Thursday 5 August 2004

Speed cameras don't piss people off; people piss people off.

In general, I agree with this piece by Johann Hari, despite the despicability of the organ for which he wrote it. Now, I'm a libertarian. But I don't have a big problem with speed cameras, which tends to get me spurned by the proper libertarians. If you have a problem with being given a ticket for doing 45 in a 30 zone, then your argument is with the speed limit, not with the method by which that limit is enforced. Any argument that it's OK for a policeman to fine you for speeding but not for a speed camera to do exactly the same is simple Luddism, and I have no time for Luddites. It's like a bank robber complaining about the police chasing him in fast cars instead of on bicycles. Similarly, I have no problem with traffic wardens. If you don't like getting parking tickets, don't park on yellow lines. Complaints about speed cameras are, for the most part, messenger-shooting.

All that being said, Johann is, in many ways, talking bollocks.

Firstly, let's tackle that silly comparison between speeding and paedophilia.

Quoth Johann:

Paedophiles slaughter 15 children a year on average. Speeding kills 150.

Now, there's a meaningless statistic dressed up to look like an important point. By this logic, climbing Mount Everest is safer than eating food. Stands to reason. Far more people die of food poisoning than get killed climbing Everest.

What we should be comparing is the proportion of those children who come into contact with paedophiles who are harmed and the proportion of those children who come into contact with cars who are harmed. And what we see is that it is rare for paedophiles to get close to children without harming them, while millions of children cross roads and ride in cars every day and are perfectly OK.

Now, speaking as someone who only speeds on motorways, who adheres faithfully to the 30 limit in built-up areas, and who thinks cameras are a perfectly acceptable way of deterring or catching speeders, let me explain why speed cameras fucking stink.

I live on a residential street. It's bendy, so has limited visibility. People there regularly back out of their drives. Children play. People take their dogs for walks. And cars careen down the road doing at least 40 all the bloody time. The garden at the bottom of the road has cars smash through its wall and onto its lawn, sometimes upside-down, at least twice a year. The residents here would love a speed camera. They've been asking for some sort of traffic-calming device for years, but the police aren't interested.

Meanwhile, on the edge of town, the limit on a dual carriageway drops from 60 to 40. The road is dead straight, has perfect visibility, and virtually no pedestrians — certainly no children playing or cars backing out slowly into the road. And the police just love it. They set up cameras there regularly, and fine drivers who are doing about 45 or 50 just inside the 40 zone — i.e. drivers who are actually slowing down in order to obey the speed limit. As far as I can see, this sort of police behaviour is typical. Can Johann really not see why it might erode the public's faith in the law?

Next, we have to consider the current government's attitude to speed cameras. It would be easy for them to blow most libertarian arguments out of the water: just make it illegal for speed cameras to be used for any purpose other than detecting speeders. And, while you're at it, make the police properly independent of central government. But no. Instead, we keep hearing, particularly from Blunkett, about how wonderful it is that the police can now watch our every step through our cities on CCTV, about these marvellous plans to put our DNA on compulsory ID cards, and the ongoing research to link surveillance cameras up to facial-recognition software. Is it surprising that libertarians might see speed cameras as part of a bigger picture?

Cameras as they are currently used destroy the old reasonableness that the police used to employ. It used to be well known that the police would allow speeders 10% leeway, so you could do 33 in a 30 zone or 66 in a 60 zone before they bothered with you. (In fact, I was actually told by my driving instructor to drive at about 32 or 33 in order to pass my test — and it worked.) This was a perfect example of the spirit of the law triumphing over its letter, and it's gone. Now, do 31 in a 30 zone at just the wrong moment and you get a fine and points on your license. Unless your car's got cruise control, its speed will fluctuate a bit. The police seem to be well aware of this, as they set up so many cameras at the bottom of inclines. I have to add to this that the new cameras, which track your average speed over a distance, may well solve this problem — if they're used correctly. I hope so.

Finally, we have to consider the problem of finite police resources and how we want to spend them. Britain's violent crime stats are flying through the roof, while our roads are among the safest in the world. Now, just because they're safe, doesn't mean they can't be safer. If the police were reducing speeding and burglary, I would say fair enough. But they're not. They're devoting their resources to making safe roads even safer while ignoring our ever-more-dangerous streets.

The reason I like speed cameras is that they should be a labour-saving device for the police. Automating the detection of speeders should free up more police time to catch burglars. So why in hell's name isn't that happening?


Andy said...

I've just discovered your blog via Natalie Solent's.

It's not true that "proper" libertarians necessarily have a problem with speed cameras. Have a read of this piece that I wrote for Transport Blog a while ago.

Squander Two said...

Hi, Andy. Good to know I'm not totally alone.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry about the lack of police discretion; there's not a force in the land that sets its cameras to less than limit+10%+3mph. Most of them are fairly open about this.

Agree with you regarding the tendancy to site cameras away from residential areas. The reason is that the current guidelines need 3 deaths before a camera can be put up. The near misses, property damage and minor injuries that occur in residential roads are not sufficient; despite such events being indicators that sooner or late a driver is going to kill someone.