Speed cameras: the twisted truth
A speed camera
Big earner: speed cameras were raising more than £120 million from two million motorists in 2003
By Christopher Booker and Richard North 12:01AM GMT 10 Nov 2007
In a new book, Christopher Booker and Richard North reveal the damage caused by scare stories, from salmonella and satanic child abuse to passive smoking and global warming. Here we publish an edited extract from the chapter on speed – a scare that cost lives
Speed kills: inconvenient facts
“Road deaths are a global epidemic on the scale of malaria and tuberculosis.” Commission for Global Road Safety, 2006.
One of the successes of modern Britain was the constant fall, over three decades, in the number of fatal accidents on the roads. This gave the UK a safety record better than that of almost any other country in the world.
Easily the highest-ever figures were recorded in the early years of World War Two, when the blackout (and masked headlights) temporarily pushed up the yearly total to more than 9,000. It then fell back, but, with a three-fold growth in car ownership in the first 20 years after the war, the annual total again rose, from about 5,000 to a peak of 7,985 in 1966.
From then on, despite a continuing rise in the number of vehicles, the fatal accident figure steadily dropped, at an average rate of more than five per cent a year. By 1980 it had fallen to slightly more than 6,000. By 1993 it was below 4,000. Britain’s roads were the safest in Europe. In France and Germany, the annual death toll was more than 9,000. In Portugal it was well over three times as high.
Then the rate of decline suddenly slowed. Over the next decade the total fall was smaller than in any of the years between 1990 and 1993. Four times the yearly figure actually rose. So what had changed?
The most obvious difference in the mid-1990s was a radical shift in road safety policy. Ministers and officials had become persuaded that by far the most important single factor in causing accidents was speed. The main focus of police road safety strategy, designed to cut the accident rate further, now became the rigorous enforcement of speed limits, backed by a growing army of speed cameras.
Yet it was at this very time that the fall in the accident rate markedly slowed. Although millions of motorists were caught by the new “safety cameras”, which were soon costing them more than £100 million a year in fines, the number of people dying on Britain’s roads was no longer declining at anything like the same rate as before.
Inevitably road-safety experts connected the two. Had this slowing of the decline in deaths been caused by the switch in policy? If the policy had not been changed, they asked, might 7,000 lives have been saved? Had not this new fixation with “speed”, to the exclusion of almost everything else and supported by highly dubious statistics, taken on many of the familiar characteristics of a scare?
How the obsession with speed developed
Undoubtedly one important factor in the steady fall in the fatal accident rate in earlier decades, despite a doubling in the number of vehicles on the roads from 12 million in 1966 to 25 million in 1994, had been the technical advances that made vehicles much safer. But this could not have explained the slowing in the fall of accidents in the 1990s, when new regulations had made vehicles safer still.
Another factor in earlier decades had been Britain’s policing methods. The efficiency of the UK’s traffic police, respected as an elite, had won international recognition. Regular patrols enabled them not just to pick up drivers breaking the speed limit, but those whose driving or vehicles might need to be checked for other reasons. Not least of these was a severe clampdown on driving under the influence of alcohol.
By the late 1980s, however, technology had been supplying the traffic police with new tools. Laser guns enabled them to measure the speed of a vehicle more precisely. The emphasis in traffic surveillance began to shift away from human judgment towards the simple act of measuring whether a driver was breaking a speed limit.
In 1991 the government launched its first £1 million TV ad campaign centred on the dangers of speeding (“Kill your speed, not a child”). In 1992 the police were given a new weapon when the first speed cameras were installed in west London. Trials on the M40 had shown just how frequently drivers broke the limit, when cameras capable of taking 400 snapshots on each roll of film had used up their quota in 40 minutes.
By September 1994 government spending on TV ads was running at £2.7 million a year, now centred on the slogan that was to become familiar: “Speed kills”. In 1997 the yearly advertising budget reached £3.5 million. Cameras were now proliferating the length and breadth of the land. Police patrols, except on motorways, were being reduced. In 1999, as income from penalties for offences recorded by cameras soared towards £100 million a year, the first “Safety Camera Partnerships” were formed, allying police forces with local authorities. Yet, in two years out of four, the number of fatal accidents had actually risen.
In March 2000 the government launched a new “road-safety strategy”, aimed at reducing the number of people killed or seriously injured by 40 per cent within a decade. Tony Blair told of how he had “received countless letters from parents, brothers, sisters, friends of those killed and injured on our roads”, every one telling of “a family devastated, lives blighted, of pain, sorrow and anger and the waste of it.” The government, he promised, would now take action, with a strategy that “will focus especially on speed”. A DfT strategy paper claimed speed was “a major contributory factor in about a third of all road accidents”. The “excessive and inappropriate speed” that helped “to kill about 1,200 people” each year was “far more than any other single contributor to casualties on our roads”.
The source given for this claim, to be repeated as a mantra by ministers and officials for years to come, was a report from the government’s Transport Research Laboratory, TRL Report 323: “A new system for recording contributory factors in road accidents”.
