Arguments against speed cameras demolished wholesale

There was a traffic jam on the way to work the other day. At the head was an accident where a white van had driven very hard into the back of an aggregates lorry. The lorry looked untroubled. The cab of the van was horribly compressed; one had to hope the driver and any passengers survived. But it looked like they’d have had an evil, painful start to the day, and many days to come.

The site of the accident was about 50 yards short of a traffic camera (actually the start point of a digital camera area, where your numberplate is recorded and three miles later recorded again and your average speed calculated). The latest issue of Which?, the Consumers’ Association publication, has a fascinating examination of the arguments for and against speed cameras. There are lots of loud people who have quasi-arguments against them; two of those being “deaths are going up, not down”, and “they’re just put there to make money”.

The first argument is potentially stronger, until you examine the deaths in detail. Which? does. Most cameras are installed on urban and rural A roads. Few are on minor rural roads, none on motorways. Since 1992 when the first cameras were installed, deaths on urban and rural A roads have fallen rapidly, from around 2,600 in 1994 to around 2,300 in 2002. The number of deaths on motorways and minor rural roads has risen, from around 700 in 1994 to over 800 in 2002. Conclusion: something is making a different to casualties on urban and rural A roads, yet not minor rural roads and motorways. Hypothesis: speed cameras. Evidence: heavily in favour.

What about “they’re just there to make money”? Actually new cameras can only be put in places where there have been four road deaths.

And on the article goes with a relentless, yet completely fair (in that it lets both sides make their best points) manner. Again and again, the science favours speed cameras. Driving in the speed limit is safer. The piece ends with Professor Rod Kimber of the Transport Road Laboratory saying “I can’t take seriously the arguments put forward by SafeSpeed and the Association of British Drivers unless they step into the scientific domain and produce data or arguments that are subject to scientific analysis. Everyone else does – I don’t see why they don’t.”

Just to remind you, the anti-camera bunch is the group the Conservatives are courting – despite the fact that 71 per cent of people (by a Which? survey of 972 people in Britain aged 17 and over) are in favour of speed cameras. If anything could enunciate the Tories’ wilful self-destructive streak more clearly, I’d like to know what it is. But I doubt the driver of that van the other day would now argue that “speed doesn’t cause accidents”.


  1. In a previous lifetime I did a fair amount of writing on accident investigation, and in this area it’s usually rash to draw conclusions about what happened, even if it appears obvious, prior to examination of all of the data. In this case the white van may have been going too fast, but alternatively a lorry may have braked hard on belatedly noticing a speed camera. And the truth may be something entirely different – the show ain’t over till the fat guy with the tape measure shuts down his workstation and hands in his report.

    I hold no brief for either party, but I think you’ll find a major plank of Speedwatch’s argument is that Transport Road Lab’s scientific analysis isn’t actually very scientific. And having looked at it, it doesn’t seem to me that Speedwatch is entirely wrong here.

    The problem, IMO, is that the government has road death reduction targets to achieve, and having fastened on speed cameras as a major way to achieve them, has a need to ‘prove’ that they work. But the proof usually amounts to less people getting killed or seriously injured the slower you go. Which is the bleedin obvious, but doesn’t get you a great deal further in figuring out cost-effective road safety measures. Sometimes these will be speed cameras, sometimes they will be other things, and sometimes there will be areas (eg reduction in traffic police, or distraction caused by speedo-watching) where speed cameras turn out to be a safety debit.

    The death tally rule, incidentally, seems to me to be symptomatic of government’s refusal to actually think about stuff. It means there are obviously dangerous roads, or roads where a general speed reduction would be beneficial to the community, that won’t get speed cameras until four selfless individuals fluke fatal accidents. But they should really be looking at what’s happening on particular roads and figuring out what measures (inc gatsos) would be most likely to improve safety.


