Saving lives with technology

Road safetyAlan Jones, Roads Policing Lead, Police Federation of England and Wales, discusses speed camera enforcement and the impact it can have on road safety and accident prevention

Things have come a long way since one of the first recorded road pedestrian fatalities involving Bridgett Driscoll in 1896 near Crystal Palace in London. Allegedly the vehicle that collided with her was travelling at an estimated 4mph. At the subsequent inquest, the Coroner stated in his conclusions that he “hoped such a thing would never happen again”.

Since that tragic incident it is reported that well over half a million people have lost their lives on UK roads (source Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), and worldwide many millions of lives are lost as a result of motor vehicle collisions. The number of injuries sustained, from life changing to minor, is equally mind-blowing.

Enforcement rules
Last year, 2,222 people were killed on UK roads, a significant decrease on previous years, but still a massively unacceptable figure. These statistics illustrate the devastating consequences of motor vehicle misuse. Understandably, there has to be enforcement rules in place in order to control and minimise bad driver behaviour, caused by a variety of different factors in the pace of life we lead.

Speed limits provide a structure for these rules. They are there for a reason yet so many of us are either ignorant of the rules or simply choose not to abide by them. Imagine the reaction were the same abuse of rules be applied to firearms for example.

Use of technology
The introduction of an automated and electronic means of detecting and controlling speed limits was widely introduced to UK policing during the early 1990s and as technology grew, so did the advent of speed detection cameras and the simplicity of processing offenders by way of fixed penalty tickets. Due to the significant number of offenders abusing speed limits, police officers could not keep pace with the expectations placed on them using traditional methods of enforcement.

Over many years, statistics consistently indicated that a prime causal factor of fatal and injury collisions was the excessive or injudicious abuse of speed. Demands were rightly placed on policing, working with local authorities, to do something about the problem and reduce the intolerable fatality and injury figures.

The introduction of enforcement cameras and camera partnerships, with the aim of reducing road casualties, has not been without some significant public and media attention over the past 20 years or so. These devices are either loved or hated by many.

Unlike a police officer, who has the option to use discretion and a modicum of common sense, the ubiquitous fixed speed cameras are an insensitive robotic means of enforcing a rule. There are no boundaries within which they operate other than those set by enforcement parameters. Those parameters are a lot less than police officers could cope with in terms of numerical offences committed under the old enforcement process system.

Cameras are incapable of detecting offences such as drink and drug driving, which are responsible for an inordinate amount of serious collisions. Neither can they deal with the frequent complains of Mr or Mrs ‘anti social’ inconsiderate individual, which is why there is much public support for the return of a more visible and available roads policing presence to provide public reassurance.

Supporting policing
Camera partnerships, operated through local authority funding, have grown significantly and do a necessary job. I would argue quite positively, that across the board, the use of camera enforcement technology has played a significant part in reducing average speed and subsequently, significantly reducing death and injury. Used effectively, technology should support and enhance roads policing, not replace or reduce the role of the much needed traffic officer.

It is important, nevertheless, to recognise that a skilled police officer remains at the centre of decision making in terms of any enforcement by camera technology. In my view this keeps prosecutions within the framework of criminal law and as such endorses every individual’s right to have their case heard by a court of law and within the body of the legal system, which is a non-negotiable protection of rights, and public assurance that offenders will be dealt with appropriately.

The one significant use of speed regulation that the vast majority of drivers accept and comply with, is the average time distance device used primarily on motorways and other main routes during extended periods of road works. Anyone who uses such roads will witness general compliance.

Negative image
Unfortunately, enforcement cameras have often been reported in the media as being so called cash cows. It does not help when the focus is all too often on how much the annual treasury income is, rather than on the significant and valuable road safety benefits. Many are, or have been, operated in places which may seem to lack consistency, some static cameras create the well known wave effect of
speed control.

Poor or inadequate speed signing does not help the positive argument for speed camera enforcement. Local authorities have an obligation to maintain and provide adequate signing, which is showing improvements recently in some areas, and I do challenge why the discretionary use of the provision of 30mph reminder or repeater signs is not widely permitted. There are many roads whereby the appearance of a higher speed limit does encourage drivers to exceed this. Relying on street lighting to define the 30mph limit can be a source of confusion. This is compounded whereby speed limits change and repeater or reminder signs are consistently absent, missing or shrouded in shrubbery.
Irritating isn’t it?
Improving awareness
Blunt use of enforcement does not necessarily address bad driver behaviour or the opportunity to improve awareness. This is why so many detected incidents of lower level breaches of speed limits are eminently suitable to offer offenders an option to attend a learning course, at their expense, as an alternative to prosecution. This initiative has gathered momentum recently and is designed to operate to a single national standard that delivers a far more beneficial outcome. There is much public support for such schemes to run locally, regardless of where in the UK the offence took place.

The need for financial support to maintain these systems and processes is crucial in keeping the road safety initiative alive, be it through enforcement or improvement schemes. Yet the impact of government spending reductions means that there is limited capital funding to support progress and some local authorities have openly declared their concerns in relation to this. Future funding decisions by the Department for Transport inevitably will cause further debate. Where in the priority list is road safety? How much of any given budget will be allocated to this essential policing service?

Such testing times adds further pressure to meet the existing demands for enforcement. The ideal solution is the traditional police enforcement process whereby officers engage or reconnect directly with the motoring public. However, with the current economic climate as it is, we are being pushed towards a significant dwindling of human resources. So we have to rely on camera technology, not only as an enforcement tool but as a means of deterring bad judgement and speed offending. Not perfect, but certainly functional.

Police responsibility
In doing so, this role and process must without question remain a role for the police, who despite all the other demands on their time retain a responsibility for ensuring that road safety and casualty reduction is one of their key priority areas. The role of a constable in determining enforcement action is part of the criminal justice process that is well tried and tested and has – I believe – a high level of public support, and it must not be compromised or deregulated.

The real damage to progress made in recent years in calming speeds and trying to get the limits right for appropriate circumstances is that if enforcement becomes less of an important factor in policing or local authority priorities, there is the obvious risk that the consequences could see average speeds increasing, with the potential for a sharp rise in collisions and subsequent injuries. Sadly, we might predict that some of those injuries will turn fatal and any such rise would be impossible to accept, let alone rationally argue in favour of justification.

Continuing the good work
I think we have made real progress over time in dealing with excessive average speeds. We have a far better programme offering drivers awareness courses as an alternative to prosecution, but this comes at a financial cost, and as long as it has the capacity to self finance, then why mess about with or begin to undermine the financial or legal structure by which it operates?

Camera partnerships, alongside the police play a very important role in providing safe roads. Whilst drivers continue to fall foul of the rules by an unacceptable margin or selfishly drive at excessive speed, we must have a national legal framework, under the umbrella of the criminal justice system, to ensure the public have confidence in positive action being taken against those who need reminding of the rules and the larger category of offenders who put other peoples lives at risk by their actions.

About the author
Alan Jones was promoted to Inspector in 1990 and is seconded from his home force, South Yorkshire to the national Police Federation of England and Wales, serving as the North Eastern regional inspectors’ representative.

His many Federation responsibilities include leading on the roads policing and driver training portfolio. Alan is also chairman of the professional development sub committee.

Alan joined the police force in 1975, becoming an operational roads policing officer in 1980, and has served in Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. He was promoted twice within the roads policing department and between other operational postings has served 18 years of his service in various roads policing departments.

His passion is striving to deliver better recognition of roads policing issues and heightening awareness of how good traffic police officers really are.

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