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Speed Really Does Kill

10 October 2008

Orwell himself never imagined anything quite as observant as the Specs 3 camera. It represents the probable future of British speed cameras, and by communicating thousands of times a second with identical machines arranged in networks across the national road system it will be able to measure motorists' average speeds, detours included, and fine them if they ever break the limit.

The roads are not the place for civil disobedience.

Times readers dislike the idea intensely. In a rolling online poll set up after the Road Safety Minister's endorsement of the new cameras on Wednesday, opponents of the system outnumbered supporters yesterday by 85 per cent to 14 per cent (see It may be commercially unsound to argue against such a majority, but sometimes needs must.

The case for traditional Gatso speed cameras policing only isolated stretches of highway remains, at least in libertarian circles, unproven. Not so the argument for average speed cameras. They save lives and cut aggregate fuel consumption. They appear to ease traffic congestion by enforcing lower but steadier average speeds. And they should free up police to concentrate on tasks that cannot be accomplished by machines.

Evidence from stretches of motorway where cars compete for space with roadworks is compelling. On a section of the M1 with a contraflow system in place casualty numbers fell by half when a simple pairing of average speed cameras - the precursor to the new system - was installed.

The results of pilot schemes on normal roads are even more persuasive. In Nottingham, average speed cameras appear to have delivered a 53 per cent long-term reduction in deaths and serious injuries on one stretch of dual carriageway, and a 75 per cent casualty reduction on another. Data from similar projects in Northampton and South Yorkshire are even more impressive.

Many motorists' objections to driving slower and to the increased surveillance that the latest average speed cameras will bring are vehement, sincere - and tinged with desperation.

Driving will become so boring that accident rates will increase as more drivers fall asleep, one insists. Another forecasts more crashes because drivers will continuously be monitoring their speedometers, not the road. A third laments the Specs 3's inability to reason. This touches on a more sophisticated and probably more widely-held complaint: that the Government is seeking to enforce speed limits with new and merciless rigour not because it must but because it can; or, worse, because it seeks simply to raise money.

Visceral revulsion is a natural and healthy reaction to petty bureaucracy. It was certainly the dominant response to primitive average speed cameras when they were installed by the Stasi, the East German secret police, on autobahns linking West Berlin to West Germany during the Cold War. But the Stasi's purpose was to intimidate, and to raise hard currency. The Department for Transport is seeking to use existing laws to reduce carnage on the roads, which, for car users, remain roughly thirty times more dangerous than railways in terms of deaths per million miles travelled.

There is nothing petty about saving lives. But for those still unconvinced, there is some consolation. Where average speed cameras have been tried, compliance is so high that the revenue to local authorities from fines is virtually nil.

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