  2. The lorry hadn’t swerved. It was in the outside of a two-lane road. So the van couldn’t stop; ergo was too close to the vehicle in front, or (put another way) travelling too fast to be able to stop before hitting it. C’mon John – it is absolutely not a rationale to say the person in front braked too hard. Ever. That’s why tailgating is such a stupid habit of idiot motorway drivers. They’re the ones whose engine blocks will be joining their legs for a quick game of hide the femur.

    Yes, TRL is criticised for not being scientific enough. By people who haven’t taken the same stats and produced a more cogent argument that has passed peer review. One SafeSpeed response to Kimber of the TRL in the Which? article is “Perhaps they are contracted by the Department for Transport to tell lies.” Err, not too ad hominem then.

    Certainly agree that the ideal would be to look at all roads and figure out the best way to cater for each of them. But just think of the roads that you know and consider how hard that would be. Then multiply that by the area of a county. Then put yourself in charge of the policing with a limited budget to survey the roads. Quite quickly one might find that speed cameras, which are impartial and cost-effective, seem a good answer to the question of “how do we make our roads safer while not overspending the budget?”

    Personally I’d love to walk or cycle my daughter to school. It’s two miles on a rural road. But a family that moved in the end of our road and have cycled in – mother with child on back of bike in childseat, two older primary school boys in front – have already had so many near-misses caused by bad drivers that this weekend they got a second car. Cameras probably wouldn’t help either. It’s a culture of assuming that cars own the road which is so pernicious, and which cameras begin, just begin, to turn back.

  3. I think your point about bad rural driving is a very important one. Speed cameras only deal with a part of the damage cars do. I know that I drive too fast around here, and get tremendously frustrated when there are people driving slowly in front of me. But the consequence is to make all these narrow Essex roads unsafe for anything but motor cars. Which in turn drive more and more as if all roads had motorway traffic rules. And there has been absolutely nothing done by the county council to make it possible even to cycle from Saffro Walden to the train station.

  4. > none on motorways
    I just want to add that I have been caught by a speed camera on the M1 in Northants. They also have speed cameras on the variable speed-limit section of the M25. So this means that the link between number of speed cameras and number of road deaths is not necessarily that direct. Many motorway accidents are caused by people not adjusting to the conditions; e.g. driving too close to the person in front when congestion sets in (which even at 70mph cannot be caught by a speed camera) or driving too fast in rain/fog/icy conditions. I am not saying I am against speed cameras, but I think it’s not as straightforward as a direct correlation between camera numbers and road death reduction.

  5. As usual, statistics are not always reliable witnesses. They may prove that road deaths at places that now have speed cameras have declined. But, this may just indicate a return to the norm that existed before the accident(s) that provoked their installation. A road might have a long term average of one death per year. As the result of a bad accident, four die, then it reverts to its average of one a year again. The placing of a speed camera may have little to do with this. Of course, this analysis is almost as simplistic as the speed camera lobby’s, but some other figures I’ve seen (from one of the road laboratories) suggests that speeding is responsible for less than 10% of accidents, and a factor in no more than a third. Tiredness, bad driving (such as tailgating), lack of concentration (answering a phone, lighting a cigarette, screaming at fighting children….), and other factors play a role.

    Having never been caught speeding – being a careful driver, of course :^) – speed cameras don’t worry me much, although it would be a good idea if the particular speed limit was posted on each camera, because people often seem to have no idea what it is – after all a dual carriageway can be 40/50/60 or 70mph (often within a mile or two of each other). One camera near us on the A40 always catches people out. There is a 50mph limit, but I’ve often seen people braking in a panic to less than 40, which can be how tailgating turns into an accident. I think the digital cameras (taking average speed over a distance) are a much safer bet in these circumstances.

    Also, a reason that deaths are declining on urban and rural A roads might be due to increasing numbers of cars, causing congestion, reducing speeds so that any accident is less likely to be fatal (I know that bolsters the speeding argument… – although it could also be that because of airbags and better built cars, fewer people are being killed in the same number of accidents at the same speed). Also fewer children in urban areas are allowed play on the streets/walk to school by themselves, which is why the numbers of children being killed on the roads is declining (apparently).

