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Since the introduction of speed cameras into the UK, the government and driving standard agencies have faced a constant battle against public objections to their use. Despite this government, local camera partnerships and area Police authorities still insist on using the phrase "Speed Kills!" to promote road safety. In some cases, this phrase has been watered down, and it now increasingly often appears as "Think! Slow Down!" however, the inferred meaning still remains the same, ie. that speed is a direct cause of road death and injury.

Are government and local authorities right to promote lower speed as being key to road safety in this manner? Does doing so help to make our roads safer? Consider for a moment two similar hypothetical scenarios:-

Scenario 1

The young driver of a small hatchback is nearing the end of a long journey. They're keen to get home, and have driven non-stop for approaching 300 miles. As they travel along a busy stretch of dual carriageway at 65mph, a vehicle suddenly pulls into the main carriageway from a slip road a short distance ahead. As a result, vehicles in front brake hard, but the young driver fails to anticipate this and hits the back of the car in front. As they do so, a large 4x4 vehicle travelling behind hits the back of the young driver's vehicle. Due to the weight and speed of the 4x4 vehicle, the young driver's smaller vehicle is forced heavily into the car in front, killing the young driver.

Scenario 2

A 35 year old sales rep. is returning from a day's work visiting clients. He's keen to get home and has driven nearly 300 miles, but stopped a short while ago to take a break and for a cup of coffee. As he drives down a 70mph stretch of dual carriageway, traffic is relatively busy, but he's still managing to drive at 85mph. A large 4x4 vehicle is following close behind, too close to stop safely, so the rep. leaves a long stopping distance between himself and the car in front, with some extra distance to allow him to brake more slowly in case of emergency. A short distance ahead, a car pulls suddenly from a slip road, causing drivers in front to brake suddenly. The sales rep anticipates this, brakes to reduce speed, and the 4x4 following gently nudges the back of the sales rep's car. Both the rep. and the 4x4 driver pull over at the next layby, inspect the damage to their vehicles, find that this is minor so exchange details and continue on their journeys.

Speed Kills?

If the claim that speed kills is true, surely the driver exceeding the speed limit by 15mph in scenario 2 should have been the one to die needlessly, rather than the driver travelling below the posted speed limit in scenario 1? This was however not the case, and the reasons for this can be easily assessed. In the case of the young driver, the cause of the accident and the subsequent driver's death can be attributed to:-

  • Fatigue.
  • Lack of driving experience.
  • Poor anticipation of road ahead.
  • Failure to adhere to a safe stopping distance.
  • Failure to consider following vehicles.
  • Inherent safety issues with the vehicle.
  • Inherent safety issues with following vehicles.
Conversely, the reasons why the sales rep. in scenario 2 continued on his journey unharmed can be concluded as:-
  • Lack of fatigue.
  • Wide experience of driving, road conditions and potential causes of accidents.
  • Anticipation of the road ahead.
  • Travelling at a safe stopping distance.
  • Consideration given to the stopping distance of the following vehicle.

Speed Kills - Speed Cameras Save Lives?

Government and other road safety authorities regularly claim that the deployment of speed cameras on our roads help to reduce the number of road casualties. If that is the case, then what effect would a speed camera shortly before the location in question have had on the two scenarios above? In the case of the young driver in scenario 1, the driver was already travelling below the posted speed limit. As a result, in all likelihood, the camera would have had no effect on the outcome. In scenario 2, the sales rep. would most likely have seen the camera well in advance, slowed down and most likely have increased speed again once the camera had been passed. In all probability, the outcome would have remained the same, or, if the sales rep. had remained at the posted speed limit, some minor damage to his vehicle may have been avoided.

The reasons why a speed camera would not have avoided death in scenario 1 are easy to see. Speed cameras cannot detect driver fatigue, poor driving standards or failure to adhere to safe stopping distances. They cannot instill experience in younger and less experienced drivers. They cannot help to overcome inherent safety limitations within certain types of vehicle. However, all of the preceding points except the last can be (and regularly are) addressed by well qualified and experienced traffic Police officers.

Having established that speed cameras can be ineffective in increasing road safety, now let's take a look at another theoretical scenario:-

Scenario 3

The young driver of a small hatchback is nearing the end of a long journey. They're keen to get home, and have driven non-stop for approaching 300 miles. As they travel along a busy stretch of dual carriageway at 70mph, a driver ahead sees a speed camera a few yards in front of him, which had previously been obscured by an HGV. Not sure whether he's travelling below the posted speed limit, he instinctively brakes hard. In reality, he was actually travelling well within the speed limit but, having been caught before by another camera, he now brakes automatically and then considers his speed once he's begun to slow down. Vehicles following him also brake, but the young driver fails to anticipate this and hits the back of the car in front. As they do so, a large 4x4 vehicle travelling behind hits the back of the young driver's vehicle. Due to the weight and speed of the 4x4 vehicle, the young driver's smaller vehicle is forced heavily into the car in front, killing the young driver.

Speed Cameras Can Cause Accidents?

In scenario 3, had the camera not been present, the first driver would not have braked. If they had not done so, the following vehicles behind would not have braked either, and the young driver would have continued on their journey without the accident occurring. In conclusion, the speed camera was a direct contributory factor in the driver's death.

This scenario can and does occur on a regular basis on the UK's roads. Generally speaking, accidents occuring as a result are rare and relatively minor. The effect of the camera can however be clearly witnessed in some locations, with large numbers of black tyre marks on the road just before the camera, caused by drivers braking heavily on stretches of otherwise unmarked road along which drivers would otherwise have had no cause to reduce speed.

