Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Scrap speed cameras...for the sake of road safety

One of the least attractive features of the last 11 years of Labour government has been the relentless nanny state mentality that has pervaded every aspect of public policy, none more so than the ubiquitous speed camera. So it was heartening to read that at least one county council is considering scrapping them.

There is a simplistic assumption that speed cameras save thousands of lives, and that opponents of speed cameras are petrolheads who are happy for thousands to die. The reality is a little more complicated. When placed at the worst accident blackspots (where speed is a factor) they have definitely saved lives (around 100 a year), but cameras used on those blackspots are a fraction of the 6,000 in use. Most have made little difference. Every life saved is priceless, but if over 3,000 people a year are dying in road accidents, there are clearly other things we should be doing to prevent the other 97% of road deaths.

Not everyone who supports road safety supports speed cameras. There is an alternative view, which is that we should go back to using human beings (i.e. police, remember them?) to patrol our roads rather than 6,000 machines. Unlike the police, cameras can't use discretion or give a caution. They can't pull over someone who is tailgating and they can't detect someone who is driving without insurance. In short, it's a pretty blunt law enforcement instrument. More importantly, when traffic police pull over suspicious drivers, they often discover bigger things: stolen goods, drugs, and even criminals who are on the run.

But the biggest change we can make is giving motorists carrots as well as sticks. A couple of years after passing my driving test, I took the advanced driving test. I was shocked to discover that although I had a full licence, I was making all kinds of mistakes that no camera would have detected and that could have easily led to an accident. Correct use of mirrors, planning ahead, knowing when to accelerate and when to brake, these are all basic skills that could save my life. Drivers who have taken the advanced driving test have 25% fewer accidents.

Clearly there are several pieces of the road safety jigsaw of which cameras are but one. Raising the standard of driving, engineering safer cars, better medical treatment and good road design are all important factors. If we have an exaggerated faith in cameras, we are in danger of neglecting everything else.