    The rising number of deaths on motorways and minor rural roads could have a similar reason – more cars (but not so many as to cause slower-speed accidents). You could also blame the increasing number of left-hand drive artics on the motorways, which have a significant blind spot when pulling into the middle lane to overtake. Indeed, with accidents having so many possible causes, the whole speeding argument is unlikely to have any simple conclusion.

    I would argue that many speed limits are wrong. 80mph is the de facto speed limit on most motorways – and in good conditions it is safe to go faster in today’s cars (certainly makes you concentrate….). The french idea of having lower speed limits on motorways in heavy rain is also worth looking at – as is the American idea of allowing undertaking (especially as so many people do it anyway). And most urban roads should probably have a 20mph limit instead of the current 30 (especially near schools). And, of course, I should be put in charge of all transport matters immediately with an unlimited budget – actually many of the changes I’d make (such as improving traffic flow through better traffic light timing, the adoption of Dutch-style no road marking low-speed urban areas, improved cycle routes and abandoning the road hump policy) wouldn’t cost much….

  6. Speed alone doesn’t kill; inappropriate speed does. In the last year covered by government figures, over a million speeding fines were issued (and the suggestion is that this is likely to double this year). Given that only about 30 million people in this country hold driving licences, that figure on its own should suggest that something is going wrong with current policy, even if you ignore the fact that over the last couple of years road deaths haven’t been dropping.

    I can accept that speed cameras have a place in transport policy but they are currently a very overused and blunt instrument. They don’t take road and traffic conditions into account, they can’t catch people under the influence of drink or drugs (or kids playing up in the back seat), they don’t spot dangerous vehicles, they don’t stop dangerous or reckless driving other than simple excessive speed, and even for that they only catch you after the event rather than making you slow down immediately once caught. Above all, they are entirely reliant on local authorities setting appropriate speed limits, having also looked into relevant use of street furniture, signage, and good road design, rather than just taking the easy option of lowering speed limits and sticking in a speed camera.

    The current attitude of using speed cameras and lowered speed limits as the first resort reduces the respect that many people, myself included, have for an important area of traffic law. It has also resulted in fewer police being used on traffic duty so fewer of those dangerous vehicles and drivers are being caught.

    In case you assume I’m just another selfish speed-freak trying to justify his behaviour without any thought to the damage caused, I should let you know that a few years ago I nearly died in a car crash, obeying the speed limit, when I was hit head-on by a drunk motorcyclist travelling at nearly three times the speed limit on the wrong side of the road. A speed camera wouldn’t have stopped him, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it was speed that caused his death, or whether it was down to drinking, driving dangerously, or whether we should blame the girlfriend with whom he’d just had a fight in the local pub.

  7. dfx says: “As usual, statistics are not always reliable witnesses.
    You know, this is a really unwise thing to say. Statistics are the basis of science. Statistics (applied to experimental data) gives us the weight of the electron, the speed of light, the gravitational constant. Statistics, properly used, are the only witnesses science has to the universe around us, because data == statistics. They’re how your computer is able to work, how humans reach the moon and get back.
    Yes, “other factors” certainly play a role. But you can be sure that if all cars drove at 20mph there would be almost zero fatalities. OK, absurd extreme, but shows that what this argument is about is what an appropriate speed is to balance our desire to get somewhere, and our responsibilities to those around us. Those who hate speed cameras put the responsibility to others rather lower, I’d argue, than they should.

    JJ, the argument that 1m tickets were issued but only 30m people have licences ignores the possibility of the same person getting multiple tickets. And there’s no evidence all those 1m came from cameras: traffic police do a lot of them too. True, cameras aren’t able to do any more than spot cars exceeding a speed limit. But you have to start somewhere. And actually, cameras can spot cloned plates, and roadside cameras can spot cars without road tax, both things that point towards folk whose collar you might like to feel.
    I’m sorry about your crash, and glad you survived it.