Are Speed Cameras Ever Effective?

The effectiveness of speed cameras on rural or major trunk routes is clearly seriously questionable. Anyone who disagrees with this fact is urged to spend some time observing vehicles passing a camera on a stretch of dual carriageway or motorway. Anyone doing so will quickly realise that passing drivers merely slow down when passing the camera, only to increase speed again a short distance further on. A substantial number of drivers also brake when approaching the camera (probably something like 10-20%, possibly even higher on some stretches of road) which can lead to a concertina effect with following drivers as they brake in reaction to the vehicle in front's brake lights (known as "brake ripple"). Potentially, scenario 3 above could also occur as a result.

Brake ripple and other negative effects can be reduced by the use of time/distance measurement devices such as SPECS. For this type of system to be effective however, two factors are essential.

Firstly, the driver needs to be aware of the fact that the road is being enforced in this manner. Unfortunately, SPECS often fails in this respect due to it's small size, and the fact that it's cameras are often located on a tall gantry which can easily be mistaken for a conventional CCTV camera, as used by traffic monitoring bodies (ie. Trafficmaster, etc).

Secondly, the driver needs to be aware of how this type of enforcement device works. If the driver is unaware of the fact that time/distance measurement is being used, they will merely slow down momentarily when passing the camera, possibly causing brake ripple and other similar effects. They will however probably be prosecuted as a result, which invariably makes this type of device popular with enforcement bodies due to the revenue generated solely as a result of drivers' lack of awareness. Time/distance measurement systems also require the use of identification measures which have made them highly unpopular with some organisations. In order to measure speed, it is essential for this type of system to read and record the vehicle's identity. Civil libertarians argue that speed enforcement agencies have no right to read or record the identity of vehicles which may well be travelling entirely legally well within the posted speed limit. Orwell fans may be inclined to think they've got a good point....

Should Speed Cameras Ever Be Encouraged?

One thing which is clear is that speed cameras have a transient effect, reducing speed over a short stretch of road. As this fact is clearly evident, cameras could be used to address areas where enforcement over a short distance is desirable. This could be used to good effect to reduce speed in front of schools and hospitals, and around pedestrian crossings and other areas of high pedestrian traffic. By placing multiple cameras in close proximity along a distance of several hundred metres and on both sides of the carriageway, this tactic would almost certainly prove highly effective at reducing accidents where they have the highest risk of death or serious injury. They would however probably prove to be more effective at reducing speed than at generating revenue, which presumably explains why this tactic has yet to be adopted on a widescale basis.

Casualty reduction in this manner relies on the reduction in stopping distance of vehicles due to their lower speed. In this respect it could be argued by some that speed does contribute to accidents. However, any driver fully aware of road conditions and anticipating potential dangers will already be reducing speed anyway. A more accurate and constructive conclusion is that these measures address road safety issues by partially reducing the effects of poor driving standards. A similar positive effect could also be achieved through measures not resulting in prosecution such as traffic islands, speed tables and speed bumps. All of these measures however cost money to introduce and do not generate revenue.

Similarly, camera enforcement of schools and similar zones would reduce speed and hence the incidence of death or major injury in the event that an accident does occur. This is however a less than effective course of action. A more constructive approach would be to prevent an accident occuring at all. This could be achieved by preventing buses, coaches and cars picking up school children outside of schools (through the introduction of dedicated and well managed pick up areas within school grounds, most of which have adequate available land) and the wider use of pedestrian foot bridges and subways in urban areas. Again, all of these measures cost money, rather than generating revenue.


Q: Does speed really kill? Is speed in itself inherently dangerous?

A: Every road death can be attributed to a single identifiable factor other than speed. Slowing drivers down does not in itself prevent accidents occuring. It does however reduce the chances of death and serious injury in the event that an accident does occur. This is however a bit like saying that there's less chance of killing yourself if you shoot yourself in the head with a rubber bullet rather than a steel one. There is no need to shoot yourself in the head at all. A rubber bullet might not kill you, but it's still a pretty traumatic experience. Likewise, there is no need for road traffic accidents to occur at all. Rather than reducing the effect of accidents by reducing speed, goverment and other responsible bodies should instead address the causes of accidents.

Q: So what does cause road traffic accidents?

A: Road traffic accidents are caused by substandard driving, fatigue, failure to pay proper attention to road conditions, vehicle defects, poor road maintainance and countless other factors. These factors cannot be addressed by speed cameras, but can be addressed (along with other criminal matters) by trained Police officers who, generally speaking, are more than capable of educating drivers in a polite and courteous but firm manner. Most Police officers are also more than capable of differentiating between a safe driver exceeding the speed limit, and an unsafe one driving within the speed limit. The same cannot be said of speed cameras.

Q: So it's OK to drive fast?

A: Safe speed can be defined as any speed at which the driver can stop within the distance available to them in the event of any unforseen occurence and which, in doing so, also allows other drivers to avoid similar danger. This may mean 90mph in good conditions but, conversely, may be 20mph on a motorway in adverse conditions. It may also mean doubling or tripling of the safe following distance when being followed by a driver failing to consider and anticipate conditions and risks.

Q: Do speed cameras save lives by reducing speed?

A: In all likelihood, at the present time, no. Whilst there are scenarios and locations where they could be highly beneficial, at this point in time, revenue generation seems to be considered above benefit to road users. Alternative means by which to reduce speed and improvements in driver training and awareness could be as beneficial or, more probably, of greater benefit. Increased numbers of traffic Police officers could also have greater, better targetted and wider reaching beneficial effects.

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