Chicken and egg

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    Are speed cameras killing people? Peter Hall looks at the evidence

    On last Sunday’s Top Gear programme, roads minister and would-be man of the motoring people Stephen Ladyman admitted to having nine points on his driving licence (nine more than Jeremy Clarkson) and said the Government would produce statistics to prove that speed cameras saved lives.

    They should make interesting reading. For in response to a parliamentary question on November 22, Mr Ladyman revealed that the percentage of deaths attributed to “excessive speed” had risen significantly alongside the rise in the number of cameras.

    The figures date from 1999-2004, when 15 police forces were, for the first time, required to record up to four contributory factors in all road accidents. There is no record of which factor is most significant, but one of the most predictable is “excessive speed”, a concept that covers speed inappropriate for the conditions as well as speed in excess of the posted limit; it is estimated that at least 95 per cent of all accidents happen at legal speeds.

    The percentage of fatal accidents in which “excessive speed” was identified as a contributory factor showed a significant rise over the six-year period, with 29, 26, 27, 30, 30 and 34 per cent respectively. There was also a rise in the percentage of all accidents in which “excessive speed” was a contributory factor, with 12, 12, 12, 13, 14 and 13 per cent.

    Meanwhile, in the same period, there was a big rise in new fixed speed camera installations, with 183, 172, 200, 245, 312 and 304 respectively. (The figures for 1994-1998 were 54, 133, 146, 160 and 221.)

    Statistical modelling over two- and three-year study periods (but taking no account of seasonal variations) has apparently shown a 35-40 per cent reduction in the numbers killed or seriously injured (KSI) at fixed-camera sites, against national reductions of between four and 4.5 per cent. Why, then, should we see a greater proportion of accidents caused by “excessive speed”?

    The devil is in the detail. What defines an accident blackspot suitable for camera installation, for example? According to Mr Ladyman, “it is not possible to predict in advance where road casualty problems may arise”.

    A fixed camera is officially justified by four KSI accidents in three years over a kilometre where 20 per cent of vehicles break the speed limit outside congested periods and there is no other cost-effective remedy (mobile units require two KSI incidents).

    Yet in an otherwise ineffectual interview, Jeremy Clarkson pointed out to Mr Ladyman that a KSI accident justifying a particular motorway camera had been the result of a person jumping from a bridge, and motorways are the safest roads in the country even though drivers regularly exceed the 70mph limit.

    Similarly, the dreadful deaths of five teenagers on a suburban road in Hastings would appear to be more than enough to justify a camera under the rules. But if no other under-age joyriders crash at the same location, would it really demonstrate a casualty reduction of 100 per cent?

    It is not unpredictable accidents but trends that worry Paul Smith, founder of the Safe Speed road safety campaign. “It’s no surprise that ‘excessive speed’ crashes are increasing as the installation of speed cameras accelerates,” he says.

    “Cameras give a series of false safety messages, one of which is that if you’re not exceeding the limit your speed is safe. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet millions of motorists now regard the speedometer as a barometer of safety.

    “We need drivers who respond to hazards and slow down in areas of danger. Obeying speed limits is no substitute for this.

    “If cameras did not reduce excessive-speed crashes, they would be useless. But if excessive-speed crashes increase as cameras multiply, then cameras are deadly. That’s exactly what we’re seeing and exactly what I’ve long been predicting. Speed cameras have proved to be a fatal mistake.”

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