    But my point in the original post still stands: the anti-camera lobby uses vague finger-pointing and “oh, here’s an alternative explanation” rather than being *scientific* about it. When they produce peer-reviewed papers that demolish, or even weaken, the pro-camera case, then they deserve serious consideration. That’s what was so good about the Which? article: it let both sides give it their best shot. Only one turned out to have ammunition that had heft.

  8. Charles, when you talk about speed camera statistics, it is less about science than politics. The “only put in a speed camera where there are four deaths” rule means that (unless a long term trend is given – which it rarely is) politicians can typically point to any return to the average (which may have been one death a year on a particular road) as a triumph for their policy – which is more likely a revenue earner than anything else. Speed cameras, per se, don’t concern me, but how they are used and how we set appropriate speed limits for particular stretches of road does. Sometimes, going at 30mph in a 30mph zone may be too fast for the conditions. Doing 90 on a lightly-trafficed motorway in perfect conditions may not. The whole debate on speed cameras is too simplistic and doesn’t take into account the huge number of other factors that cause accidents. There are lots of places where a speed camera might be more effective at preventing accidents than placing them on wide, straight dual carriageways which have a lower speed limit than would be safe, but where they can earn a lot more money.



  9. The whole debate on speed cameras is too simplistic and doesnít take into account the huge number of other factors that cause accidents.
    It seems to me that stopping people using handheld mobiles is a start to the “other factors”. Many people though ignore even that sensible thing, and turn sharp corners while talking to their mates, which I find a really infuriating way of not caring about anyone else.
    Yes, there are many other factors, but you have to work with the solutions you’re able to make work, or ameliorate those other factors by using different techniques. Speed cameras that make people adjust their behaviour might help reduce the risk of people on mobile phones having a crash. It’s only might. Anaesthetising all children compulsorily while they’re in a car could help prevent the distraction there, but I don’t think it’ll pass muster.

    The other point: everyone thinks speed limits are pulled from the air. Actually, road engineers spend a long time learning what designs work and don’t work. They know better than you or me what is ahead. And I trust them to get these things right. At some stage, as a member of society, you have to do that, and accept someone else’s judgement. Review the numbers, learn their trade better, and then criticise – sure. But too many of the critics on this topic only know about road engineering viewed through a windscreen. There’s much, much more to it than that.

  10. Road engineers don’t have the final decision about speed limits. Politicians do. The speed limit on motorways is nothing to do with how fast might be safe, it was set as a reactionary measure by parliament many years ago, since when car technology has advanced considerably. The speed limit on rural roads certainly doesn’t reflect the wide differences between narrow, winding lanes with high hedges in the south west and open, straight (but usually rather bumpy) roads in east anglia. And, in urban areas, the 20mph Home Zone innitiative is politically driven (the road engineers just have to come up with the best way of enabling it) – not that this is a bad thing, I’m all in favour of it. But, if the speed limits on each stretch of road were realistically re-assessed, this would cost money, and would need the placement of an awful lot more speed limit signs (more money). And to accurately reflect changing conditions (weather/traffic) should really be variable (expensive – and possibly even confusing….). And, to be really fair, cars with particularly good brakes, like a Porsche, should be allowed go faster than something with a very long braking distance [amazingly, I’m very rarely passed by Porsches on the motorway – white vans, astras and BMW X5s are far more likely to speed past while most Porsche drivers seem to stick to the speed limits – maybe they already have 9 points on their licences (or maybe they find that the police are a lot more likely to stop them if they even stray over the limit)].


  11. All that is true. We could also have allowances for drivers with better reaction times and sight, and road experience. You could have annual or, hell, monthly tests which would set an individual speed limit which you would then use together with the known characteristics of the car you’re going to drive to produce your at-that-moment speed limit for you today, in this car.

