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14th June 2004

Opinion: Can of Gatso Worms

Oh no, he's opened the can of Gatso worms again. Real Mart finally snaps after narrowly missing someone panic braking from 35 to 25mph to avoid a speed camera on a road with a 40mph limit...

There are now, we are told, 5 000 "safety" cameras in the UK. A flurry of press activity earlier this week announced official statistics that proved once and for all that these cameras are working to reduce deaths and serious injuries on the roads. We are told that the use of cameras "equates to over 100 fewer deaths per year".

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling proudly tells us: "These figures prove that cameras save lives. The number of people speeding has come down and there has been a significant reduction in deaths and injuries at camera sites. Most camera sites have achieved good results."

He also added: "We've published the location of every site where a camera may be used. These show why the cameras were installed and the effect they have had on casualties. The vast majority have delivered real benefits in safety and prove that the cameras are justified and they're effective."

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

Well, I'm sorry, but I'm still not convinced. I think cameras only slow traffic within a few hundred yards of where they are sited, and I'm also pretty sure that any reduction in accidents at camera sites will be matched by an increase everywhere else, as drivers (and riders) realise that provided they don't speed past a Gatso that happens to have film in it, they can do what they want.

If Mr Darling is right, there'll have been a huge drop in road deaths at camera sites, and that huge drop will have had a noticeable effect on the figures for the whole road network. On the other hand, if I'm right any drop in accident rates at camera sites will have been negated by a rise elsewhere, as people speed up safe in the knowledge that they won't get caught where there aren't any cameras.

So let's have a look at the figures. The "Safety Camera Partnership Site and Casualty Information" is only provided on a specific site by site basis, making overall comparisons difficult, so I'm going to concentrate on the cameras that I drive past the most; the ones in and around Cambridge.

I thought I'd start with trying to find out why cameras have been placed where they are. Seven possible reasons are given in the tables.

  • 1) High number of people killed or seriously injured per km driven
  • 2) High number of "personal injury incidents" per km.
  • 3) A "borderline" number of deaths or injuries
  • 4) "Evidence of speed problem from speed survey"
  • 5) Evidence of local residents being concerned about speeding
  • 6) High casualties on a route rather than at a specific location
  • 7) Proximity to vulnerable road users including children, horse riders and the elderly.

    You'd have hoped that most of the cameras were sited because of reasons one, two or five - or maybe seven, but it's odd that horse riders are put before the elderly - but in reality almost every camera is positioned as a result of "speed problems from speed survey". Not due to a high number of accidents, not because local residents are fed up with vehicles tearing through their village or estate, but because a survey found that a lot of people were breaking the speed limit. In Cambridgeshire, only five cameras are sited to protect vulnerable road users, and only three because of local residents' concerns. Eight, out of eighty five sites. The rest are positioned to catch speeding motorists. Oh, and we don't need any cameras to stop people running red lights in Cambridgeshire, presumably because we always stop on amber and only go when red and amber turns to green…

    Even black and white bikes can break the speed limit...

    Enough worrying about why cameras are where they are, lets look at how well they work in reducing fatal accidents. We're presented with a comparison of the number of people killed and seriously injured (or ksi) per year at each site before the camera was planted, and in the last full year where statistics are available.

    Some cameras have made a significant improvement, others have had no real effect, and a few seem to have made things worse. Take it easy if you ride down Goldhay Way in Peterborough, for example, where the ksi rate per year has gone from an average of 0.3 in 1998 when the camera was installed to a worrying 3 in 2002-03. A ten-fold increase? Well, statistically, yes; but that's the problem. Where a site had maybe one death or serious injury in three years, a single accident after a camera is installed can have a significant effect on the figures. No one would blame a camera for one incident, surely? But the figures work the other way too. Where a site has only one incident every three years, it means nothing if in the first full year of camera operation there are no ksi incidents. The government would claim that the ksi rate has gone from 0.3 to 0 - proof that the camera works. In reality, the chances are that there wouldn't have been an accident at the site in that year anyway; the camera has had no measurable effect.

    Most of the camera sites in Cambridge have annual ksi rates of less than one, which makes it impossible to take any meaning from a single year's "post camera" data. You can't have less than one incident - you either have an incident or you don't. To say that a camera is effective after one year of no incidents is meaningless where there is, statistically, less than one incident per year anyway.

    The county's busiest and most accident riddled road is the A14. You would expect meaningful data to be gathered here as the route between Cambridge and Huntingdon is peppered with cameras and the local papers list several serious accidents every week. Strangely, no accident or death rate data is published in the charts for these sites.

    Still, if all these cameras are working away preventing accidents, there should be a noticeable drop on the overall figures for the county. Since the camera data looked at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, we'll look at the same area.

    The table shows for 1992, an average between 1994 and 1998, and figures for 2000, 2001 and 2002. I'm going to concentrate on the numbers of deaths rather than all incidents, partly because Alistair Darling did, and partly because I know from not-very-painful experience that a sprained ankle or badly grazed knee is counted as a serious injury if an ambulance is called or if you go to hospital for a tetanus jab. So, taking the totals for the whole county we see that there were 72 fatal accidents in 2000, dropping to 53 in 2001. A huge success for the cameras! Err; no. 2000 was a bad year, with a figure well above the average for the previous years. If we look at the figure for 2002 - the most recent one available, and the year where the camera site statistics try to prove a noticeable difference - we see that the number of fatalities has gone up again, to 56.

    Oh dear. If Cambridgeshire's cameras had any effect local to their sites, it was obviously cancelled out by a rise in the number of deaths elsewhere. These are still statistically low numbers, however tragic to the families concerned. So let's look at the bigger picture, the road accident statistics for the whole country. Surely we'll see a noticeable change here?

    Looking at the last five years, there's been no real change. 3,421 deaths in 1998, 3,423 in '99, 3,409 in 2000, 3,450 in 2001 and 3,431 in 2002 - the last year for which data is available. A drop of ten deaths in the five years which have seen camera use mushroom. Where are Alistair Darling's "over 100 fewer deaths per year"?

    3,431 people died on our roads in 2002. Three thousand four hundred and thirty one. Five hundred and eighty of them were riding motorcycles, twenty nine of them were pillion passengers. Every single one was a tragedy. Bad driving (or riding) caused those deaths, not travelling at a couple of miles an hour above the speed limit.

    If the Department for Transport want to make a difference, perhaps they should focus more on training us to be better road users, and on policing the real causes of accidents rather than the 'contributory factors'. A bad driver is a bad driver, whether travelling through town at 33 mph or 29 mph. A drunk driver doing 69mph down the motorway is just as dangerous as one doing 75mph. Making people who aren't concentrating on the road slow down to below the speed limit doesn't make them any more aware of what's going on around them. All it does is lull them into a false sense of security. "I am driving slowly, therefore I am driving safely."

    I can see very little sign of - to quote Mr Darling again - "a significant reduction in deaths and injuries at camera sites", let alone a huge drop in the overall death rate on the roads. It would be interesting to see statistics for the number of vehicles on the roads now that don't have MOT certificates, for the number of drivers that don't have insurance, that are drunk or that are falling asleep at the wheel. But while we rely on cameras rather than proper traffic police, it just isn't going to happen. So it's perhaps fitting that the last word should go to the Police Federation: "The number of people killed in drink-drive accidents rose by six percent between 2001 and 2002, due to a reduction in the number of traffic officers. There are fewer traffic officers because cameras have been used to replace them."

    Take it easy out there.

    Homework: Find the camera that annoys you the most, and see how many accidents it has "prevented" in the last year. Then let us know the answer.

    Smile please...

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