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The story behind the spread of speed cameras in the UK is a conspiracy. Actually it is two conspiracies. Firstly we have a conspiracy of stupidity and to support it we have a conspiracy of silence. We'll look first at the conspiracy of stupidity.

The conspiracy of stupidity

Government road thinking in recent years appears to be dominated by a series of false assumptions. These false assumptions - often repeated and used together - form the basis of the conspiracy of stupidity. We list and explain the main assumptions below:

They believe that road accidents are rooted in physics

This is the "faster you go, the harder you'll crash" school of thinking. Like many oversimplified beliefs it contains a grain of truth to add plausibility. But the physics has no effect until the safety systems have failed and an accident is inevitable. For an average UK driver this happens once in about 7 years and results in a damage only accident. During those 7 years our average driver may well have been exceeding the speed limit for much of the time. But on the day in question, something goes wrong - he makes a mistake or is unable to avoid the mistake made by another. With a little consideration, it should be obvious that the physics are the same every day. Until the driver makes his critical mistake that is. On that special day when he crashes the physics are exactly the same as usual. The speeds are very likely to be the same as usual. But the driver fails to respond to a hazard in good time. Thus, accidents are not rooted in physics. Accidents are rooted in psychology.

Once this has been explained, the immediate fall-back position is "well at least he won't crash as hard if he's obeying the speed limit". Oh really? The average impact speed is a small fraction of the free travelling speed - we have driver response to thank for that. At the imagined lower speed there's no guarantee (and little likelihood) that driver response will be as effective.

Safe Speed estimates that driver response is about 2,500 times more significant as a determinant of average impact speed than free travelling speed. An absolutely tiny negative effect on driver responses will result in increased average impact speeds.

They believe that "Speed Kills" or 

Inappropriate speed is equivalent to exceeding the speed limit or

Speeding is dangerous

The various uses and meanings of the words "speed" and "speeding" are muddled up carelessly and used interchangeably. Since the speed limit is the national measure of speed officials have tended to equate "speeding" with danger. But they are wrong and the speed limit tells us little. A speed in miles per hour is meaningless without a full proper description of the circumstances.

Imagine this scene...

Picture an English village.
The driver is doing 65mph (must be really dangerous)
on a nearby motorway (Oh, that's all right then)
traffic is stationary (Oops, might not be able to stop!)
250 yards ahead (Oh, we'll be able to stop then)
The road is icy (oh dear we'll never stop in 250 yards on ice)
but the driver has studded winter tyres fitted, (oh right that'll help the braking quite a bit - we'll be able to stop easily)
But the driver is drunk and inattentive. (really really dangerous again.)

See how the speed didn't change, but as we revealed more and more detail of the scene the apparent safety bounced between perfectly safe and highly dangerous? We ended up with an extremely dangerous but legal 65mph on a motorway.

Speed limits and safety

If a motorway is safe at 70 mph in a the rush hour is it dangerous at 80mph at dawn on a Sunday?

If an A road is safe at 60mph in clear conditions is it still safe at 60mph in snow?

If an urban dual carriageway is safe at 40mph in a 1965 Anglia is it safe at 45mph in a 2003 Lotus?

A great many factors affect the safety of a particular speed. We'll list a few:

What the driver can see.
The presence of other road users.
The width of the road.
The weather.
The characteristics of the vehicle.
The behaviour of other road users.
The severity of a bend.
The condition of the road surface.
Daylight or darkness.
And so on.

Any of these factors (and more)  cause drivers to alter their speed. This behaviour is vital - going too fast is dangerous - but not one of those things alters the speed limit to warn drivers to slow down. They need their eyes to do that and responding to hazards is the essence of driving itself. 

Speed in miles per hour is little help in deciding the safety or the danger of a situation. Instead we must look at speed relative to the circumstances. The official mistake here is to assume that speed in excess of a limit is dangerous and that speed within the limit is safe.  Definitions of the word "speed" are vague and overlapping. The sorts of speed they are addressing are not generally the sorts of speed that cause accidents and are not even the sorts of speeds that make accidents worse. 

Drivers can't be trusted to set safe and appropriate speeds.

The fundamental mistake here is to project the behaviour of a few reckless individuals onto the behaviour of normal drivers. Normal experienced drivers are really very good indeed at setting safe and appropriate speeds. So much so that basic recommendations for setting speed limits are mostly based around the speed choice of drivers. In particular, plenty of research recommends that the best speed for a speed limit is the 85th percentile of traffic speed in free flowing conditions. 

But we can't trust drivers to set safe speeds can we?

We certainly can. We must. And we do. 

