Speed cameras: defending their beneficial role

Kevin Clinton, head of road safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), shines a positive light on perhaps one of the most vilified tools in the road safety box

Speed cameras are perhaps one of the most vilified tools in the road safety box, and are guaranteed to draw a reaction of some kind from most motorists.
Even though there is more public support for them than the popular press would have you believe, when motorists are caught out by cameras the lack of human interaction can create a perception of ‘unfairness’ that can fuel opposition.
This is perhaps understandable; they administer justice in a mechanical manner, and are often seen as being placed arbitrary. This is, of course, generally not the case. Cameras, like any other road safety measures, such as signage and chevrons, are sited where there is a genuine need for them.
People often complain that in days of yore, a police officer could stop a driver if their driving was below a safe standard and use their discretion to administer advice; this discretion is taken away by speed cameras.
Sometimes a word of advice is more than adequate, so making available information about whether offenders are fined, complete a speed awareness course or are taken to court may prove enlightening to members of the public who are convinced that there is no option but punishment.
There will always need to be the risk of punishment for breaking the law, but the greater use of speed awareness courses is one way of adding the ‘human element’ to enforcement, as well as helping people find ways to manage their speeds in future.

A new data initiative

The Department for Transport (DfT) has recently unveiled a new website on which full information about speed cameras will be published by local authorities and police. For the first time, figures showing the numbers of accidents and casualties at camera sites, both pre- and post-installation, will be made available to the public.
We at RoSPA welcome the publication of data about accidents, casualties and speeds at camera sites. Transparency is important because people need to understand why camera locations are chosen and be able to see what happens to accident and casualty numbers at these sites.
If people can see that cameras are beneficial and really do help to save lives and reduce injuries on the road, they are much more likely to accept that they are a necessary and useful tool for law enforcement and road safety.
Police forces will also publish the number of speeding prosecutions arising from each camera in their area, as well as information about whether offenders are fined, complete a speed awareness course or are taken to court.
This information will help to evaluate the effectiveness of speed cameras as a road safety intervention. In the current economic climate everyone wants to make sure they are spending money in the most effective way, so it is vital to accurately evaluate all activities – whether they are road engineering measures like speed cameras, or education campaigns.
Evaluation on this scale will help local authorities and police forces to target speed cameras – and other road safety schemes – where they will have the most impact.

What about a rise in casualties?
It has been reported that, in a few cases, casualty/accident figures have actually risen at camera sites. If that is the case, then it is a sign that something is not working.
The local authority and police need to understand why accidents are increasing at these sites, including whether accidents would have risen even more if the camera had not been there; the causes of the accidents (did they have anything to do with speed?); whether the camera is in the right place; and if there have there been other changes at the site (for instance to the road design or the level and nature of traffic) that have led to increased accidents despite the cameras.
The availability of data on the new website will help local authorities and police to understand how effective speed cameras are, and to ensure that cameras are placed only where they are needed.
However, it can be misleading to use data from specific individual camera sites to draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of cameras nationally or in a local authority area; we need to see the data from all, or most, of the sites for this. We will, therefore, be interested to see a full analysis of the most recent years’ data from across the country.
The English highway authorities, local authorities and the Highways Agency have published site-by-site casualty, collision and speed information for permanent fixed camera sites, providing annual collision and casualty data going back to 1990. Additionally, local authorities which provide financial support for camera enforcement will provide deployment strategies for speed cameras that will be publicly accessible.

Valuable Data
In addition to accident figures, police forces will publish the number of speeding prosecutions arising from each camera in their area, as well as force-wide information about whether offenders are fined, complete a speed awareness course or are taken to court.
A central hub providing links to the information on local websites has been set up by the DfT but this has highlighted two of the problems with the new database.
Firstly, local authorities are encouraged, but not obliged, to provide their figures, so at present there is an incomplete picture. If getting the public onside is the aim of the game, there is some work to do on transparency.
Secondly, each local authority, force or agency has a slightly different way of presenting and interpreting the information available from speed cameras. To get a real picture of how speed cameras are performing around the UK, the information needs to be standardised.
Road safety professionals must keep sharing the reasons for cameras to be part of the UK’s wider road safety strategy. By decreasing vehicle speeds, safety cameras have contributed to the fall in road deaths and prevented a great deal of suffering.

