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