In a spin: Speed cameras and the fallacy of road safety.

Recently, with the cut in funding and subsequent turning off of speed cameras in Oxfordshire there has been a great deal of chatter about how this will increase the numbers of deaths on the roads. Today had the local speed camera organisation, “Thames Valley’s Safer Road Partnership”, spouting statistically unsustainable statistics about how many people were now breaking the speed limit as opposed to when the cameras were operational. (Notably, they didn’t say by how much the speed limit was being broken by. Also, one location is notorious for chavish lads driving recklessly, which wouldn’t be halted by the camera.)

Two days ago we had another pressure group and a number of police chief constables put their oar in: One basically saying that there would be carmogedden and the other blaming the middle classes for speeding “until one of their family got killed.” That second one is laughable if you’ve ever lived anywhere close to a “working class” neighbourhood.

The trouble with all this spin and hoo-hah is that the evidence for speed being the main killer on the roads is just not there. In 2008 only 14% of road accidents had speed as a contributory factor. Note that this is ALL accidents reported to the police and not just lethal ones. So, speed cameras, even if they were 100% effective, would not help in 86% of accidents.

So, now we know that speed is not as high a risk as the quangos who run the cameras and the police forces (who don’t want to spend money on traffic enforcement officers) would make out, do cameras actually help at all?

Well, in some locations I’m sure that they do. In most locations, however, they’re more of a hazard than a help. How many times have you seen a car brake heavily (usually from a speed under the speed limit already) to pass a speed camera? I’ve seen it quite a number of times, causing the cars behind to have to make sudden braking maneuvers themselves. i.e. increasing the risk of an accident. Also, forcing drivers to be more concerned about the absolute speed of their vehicle and watching the speedo more and more decreases the time they have to concentrate on other road hazards or taking note of what an appropriate speed for the situation might be, again increasing the risk of an accident.

If you add to this the congestive effect of cars slowing to well below the speed limit to pass the cameras and, on a road close to capacity, causing the generation of a solitary wave of congestion to pass back along the queue causing a complete jam.

What about the other “safety” features imposed by local authorities on the roads in the name of safety?

Well, there are the extensive 50 mph speed limits which seem to encompass huge swathes of the A road network. It seems that the default reaction when there are an above average number of accidents on a road is to restrict the speed limit by a mere 10 mph. The fallacy here is that doing so will automatically cut incidents.

Let’s break down the logic using a specific example, the A420 between Oxford and Swindon. There are a few places where the junctions are relatively blind and would benefit from the traffic being slowed. It could be said that in these areas 50 mph is still way too high and a 40 mph limit would be more appropriate in the close vicinity of the junction. However, for most of the road the national speed limit of 60 mph is not a dangerous speed (under good road conditions). The majority of fatal accidents on the road, however, are from drivers who have been reckless and have been speeding, losing control of their vehicle on bends. Note: these people are already breaking the speed limit.

So, the knee-jerk reaction has been to decrease the speed limit on about two-thirds of the whole length of road to 50 mph. Firstly, his will not help to greatly reduce the danger on the risky junctions as the time to see a vehicle from the junction before turning out onto the road has not decreased by much. Secondly, those who caused accidents by speeding recklessly will still ignore the speed limit. (And no, more speed cameras wouldn’t help.)

In other words, the responsible majority have been hugely inconvenienced and no real good has come from it other than to allow the councils to say that they’re doing something.

Of course, I am talking heresy. Tut-tut. The slogan says, “Speed kills!” but actually it doesn’t. Changing the slogan to “Inappropriate speed is highly risky” wouldn’t go down well as it’s not punchy enough. Of course, it’s not the speed which kills ultimately, it’s the rapid deceleration.

Just my two-penny’s worth…