Not many people would have looked at this report, since it was only available for £45. But some who did were amazed. The evidence the report had cited to support its claim that speed was “a major contributory factor in about a third of all road accidents” simply wasn’t there. Many other factors were named as contributing to road accidents, from driving without due care and attention to the influence of drink; from poor overtaking to nodding off at the wheel. But the figure given for accidents in which the main causative factor was “excessive speed” was way down the list, at only 7.3 per cent.
So startling seemed the government’s exaggeration of the TRL’s figures, based on data provided by eight police forces, that it set off an increasingly fractious debate. A leading role in this was to be played by Paul Smith, an engineer turned road safety expert, who was so shocked by the government’s misuse of its own experts’ statistics that in 2001 he set up a website, (www.safespeed.org.uk) dedicated to analysis of why, in his view, the government’s misconceived policy, far from making Britain’s roads safer, could only make them more dangerous.
Initially, a key part of the debate was focused on how the government could justify its inflation of the report’s 7.3 per cent finding into a claim that speed caused a third of all road accidents. The TRL itself argued, in an attempt to support the government, that speed was also a factor in many accidents listed under other headings, such as careless driving or sudden braking.
Smith and other critics pointed out that this was given the lie by the TRL’s own report. Not only did it cite excessive speed as the “definite”‘ cause in only 4.5 per cent of accidents, but it found that speed was a “probable” or “possible contributory factor” in only 8.2 per cent more. Not only was the government thus bending the truth; it had brought pressure on the TRL to give a wholly misleading picture of its own findings.
The more the government’s case was examined, the more statistically dubious it became. So determined was it to claim that speed was the chief cause of accidents, it would stop at nothing in misrepresenting the evidence.
The critics, on the other hand, maintained that, in this single-minded obsession with speed, taking their eye off all the other complex causes of accidents, ministers and officials were being dangerously simplistic. Of course speed was a factor in any accident involving a moving vehicle, even if it was moving at only 1mph. But to anyone seriously interested in why accidents happened, the important thing was to determine what were the real reasons why a driver had made the mistake. Lack of attention? Reckless overtaking? Alcohol? Fatigue? One or more other causes?
The ministers and officials responsible for the new policy appeared to have convinced themselves that, if only speed itself could be reduced, this would, in itself, remedy all those other failings in driver behaviour that the TRL had identified in its report as the chief cause of the vast majority of accidents.
Even more simplistically, the government also seemed to be defining “excessive speed” much too narrowly, only in terms of exceeding a speed limit. In fact its own figures showed that only 30 per cent of accidents attributed to “excessive speed” actually involved breaking a speed limit. The vast majority, 70 per cent, involved vehicles travelling within the limit. Yet the effort to improve road safety was now being directed almost entirely at enforcing limits, which would do nothing to affect two thirds of the accidents caused by speed.
In 2003, to justify its “safety camera” policy, the government produced a report purporting to show that, where cameras had been installed, the accident rate had been reduced by “35 per cent”. But again it was manipulating the figures. Several significant confounding factors had been left out of the calculations; not least the fact that, on many sites, cameras had been installed following an atypical blip in the accident rate. When the rate had fallen back to its previous average level (regression to the mean) this allowed the government to ascribe the reduction to a camera.
So great now was the pressure on ministers, officials and the police to keep on repeating the two key official mantras – “a third of accidents are caused by speed” and “speed cameras reduce accidents by 35 per cent” – that few were prepared to challenge them. One exception was Paul Garvin, chief constable of Durham, who refused to install speed cameras, In an interview, Garvin explained why. He insisted that, while he believed strongly in “casualty reduction and trying to make the roads safer”, he could not agree that curbing speed was the central answer. The statistics for Durham showed that, of 1,900 collisions each year, only three per cent involved cars that were exceeding the speed limit, just 60 accidents a year.
Look more closely at the causes of these 60 accidents, the “actual cause of the accident invariably is drink-driving or drug-driving”. Drug-taking was now involved in 40 per cent of Durham’s fatal road accidents. Many accidents, he said, were caused by fatigue, although one of the most common causes was the failure of drivers to watch out for oncoming vehicles when turning right. To none of these could speed cameras offer any remedy. “The cause of accidents,” Garvin concluded, “is clearly something different from exceeding the speed limit”.
Meanwhile the senior policeman in charge of speed cameras in England and Wales, Richard Brunstrom, chief constable for North Wales, had just sent a remarkable confidential letter to all police forces and local authorities, revealing just how unnerved those running the speed-camera campaign had become at charges that their policy had failed in its aim of reducing accidents.
Signing himself as “Chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers Roads Policing Business Area”, Brunstrom instructed all responsible for operating speed cameras – which in 2003 were raising more than £120 million from two million motorists – that they must on no account respond to any further requests for factual information from Safe Speed’s Paul Smith.
Smith’s offence, according to Brunstrom, was that his “sole intent seems to be to discredit Government policy”. He had not only “inundated” the DfT and police forces with requests for information, but then published their replies on the internet. Brunstrom was also concerned that dozens of serving police officers had contacted Smith to express their personal concern at the way reliance on cameras has become a substitute for a road safety policy which, until 10 years previously, had been acclaimed as the most successful in the world.
