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Decisions – Flash in the pan

Speed cameras pose certain dilemmas for businesses that offer their staff company cars. Despite the fact that speeding is against the law, a sizeable proportion of the motoring public, including fleet drivers and their employers, have concerns about the role of speed cameras and the way in which they are increasingly being deployed on roads.

What, then, should a company’s fleet policy be towards drivers who incur speeding fines? They can either treat the matter as a breach of discipline, judge each case individually, or treat it as a matter for the authorities, but not one where the company should express a view.

Ordinarily, if a staff member were to break the law, such as driving over the drink drive limit or driving recklessly, then disciplinary proceedings would ensue. However, there is now such a groundswell of unease about speed cameras that punishing staff who run foul of them should not be a company’s automatic reaction.

In June 2004, transport secretary Alistair Darling stated that speed cameras should not be used as a way of squeezing extra revenue out of motorists. Their only justifiable deployment, he said, reiterating Department of Transport (DoT) policy, is to improve road safety in a proven blackspot for traffic accidents by “reminding” drivers to cut their speed.

Most speed cameras, he argues, are doing just this and the DoT cited figures to show that there were 40% fewer serious injuries and deaths as a result of cameras being in place.

But Paul Smith, founder of the Safe Speed road campaign, believes the DoT is playing fast and loose with the figures. He explains that the DoT has its own statisticians, who will have informed them of a statistical phenomenon known as ‘the regression to the mean’, which offers a different interpretation of the results.

“When you analyse accident occurrences by geographic location, they turn out to be randomly distributed. This is a statistical fact. It is also a fact in a random population that chance will provide odd clusters or clumpings which occur randomly and have no intrinsic meaning,” he says. In other words, a traffic accident black spot may be due to adverse road conditions that require extreme care from the motorist – the sort of thing a speed camera could help with by alerting motorists to their speed. But it may also be nothing more than a meaningless cluster.

“If you put a speed camera at the site of a chance cluster, the number of accidents at that site revert back to the national average,” Smith explains. “In fact, simply on regression to the mean, the accident rate around many black spots should drop by 50% without any further action being taken,” he says.

Smith argues that when a motorist sees a speed camera, two things are likely to occur. The driver will either slow immediately as a knee-jerk reaction, or look at the speedometer, check the speed and then slow down. This can easily cause one car to bang into the back of another. The presence of the speed camera would therefore cause an accident.

Smith makes yet another, more powerful point. Since the mid 1970s, the UK has headed Europe’s safe driving league tables, with fewer accidents than any other country in Europe. However, that lead is vanishing at an alarming rate and Smith attributes it to speed cameras.

“We have just completed the worst decade in the history of UK road safety,” he says. There is a reliable statistic called the fatal accident rate, which dropped by 5-7% a year every year from 1950 until 1993, the year when speed cameras were introduced to the UK. Since then, the rate of improvement in the fatal accident rate has slowed every year, and in 2002 there was no improvement at all.

According to Smith, the latest figures for 2003 actually show the first real rise in the fatal accident rate for 53 years. This is happening, he points out, at a time when motor manufacturers are making steady improvements in vehicle safety year on year. “Crashes in cars become about 4% more survivable each year. If car safety is improving, but the death rate is not showing a similar improvement, then we are becoming less effective as a nation at avoiding serious crashes,” he says.

Smith’s argument about driver safety is based on the idea that we are all actually rather good at accommodating other drivers and avoiding pile-ups. “If you consider the number of vehicle movements in a day and the number of fatalities in a year, while deeply regrettable the figure is rather small. We have 250,000 injury accidents a year on the road and 32 million licensed drivers. We need to maintain reactive tolerance on the road without the distraction imposed by speed cameras.”

When dealing with staff who commit speeding violations in their company cars, Smith believes the employer should let the law take its course without adding another layer of discipline or expressing an opinion on speed cameras. This way, companies will not have anything on which to reproach themselves in future.

Phil Hale, a spokesperson for the RAC, says that 72% of the RAC’s members believe the only purpose of speed cameras is to raise revenue. “We have to see them as part of a total package of road policing. Cameras get a negative press when they try to be the complete solution to the problem. They are limited as to what they can observe apart from speed. They can’t measure drunk driving, dangerous driving or incompetent driving, and they certainly cannot replace traffic policemen,” he says.

For Andrew Cope, managing director of the fleet leasing company Zenith, all companies should have a policy, even if the policy is to take no view on them. “Every corporation will tell its drivers they are responsible for their own driving, but they do not have to tell staff to obey the law. At the same time, companies will be in a very poor position if they have policies that can be deemed to encourage speeding on the part of drivers,” he says.


There are many in-car devices available that detect the lasers used by speed cameras, thus warning drivers of their presence.

But the future of these devices is in jeopardy, despite a 1998 UK court case, where it was ruled that such devices do not break the law. Government, however, is preparing legislation that will outlaw virtually all forms of passive detection based on sensing the presence of speedcams, but it is unclear why it should take action in this way. A spokesperson for Origin B2, a company that makes a GPS-based detection system, explains that even when legislation to ban passive detection devices is passed, motorists will still be able to buy products such as the B2 since they do not rely on detecting the camera – they already know where it is!

Products like the B2 work off a national map composed by volunteer enthusiasts, which pinpoint the location of all speed cameras around the country. A GPS chip in the car locates the vehicle’s position relative to the camera locations and a voice warns drivers of their coming presence. Since the driver is alerted to an accident black spot, it is hard to see how the government could object to this type of device. The future for detection products, therefore, looks bright.

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