Gavin Green on why he is not against speed cameras...

Published: 03 September 2010

Amazing how speed cameras get the emotive juices flowing. Radar guns, cop car video evidence, unmarked police cars… That’s legitimately upholding the law. But speed cameras! That traditional English phlegm turns to frenzy.

News that Oxfordshire has turned off its Gatsos, and that other counties may follow, has worked the pro- and anti-speed camera lobbies into a tizzy. The serious newspaper columnists have passed judgment. There was even a debate on the BBC Radio Four Today programme, surely the ultimate arbiter of important issues. Never mind that the anti-camera argument was put forward by a bloke called, incongruously, ‘Honest John’. (And he did a pretty good job, by the way.)

The problem with speed cameras, I believe, is the speed, not the cameras.

Our speed limits are too low – and too high

Our speed limits are often a nonsense. If good drivers respected them, they would abide by them and speed cameras – whose goal should be to punish the irresponsible, not persecute the momentarily inattentive law abider – may even be welcomed.

The limit should be the speed at which a qualified and capable driver (difficult to define, I accept) starts to become potentially dangerous to other road users and his passengers. Dangerous behaviour should be the one and only driving offence. This is a simple rule but one that our legislators frequently overlook.

Ergo: The speed limit should be reduced to 20mph on narrow residential roads. To go any faster is to endanger residents and passers-by, no matter when you’re Lewis Hamilton in a McLaren MP4-12C or Granny Gilbert in her old Granada. The current limit, mostly 30 (although some councils have introduced 20mph limits on selected roads) is too fast.

The limits need to be sensible and consistent

On urban single carriageway – one lane in each direction – thoroughfares, lined by homes and peppered with pedestrian crossings and intersections, I similarly see nothing objectionable about a strict speed enforcement of 30mph (Cameras? Radar guns? Cops with dogs? Does it make any difference?) To do more than 30, on such roads, is potentially dangerous. Drivers who declare they can zoom safely at higher speeds, on such roads, are delusional. If a child runs across in front of you, at that speed, you’ve probably killed him. I once saw a child hit at 40. It’s not something I ever want to see again. (The eight-year old boy died in his tearful mother’s arms, the young female motorist was similarly distraught. I’m sure she remembers that Sunday afternoon 40 years ago even clearer than I do.)

Urban and suburban dual carriageways, favoured haunts of the speed camera, and wider single carriageway roads – especially the four-laners – are more of a problem. They need consistent limits. On such roads the limit may be 30, 40, sometimes 50 or 60. Or, on the dual carriageways, 70. There is often no rhyme or reason to these limits, causing confusion and convictions. Cameras sited here are often tax collectors not safety monitors, which is why they are frequently so unpopular. Speed limits are frequently too low. (If 30 is the limit on a narrow residential road, why should it be the same on a four-lane road ringed with safety barriers?) The same lack of consistency and commonsense, with speed limits, plagues many quiet rural single carriageway roads.

The motorway limit is too low

The motorway speed limit is also a joke. It was set, in the late ’60s (by a non-driving transport minister, incidentally), at 70mph. Since then, cars have got immeasurably more capable, and safer both in primary and secondary safety.

Our limit, on the wide three-laners, should be 80 or 85. This, more or less, brings us into line with mainland Europe and reflects the de facto limit anyway. Few policemen book motorists unless they stray over 85. Cameras, thankfully still quite rare on our motorways, do not show such judgment.

If the speed limit was sensible, and consistent, I couldn’t care what form of electronic surveillance was used. Nor should any law-abiding driver.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience