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14th October 03

Speeding 101

Even classic bikes can get caught by speed cameras when travelling at vintage velocities. Paul Friday explains that not every camera is your enemy, while Real Mart sees Big Brother wherever he turns...

Traffic cameras are the curse of the riding classes? If you think so, then you need to know a little more about them. There's more than one type, and some of them are positively good for you.

Every rider in the UK knows about the boxes on poles and the cops with the hairdriers. These are speed cameras. They use radar, a laser beam or sensor loops in the road to measure your speed. They are generally well signposted, even the temporary ones. If you get caught speeding by one of these, it's because you weren't paying attention. There is a guaranteed method of avoiding a fine, and that's to stay within the speed limit. This means paying attention too, as you can easily drift along on autopilot and miss the signs dropping from fifty to thirty. But if you're that dopy, perhaps you deserve to be zapped?

Look at it, sitting smugly on its little grey pole...

You may argue with where the cameras are placed, but take it up with your local council. They should be sited where accidents have already occurred.

There is one other sort of speed camera, and that's the type used on motorway roadworks. It reads number plates and calculates an average speed through a measured section. If you've driven on many motorways, you'll know how a fifty limit through a roadworks section soon has the traffic creeping back to sixty, then sixty five... Try that and you'll have a nice little endorsement on the mat one morning.

If you really really must take it to the limit, then be aware of the allowed error in vehicle speedos. This is 10%, and you could push it in your favour. The problem is knowing your true speed to calibrate your speedo against. One way is to ride alongside a police motorway patrol car, match speeds, then lean over and tap the window. Ask the driver if he would mind telling you your true speed, so that you can mark the speedo glass with a wax pencil. Then ask if he would mind matching speeds with you over the full range so that you can calibrate the rest of the dial.

The other way is to borrow a GPS receiver from someone. These are accurate to about 0.1mph if you hold a steady speed. Ride along at 77mph and mark the speedo dial, then drop to 66mph and so on. This will work at steady speeds, until you change the tyres. Be prepared for a surprise - almost all speedos over-read, some by more than 10%. Your much-related pub story of the 120mph dash down the bypass could turn into a near miss on the ton.

Looks vulnerable, doesn't it...Do be aware that knowing your true speed does not mean you can ride that fast. All it tells you is where the limit lies for being nicked. Speed cameras are usually set just above the 10% margin, so that mark on the speedo glass is about the most you can get away with. It will help with the average speed cameras though, as you will be able to cruise through at a true 50mph, probably passing a few people going by their speedo readings on the way. And if you do get nicked, there's no point in arguing that you had a calibrated speedo - the camera never lies.

The next type of camera is the traffic flow monitor. These are typically blue arrays pointing both ways along the road, on a blue pole. There is another sort that is mounted on motorway bridges, with one camera pointing into each lane. These cameras recognise vehicle number plates, but do not store the information in a re-usable form. They send an encoded version of the registrations to the next camera down the road, which then works out how fast the traffic is moving. This is how Trafficmaster and other systems can show you where the traffic jams are.

The traffic flow cameras are so far benign, in the sense that they do us all a bit of good and none of us any harm. 'So far' means they are not used to enforce the law.

When you are riding in town, take a look for small cameras mounted on the top of traffic light poles. If they are pointing towards you as you approach, try flashing your headlight. These are sensors and not cameras, and can change the lights in your favour if there is no conflicting traffic.

If the camera points away across the junction, it's a red light catcher. These will capture the state of the lights and the registration of any vehicle that crosses at red. These cameras are your friend - they fine (and can take off the road) the idiots who run the lights and could kill you.

I have saved for last the best type of all: the Automatic Number Plate Recognition camera. How much was your insurance last year? How would you feel if I told you that £30 of your premium went to pay for people who drive around with no insurance? You should love ANPR cameras.

These are usually temporary installations, They are run out of an unmarked van with a generator buzzing outside. There will be no warning signs before the cameras. The cameras may be inside the open doors at the back of the van, or standing on tripods. A dual carriageway will typically have two cameras. A short distance after the cameras there will be a layby full of marked police, or a police bike lurking in a sliproad. Their job is to pull and process the hits.

The cameras read number plates and search a database of 'hot' vehicles. These will have some outstanding violation registered for the vehicle or the driver. The job of the lurking copper is to pull the car when the camera goes ping, and check that the violation is still current. Then they check the driver and passengers. Then they check for MoT, insurance, tyres, lights and tax disc. Then they will probably have a good look around the vehicle.

What they get is about ten times more productive in catching criminals than pounding the beat. It seems that criminals have no respect for the law, and neglect to insure and tax their cars. People that have evaded the police for years will drive around with number plates that declare who they are. When that camera goes ping, the copper in the layby already knows they have a good chance of a ticket. A lot of the time they get an arrest, stolen goods, drugs and weapons too. Every one of the vehicles they pull is one less uninsured idiot who could knock you off. Every one of them means a discount on your insurance. And they don't measure speed. Smile as you ride past.

Despite the government's best efforts in removing the privacy and freedom of the public, there are one or two little bits of sunshine in the gloom. I believe that traffic light and ANPR cameras are positive, as they take out the people who could give you a really bad day but let the honest citizen slip through unmolested and free to travel at an appropriate speed for the conditions.

Paul Friday

Meanwhile, RealMart is travelling at exactly 29.5 mph in the absolute opposite direction…

I'll happily accept that cameras designed to stop people running red traffic lights are a Good Thing. Steam through a red light and you're not only endangering yourself, but the life of anyone else using the junction at the same time.

But speed cameras and automatic number plate recognition systems are another thing entirely. I despise them and all that they represent, and I'd like to tell you why.

There's a law agains this you know...Let's start with speed cameras, because they're an easy target. They don't work. The only people they catch are those new to the area, those too busy trying to avoid other hazards to keep a constant eye on their speedometer, and - very occasionally - the hopelessly unobservant. If cameras achieved their objective of reducing road deaths there would be plenty of convincing statistical evidence by now, but in fact while they reduce accident rates in some areas, in others the number of deaths has risen.

Speed doesn't cause road deaths. Speed doesn't even cause road accidents; most of the time it's down to bad driving. Ten years ago we had a means of recognising and punishing bad driving; traffic police. They'd drive round in their jam-buttie police cars stopping people who were driving badly and giving out tickets, breathalysers and stern advice as required. How very twentieth century. These days the few traffic police that are left are more likely to be parked up behind impromptu road blocks waiting to catch illegal immigrants.

Which brings me neatly on to automatic number plate recognition. Believing that ANPR is used to catch people with no roadtax and thus no insurance is optimistic at best. According to a serving police officer, in Surrey they have to Don't walk too fast, now...ignore the 'excise licence expired' marker when scanning plates because "they can't cope with the amount of hits" it generates. Instead they're looking for vehicles that have been used in a crime, are used by a persistent criminal, or have been seen in suspicious circumstances.

It's the assumption that underlies ANPR that scares me. The police are making the leap from "criminals use vehicles" to "vehicle users are criminals". Gone are the days when crime prevention was considered the job of the police, and now it seems that investigation and detection as a means of apprehending criminals is also on the way out. Much easier to just pull in everyone and see who gets caught in the net.

Do you know there are half a million CCTV cameras in London? If they are even marginally effective at stopping crime, then our capitol city must be the safest place in the country…

Martin Gelder

What do you think?

Depressingly, there are three 'safety' camera sites within walking distance of my office...


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