how could you ban dissemination of knowledge of something that everyone could see with their own eyes?

If enforcement was to be genuinely covert it would need to be mobile rather than fixed. The technology exists to catch drivers from long ranges, and in fact the authorities could go a long way towards that aim simply by using unmarked Talivans in undeclared locations. They probably have the means, given the political will, to give 75% of drivers a speeding conviction in any given year. The number of tickets given would simply depend on the amount of resources devoted to it.

If the number of tickets remained at the current level of maybe 3 million a year, then the "average" driver would still only get a ticket once every ten years. That would not be anywhere enough to make most people keep to all limits.

However, covert mobile enforcement would become completely politically unacceptable in terms of the number of people banned from driving or amassing 9 points, well before it reached the point of, in practice, making the vast majority of drivers decide to adhere to all speed limits at all times.

It would also provide an enormous incentive to numberplate cloning and driving unlicensed vehicles.

It's not as if the speed limits are totally clear and unambiguous anyway. Few drivers really fully understand the system of speed limit signing, in particular the link between street lighting and 30 limits. Did you know, for example, that there are circumstances under which a speed limit can change by 20 or 30 mph, but no sign is required at the point where the limit changes? Or that a highway authority can reduce an existing speed limit by up to 40 mph without needing to erect any kind of sign warning road users that a new, lower limit applies? And, on the ground, many speed limit signs in practice are missing or obscured.

On a twenty-mile journey along unfamiliar roads with mixed limits, I would expect the average driver to miss or get wrong at least one speed limit. I know this from being involved in the IAM, where teaching associates how to recognise speed limits more reliably is one of the first tasks an observer has to do. With the current level of enforcement this isn't a major problem, but if drivers ran the risk of being prosecuted anywhere, then increasingly they would end up falling foul of the law through their own lack of knowledge or highway authorities failing in their duty to maintain signage. And it would be very likely that enforcement would be concentrated precisely where limits were most inappropriate and ambiguous.

So the conclusion must be that a return to hidden cameras in any form would yield no worthwhile safety benefits while having the potential to rip to shreds the already threadbare political case for camera enforcement.

(July 2004)

Speed Camera Locations in and around Greater Manchester

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