    Or more simply and cheaply and easily we could have a system of speed limits, which everyone should obey because it’s (1) socially sensible (2) simple to apply (3) informed by people who specialise in what safe speeds are for roads.

    Maybe it’s something about getting older, or having access to better technology which makes place less important, but I can’t see peoples’ desire to be able to drive faster than other people as anything more than a strange affliction that drives out the rationality in otherwise rational folk.

  12. The article in Which was really very superficial and not very accurate. You should be interested in our published comments:

    I totally accept that the author made an attempt at fair balance, but unfortunately he really didn’t dig deeply enough into the data and analysis he was presenting.

    The Safe Speed website is now in excess of 350,000 words and over 7,500 hours of my best efforts have gone into it. It is completely unreasonable to suggest that Which presented “our best arguments”. It didn’t come anywhere close. For a brief overview of “our best arguments” see:

    Best Regards,
    Paul Smith
    Safe Speed road safety campaign

  13. Face it guys, speed cameras are just another way the government keeps the population cowed. Taking an angle grinder to them may not be politically correct, but is does wrong-foot the authorities. Let’s hope someone soon perfects that model aeroplane control that spins the camera disc into oblivion. But it’s unfair to say “you voted for um”, because only just over 20% of the electorate did. Check out what Nevil Shute wrote in the 1950’s after he left for Australia: Parapharased but essentially anyone with any get up and go will leave. The risk takers will leave and the risk adverse will stay, leaving a county populated by gutless wonders. So if you don’t fit, vote with your feet.
    Still be thankful for small mercies: Blindgit was convinced he was going to be Minister of Transport. Well that was his excuse for the conflict of interest problem that saw him resigning, again. A guy thatís never driven thinks heís going to be transpost minister, now thatís what I call arrogance. Was commenting on the BBC “Have your say” site. Hey isn’t that strict over obscenity. You have to put a hyphen between dick and head before it’s clean enough for Auntie.

  14. Charles

    Thursday 3 November 2005 at 2:19 pm

    You know, I’d be quite happy if the risk-taking drivers would get up and leave – as I said above, that would mean I could walk my daughter (and son now, as he’s old enough) to school. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s going to happen.

    Did the Tories have a manifesto commitment to wipe out speed cameras? I don’t recall it. Did the Lib Dems? If no to either or both of those, then a majority did vote for speed cameras, in the sense that they didn’t vote for the Ban Speed Cameras Now party. I know, by that argument we’ve voted for lots of things we haven’t voted for, but you started it, Andrew (Milner).

    Speed cameras don’t keep the population cowed. I’m not “cowed” by the idea of keeping to a speed limit that means (1) I’m less likely to kill someone, including myself (2) people won’t hate me as I drive through their village (3) other people might do the same.

    Yes, it would be marvellous to stop tailgating on motorways in fog, rain and snow, but you have to work with what’s there. Politics is the art of the possible. Speed cameras are possible.

    Plus, using angle-grinders on public property means it’s mine and your taxes you’re wasting, which is stupid on two counts – it’s not going to put them off *and* it takes money away from more useful things, such as me.

  15. Do drivers – people that is – have a choice about whether (or not) they decide to exceed speed limits and, as such, risk being caught and penalised?

  16. If – as the ABD and SS and other anti-camera groups maintain – speed/excessive speed is not the primary cause of fatal and serious injury collisions and – as they maintain – ‘inattention’ and ‘inappropriate speed’ are the main causes, then could they explain why it is that men – ie males – are responsible for 97 per cent of dangerous driving offences and 94 per cent of offences causing death and serious injury. (Source DfT 2002).

  17. Charles

    Sunday 22 January 2006 at 10:24 pm

    Ooh, Alan, you’re a killer factoid merchant. More!