Imagine the driver who bases his speed choice on the speed limit. He won't slow down where there are children playing. He won't slow down when the weather is bad. He won't slow down if it looks as if someone ahead might pull out. He won't slow down in a narrow residential street with parked cars on either side. He won't slow down for a blind bend or a greasy roundabout. He might not even slow down when there's stationary traffic ahead. You would be very lucky indeed to complete a single journey if you didn't slow because of hazards ahead.

In reality driving, and especially good driving, is a constant interaction with the road ahead. Every time a hazard appears ahead the driver must react to it safely or risk an immediate crash. Very many hazards require drivers to slow down in order to deal with them safely. Average drivers do this countless thousands of times each year.

We are absolutely not suggesting that drivers are perfect - far from it. But they are remarkably effective at slowing down when necessary. Slowing down when necessary is a vital part of road safety. Keeping rigidly to a speed limit is not. We should reasonably expect to get a far greater road safety benefit by cultivating the vital driver behaviour of "slowing down when necessary".

They believe they know enough about driving to make good road safety judgements.

Most people think they know "all they need to know" about driving. This applies to most drivers but also to politicians, ministers, councillors and road safety researchers. It's probably a result of the interaction between driving and some deep human instinct.

But there are road driving experts who have a very deep and subtle understanding of the driver errors that lead to accidents. Britain led the world in road driving expertise, centred on the Police driver training school at Hendon.

Up until some time in the 1990s, Government constantly returned to Hendon for information from expert drivers. But then Hendon expertise was falsely and carelessly branded "elitist", and the government stopped asking. Obviously the Department of Transport people were not expert drivers and they simply didn't like the answers they were getting. The truth is that they desperately need to liaise with expert drivers.

They haven't figured out that the key to road safety is culture

... although if they actually asked their own Health and Safety Executive, they would find out pretty quick. "Road safety culture" has two main components: knowledge and attitude. A full description would be out of place here, but it should be quite obvious that the key differences between different countries with different accident rates (within similar economic groups) are cultural differences.

In the days when Hendon was consulted on road safety matters the knowledge and attitudes from Hendon were allowed to leak into our culture. This is precisely how we earned ourselves the safest roads in the World in the first place.

As far as we know, no country has yet created a program intended specifically to feed the road safety culture, but that's exactly what we should do now.

We noted above that a key failing was that: "Most people think they know "all they need to know" about driving." This false belief is something we could begin to address with a strategy aimed at improving the culture. 

They believe that speed cameras will be self financing and provide "road safety for free"

Speed cameras can certainly be self financing, but the road safety benefit at camera sites is small or unremarkable and the side effects are wide ranging and negative. In short, speed cameras may be self financing, but they will never deliver much in the way of road safety benefit. They purport to address one small problem (speed in excess of a speed limit) while at the same time undermining the UK's excellent road safety culture. The policies in place to support cameras all tend to conspire to undermine the culture even more.

new They forget to consider how accidents are avoided

There are two aspects to road accident causation. We must consider how countless millions of accidents are avoided as well as how accidents are caused. Since the number of near misses outnumbers the number of accidents by at least 10:1, the "how accidents are avoided" part tends to be more important. See this Safe Speed page: (tiger)

The conspiracy of silence

The conspiracy of stupidity has resulted in a series of very damaging road safety decisions at the highest level.

Rather than admit their mistakes and examine policy again - properly this time - there is a wide ranging tendency to suppress information about road safety that doesn't support the policy. The Camera Partnerships are expected to produce good news and publicise how well they are doing - even when they are doing badly - which, of course, in general, they are.

In order to promote the flawed policies, they have not been silent! There has been massive expenditure to convince the public that "speed kills". It's only the truth that has been silenced.

Safe Speed concludes

The arrogance at the highest level is astonishing. The ministers taking decisions affecting us all have little appropriate training as drivers and understand little about the psychology of accident causation. They don't even ask the advice of road driving experts any more. They have latched onto a whole series of grossly oversimplified beliefs and have imposed their lack of understanding on the entire population.

They are so convinced of their case that they have used their spending power to obtain scientific proof.

So where's the science in all this?

It's been said that we have entered a "post scientific era". Not many years ago scientific investigation produced impartial reports - frequently extremely well - and science was used to optimise policy. Things have now changed considerably and scientific research is purchased to support a pre-existing conclusion. 

It used to be that science was the master of policy, but now policy is the master of science.

Safe Speed believes that UK road safety is in one hell of a mess. It needs sorting out, it needs sorting out at the top level, and it needs sorting out now. All we have to do is blend together the best thinking from 15 or so years ago with the latest thinking in Health and Safety. The rest soon becomes obvious.

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Speed cameras are the consequence of a conspiracy of stupidity

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Created 5/02/2004. Last update 7/04/2004
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