Why are speed cameras necessary?

RoSPA has put together ten reasons* that cameras are an effective road safety tool.
Firstly, excessive speeding kills hundreds of people every year. In 2010, 221 people were killed, and 1,179 seriously injured, because drivers or motorcyclists exceeded speed limits. A further 215 people were killed, and 1,565 seriously injured in accidents where someone was travelling too fast for the conditions. Inappropriate speed also magnifies other driver errors, increasing the chances of causing an accident. Even where speed is not the main factor in a crash, it fundamentally affects both the likelihood of the crash occurring, and its severity.
The second reason is that speed cameras reduce speeding and save lives. They are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured. An evaluation of their effectiveness in 2005 showed they were saving around 100 lives a year, and preventing more than 1,600 serious injuries. A wide range of UK and international research studies consistently shows that cameras are very effective at saving lives.

Speed Enforcement
Without cameras, speed enforcement will disappear. Cameras enable a much higher level of speed enforcement to be conducted than is possible using police officers on their own. In 2008, cameras provided evidence for 84 per cent of the 1.2 million fixed penalty notices issued for speeding offences. Without cameras, the level of enforcement would almost certainly dwindle to a very low level, especially as the police service is also facing financial cuts.
Not only do cameras save lives and prevent injury, they also save the public purse many millions of pounds. Apart from their human cost, road accidents are extremely expensive in financial terms. Safety cameras more than pay for themselves, and so from a purely financial point of view, cutting them does not make sense. The four year evaluation of the national safety camera programme estimated that the annual economic benefit of cameras in place at the end of the fourth year was over £258million, compared with enforcement costs of about £96million.
Another reason for speed cameras is that they are educational, not just punitive. They are an effective way of identifying drivers who would benefit from attending a speed awareness course, so provide a good opportunity to re-educate, and not just punish, drivers who are not massively violating speed limits. Even where drivers are fined and given penalty points, this acts as a warning to consider their driving before they begin to tot up further points.

Road safety partnerships, which manage speed cameras around the country, do more than speed enforcement. They undertake many more road safety activities, including being heavily involved in delivering road safety education services, as well as other types of road safety enforcement.
The war on motorists is a myth. Despite claims about a war on motorists, Home Office data shows that the number of speeding tickets issued from cameras has been falling. The reasons for the reductions are not clear, but will probably include a fall in the number of drivers speeding and an increasing proportion of the drivers who are caught by a speed camera being able to do a speed awareness course instead of receiving the fine and penalty points.
Cameras are also beneficial because they support the wider road safety strategy. They are only one part of a comprehensive road safety strategy which has helped to reduce deaths on Britain’s roads. Persuading drivers to drive at safe speeds requires a mix of enforcement, education and engineering. Cameras are used alongside road engineering measures, such as better speed limit signing, traffic calming and road design, and education measures, such as publicity campaigns and driver training.
Cameras are one of the reasons Britain is a world leader in road safety. The UK has one of the best road safety records in the world, and in common with other countries that have very good road safety records (Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia) has included speed management in its road safety strategies. An EC project, SUPREME, to identify the best ways of preventing road deaths gave the speed camera programme in the UK the highest rating, citing it as best practice.
There is also strong public support for cameras. The original Safety Camera Partnerships commissioned surveys in their areas to assess the public’s views about cameras. The level of support was consistently high with 79 per cent of people agreeing that ‘the use of safety cameras should be supported as a method of reducing casualties’. Two thirds (68 per cent) of those questioned agreed that the primary use of cameras was to save lives.

Crash stats

To put it simply, drivers and riders who exceed speed limits cause more crashes, and kill and injure more people, than drivers who do not exceed speed limits.
Speed cameras are one of the reasons why deaths on the road have fallen from around 5,000 a year at the start of the 1990s to 1,850 in 2010, and they must continue to play their part in the UK’s future road safety strategy.
Although it is unavoidable that public spending cuts will affect road safety – because they will affect every area of our lives – it is crucial that spending decisions are informed and based on clear evidence and data, and crude, blanket cuts are not imposed.
Speed cameras fill an enforcement gap. With fewer and fewer police officers on the UK’s streets, there is an increased need for road safety interventions that encourage people to obey the law and improve their driving.

*More information, references and sources are available on the RoSPA website.  


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