  18. Oh, alwight then, just for you: Lamp-posts don’t catch drink/drivers or tailgaters or unlicensed/uninsured drivers or drivers using mobile phones – etc,etc – either. But then again, were they meant to?

  19. Hey,

    Im doing a piece of work on speed camera’s for uni (Speed Camera’s Friend or Foe) and would find anybodys opinion very helpful.

    If you would like to have your say please email

    Many thanks

  20. Hey, Chuck. Hope I die before I get that old.

  21. Everyone takes an extroadinarily black and white, closed minded view to speed cameras. Either your a parent and suddenly think everyone should drive at 12mph because thats safer, or your a racer who wants to get around fast and doesnt see the point in them at all. The fact is there are compromises that could be made to keep boths sides happy – I tend to be against speed cameras, yet i have no problem with the idea of cameras in general.

    Say you have a dangerous crossing, there have been deaths and you need drivers to slow down. You put in a speed camera.. but why is the sign indicating the speed camera upto 2miles away on a differant road? Why not put the sign a few hundred metres infront of the camera, thus letting everyone knows its there. Nobody will intentionally get a speeding ticket so they slow down when they see the sign, and drive through the dangerous area at a safe speed. This also avoids the problem of people seeing a camera and breaking heavily, since people are warned clearly in time to brake gradually.

    It is the lack of thought and consideration that goes into the siting of cameras which most bothers motorists i have talked to.

    Another point worth mentioning is that it is fine to post statistics on the amount of lives ‘saved’ by cameras, yet often this is given without perspective and is only a very small percent of overall deaths on the roads. Whilst clearly effective in some circumstances, many cameras are sited badly and doing nothing to make roads safer.

  22. Just came across this page whilst doing some research, and then realised when I got to the bottom that I had left a comment or two several years ago. So seeing as how I’m back on here again, I might as well leave another comment or two, or three.

    One of the Big Lies that the anti-camera propagandists have been disseminating for the past five or six years or so – mainly on forums and comments pages – is that cameras have not helped reduce road deaths and that the number of road deaths has not fallen. I’ve come across this one dozens of times over the years – and I have no doubt whatsoever that it’s Safe Speed and the ABD and Pistonheads etc that are doing it – but rarely in a national daily newspaper. So courtesy of the Daily Mail, here’s a recent example:

    In two of the four years after the first camera was installed in Britain in 1992, the casualty rate actually went up. Since then, it has remained fairly constant.

    Richard Littlejohn, 28th July 2010

    So “in two of the four years” after 1992 “the casualty rate actually went up”. The following are the road death figures for that five-year period:

    1992 = 4,229
    1993 = 3,814
    1994 = 3,650
    1995 = 3,621
    1996 = 3,598

    I make that a fall of 631, and I don’t see any rises! As for remaining “fairly constant” since then, in 2000 there were 3,409 road deaths, and in 2005 there were 3,201, and in 2009 there were 2,222. That’s just short of a 50% fall in road deaths since 1992. The only things that are constant are the lies that Littlejohn disseminates to the several million people who read the Daily Mail. To the very people in effect who pay his very high salary.

    And I have no doubt whatsoever that the steep decline in road deaths during the past five or six years is due in large part to cameras, both directly and indirectly. When you’ve got around a million drivers on six or nine points – most of whom are/were persistent speeders – then they are all the more likely to drive within the speed limits most of the time precisely because they have (even if they know where all the cameras are located they know that they could get stopped/caught by traffic police).

    People who have been caught speeding are twice as likely to have been involved in a collision in the three years prior to being caught than other drivers. And the reason why is very simple: The faster you drive the more likely you are to be in a collision.

    Anthony: How strange! NONE of the motorists I know (friends and family and acquaintances) have a problem about where cameras are sited. It’s funny how the anti-camsters always seem to know motorists that have this particular problem! The reality is that cameras are located where they are located because there were at least four fatal or serious injury collisions at that location in the three-year period prior to the camera being installed.

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