In 2004 Smith was able to reveal even worse news for the government. For some time he had argued that, far from reducing the risk of accidents, speed cameras actually increased it, by distracting drivers and causing them to act unpredictably. This was now confirmed by another report from the TRL, Report 595, commissioned by the Highways Agency, looking into the effect of cameras on motorways.
The TRL had found that, where fixed cameras were installed at road works, the risk of accidents giving rise to injury was increased by 55 per cent. Where fixed cameras were installed on open motorways the risk was increased by 31 per cent. In general, fatal and serious crashes were 32 per cent more likely where cameras were being operated. But conventional police patrols reduced the risk of crashes by 27 per cent at road works, and 10 per cent elsewhere.
The report bore out precisely the case Smith had been making. But the DfT had ruled that it was not to be published. If a copy had not been passed to Smith, to be reported on the Safe Speed website, it might never have seen the light of day.
The anti-social bastards in our midst One of the side-effects of the government’s decision to centre its road-safety strategy on speed cameras had been to widen considerably the gulf between many normally law-abiding citizens and the police.
Opinion polls consistently showed, by ratios of two to one, that the cameras were highly unpopular, and were widely regarded as less a road safety measure, more a lucrative source of income. Other electronic means of reducing speed, such as radar-operated “slow down” signs indicating to drivers that they were exceeding a speed limit, met with very significantly more approval, and were welcomed as making a positive contribution to road safety.
The public, and the tabloids, had become noticeably sensitive to the idea that, when it came to observing speed limits, the police now appeared to operate a double standard. Cases where police drivers were not penalised for flagrant breaches of the law were eagerly reported, such as that in 2000 when the Home Secretary’s car had been driven at 103mph.
In December 2003 a police driver was recorded by a patrol car driving at 159mph on the M54 near Telford, Shropshire, and charged with speeding and dangerous driving. However, when in May 2005 his case came before District Judge Bruce Morgan in Ludlow, he was cleared on all charges, the judge noting that two senior police officers had testified that the defendant’s driving was “not dangerous”.
Equally, as a measure of the decline in police driving standards, it was noted that deaths caused by police cars, often travelling in excess of the speed limit, had risen sharply, from 17 in 2000/01 to 36 in 2003/04 and 44 in 2004/05.
In the summer of 2006, the DfT itself published a paper noting the curious discrepancy between the road-accident figures as reported by the police and those shown by the records of NHS hospitals.
While the police were claiming that the yearly number of people killed or seriously injured had dropped since the mid-1990s by 33 per cent, the hospitals gave a very different picture.
According to the police, the total number of emergency hospital admissions following traffic accidents in 1994/95 was 38,641, which by 2002/03 had dropped to 31,010. According to the NHS, however, the respective figures were 32,285 and 36,611.
In September 2006, the DfT finally conceded one of the central points that Safe Speed’s Paul Smith had been arguing for five years: that only five per cent of road accidents were caused by drivers who were breaking the speed limit. In The Daily Telegraph, Smith was quoted as saying “the government’s case for continuing to install cameras has been destroyed”.
The government’s determination to reduce accidents by focusing its efforts on speed still had surprising supporters. In December the Guardian’s star environmental columnist, George Monbiot published a ferocious attack on all those who dared to challenge the government’s policy, describing them as the “road rage lobby”.
Foremost among his targets was Smith, whom he painted as a member of the “boy racers’ club” and as one of “the anti-social bastards who believe they should be allowed to do what they want, whenever they want, regardless of the consequences”. Monbiot added with a sneer: “With the help of some of the most convoluted arguments I’ve ever read, Safe Speed even seeks to prove that speed cameras ‘make our roads more dangerous’.” Monbiot cannot have read very far into Smith’s “convoluted arguments”, or he would have seen that, far from arguing for a free-for-all on the roads, Smith’s prime concern was to return to a road safety policy that worked, based not on some abstract dogma but regulated by the methods that had formerly given Britain’s traffic police such an enviable reputation and the UK the best road safety record in the world.
In February 2007, the DfT announced that the number of people killed in road accidents in the 12 months to September 2006 had risen to 3,210, compared with 3,177 in the same period a year earlier. As one report put it, the new figures “come three months after the influential Commons Transport Select Committee said an obsession with cameras was responsible for a “deplorable” drop in the number of officers patrolling Britain’s roads”.
Strongly supporting this point was Kevin Delaney, a former head of the Metropolitan Police traffic division, who said, “Any figures that show an increase against a downward trend ought to be ringing alarm bells in Whitehall, in local authorities and in police headquarters.” He went on, “The deterrent effect on motorists of a police officer enforcing traffic regulations is incalculable, but we are seeing fewer and fewer of them.” Paul Smith would have agreed. George Monbiot would probably have dismissed the former head of the Metropolitan Police traffic division as just a “boy racer” and an “anti-social bastard”. Such had been the power of the great speed scare.
Scared to Death: The Anatomy of a Very Dangerous Phenomenon, by Christopher Booker and Richard North (Continuum, £16.99, ISBN 9780826486141), is available for £14.99 + £1.25 p&p fromTelegraph Books on 0870 428 4112 or www.books.telegraph.co.uk