Friday, 7 January 2011


I was at first annoyed by what seemed a petty piece of petulance.  But then I was struck by the police explanation, ‘Cost is not a consideration in our decision to prosecute’.  So they will try to get a conviction whatever the cost.  Conviction rates are what are important.
The country is still laced with speed cameras.  What are they for?  I always assumed that they were there to slow drivers down on particularly difficult stretches of road.  There is a camera near us on the A3 where the road suddenly, after a long 70mph run, becomes 50 and there is a camera just after.  Locals know all about it and break hard as they approach (and usually then speed up a little again after they have passed).  I have never felt guilty about driving this way; after all, I slowed down to a ‘safe speed’ before the tricky bend.  And I wasn’t surprised to read in the newspaper that this was one of the most profitable speed cameras in Britain.  It is after all slightly unfair to have a 50mph sign without warning and then a sneaky camera just after it where motorists are still slowing down.  But that’s life.  The police have to make their money somehow.  Or so I thought.
The rationale for setting up speed cameras was something else.  Originally they were indeed described as a valuable means of cutting road deaths, since they would encourage drivers to slow down and avoid accidents.  One Chief Constable is on record as saying that ’it is beyond doubt that they prevent death and injury.’  One other official involved in setting up the network, talked of giving the motorist plenty of warning when approaching cameras to avoid accidents.  It is also worth saying that the location of speed cameras is shown on the latest road maps and GPS screens.  This prior warning is apparently perfectly legal, since it was determined that encouraging drivers to slow where they knew there were cameras was a prime objective.  The views of another Chief Constable were once quoted as being that cameras should be brightly painted.  ‘I have no time for the argument that cameras should be hidden,’ he said.  ‘I'm interested in prevention.’  Statistics have now shown however that in the first 5 years since their introduction, road deaths actually increased.  So why keep the cameras then?  Because they have become an extraordinary source of revenue.
I don’t know how much has been raised from speed cameras since they were installed, but I estimate that it is now approaching a quarter of a billion pounds. It is a great money making machine.  Or at least it was.  The Coalition Government has pledged to scrap public funding for these expensive pieces of equipment under the present round of budget cuts and some regions have already turned theirs off.    And ‘speed’ camera is a bit of a misnomer anyway, since around a million drivers have been prosecuted for other offences from driving in a bus lane to driving dangerously.  And it is now possible to identify, using speed cameras, cars with unpaid tax or other offences against them, or whether drivers are wearing seat belts.  There was even a proposal by the last government that speed cameras should be used to recognise good driving and help motorists earn points toward some sort of safety recognition through his insurance or other means.  But closer supervision of drivers and raking in the fines was clearly paramount.
But all that has changed again.  Mr Thompson took it upon himself, by flashing his lights, to slow oncoming traffic before they came to a speed trap round the corner.  This is a fairly common practice here and in several other countries.  But the police took a dim view of it; a second speed cop caught Mr Thompson warning drivers and prosecuted him.  He was convicted of wilfully obstructing a police officer in the course of their duties.  As one observer put it, there can be no offence for trying to get motorists to drive more safely.  Presumably after Mr Thompson’s warning some drivers did slow down and the road was thus safer.  That can only have been obstructing the police if they actually wanted the cars to continue driving too fast.
But encouraging traffic to avoid a speed trap is now it seems an offence.  Speed traps are not for making the roads safer, nor yet for raising revenue, no, they are simply there to help the police keep up their prosecution rate.  So the next time we see the police statistics showing how many criminals they caught on our highways and byways, just remember, the police would rather spend money on gaining those convictions than having the roads made safe, since safer roads means fewer convictions and presumably too few convictions raises questions about the number of police.

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