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Debate: Speed cameras

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Should cameras be used to catch speeding motorists?

Background and context

Speed cameras (sometimes called photo radar) are a means of catching vehicles breaking the speed limit or committing other motoring offences (such as failing to stop at a red light). They work by measuring the speed of a vehicle over a short distance and recording its license or registration plate details, so that the owner can be identified and held to account. Typically, fixed penalties are applied for offences caught on camera, with a computer-generated letter being sent to the vehicle's registered owner demanding payment of a fine. In some countries, such as the UK and France, a system of penalty points is also applied; a driver who receives penalty points may face higher insurance costs and an accumulation of points (e.g. after three or four speeding incidents) will eventually lead to the loss of their driving license. Legal appeal mechanisms usually exist to challenge a penalty generated by a speed camera, but these are often expensive and difficult to pursue. Speed cameras were first introduced in Germany in the later 1980s and are now common throughout Europe, Australia and parts of North America, although many states in the USA still do not have them and France has only recently begun to introduce them. They are deeply unpopular with many motorists, who are sceptical of their value and may be unhappy with receiving large penalties for apparently minor offences. In some countries physical attacks on speed cameras are becoming more common. Opinion poll evidence may be quoted by both supporters and opponents of speed cameras to demonstrate that public opinion is on their side, but this should not be a consideration in this debate.

Contents

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Argument #1

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Yes

Speeding causes accidents because it reduces the amount of time a driver has to react to changing conditions and the actions of other road users. Excessive speed also makes it harder to keep a car physically under control. Speed cameras reduce the number of road accidents by penalising drivers who drive dangerously, creating a deterrent effect for all drivers. A penalty points system can also be effective in forcing repeat offenders off the road by removing their right to drive.

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No

Speed is very rarely the cause of accidents; other factors such as drink and drug driving, bad road conditions, inadequate signing, poor driving skills, distractions such as mobile phones, and aggressive driving all play a part. Tackling these other factors would therefore do more to reduce accidents than speed cameras. It is noticeable that road deaths fell rapidly in the 1980s, before speed cameras were introduced but when there was more focus upon other factors; the last decade has seen much less dramatic reductions.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Speed may not be the only factor in causing road accidents, but it is a critical factor in how bad accidents are. Even small changes in speed can be effective in preventing deaths and reducing injuries. Countries that have introduced speed cameras have all seen reductions in deaths and serious injuries on the roads - most recently in France, where just 100 speed cameras have reduced deaths on the road by 10% in just one year.

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No

This might be true of suburban streets where the difference between 20 mph and 40 mph makes a huge difference to how likely a victim is to survive an accident, but it is not true of the faster main roads where almost all speed cameras are positioned. On these roads the speed limits are already high enough to make accidents deadly, even if the vehicles involved are keeping under the limit set.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The speed limit is a law and the law should be obeyed. You may believe you can drive safely above the speed limit, but there are other road users too. In any case, who needs to speed? In the UK, cameras may only be installed on roads with at least four serious accidents in the past three years, and where at least 20% of drivers are breaking the speed limit. Modern systems can also cope with variable conditions, using electronic signals to indicate safe speeds for the conditions and enforcing these with camera technology. They can also exempt the emergency services, although there is no harm in requiring these groups to justify the use of high speeds on particular occasions as this will always carry a risk.

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No

Cameras are not sensitive to context. The speed limit is a guide to drives of the maximum safe speed, but circumstances vary, e.g. in the early morning with empty roads but good light the safe speed may be higher than the speed limit and a motorist exceeding a 50 mph limit by perhaps 5 mph poses no threat to the public and should not be penalised. At other times, for example in heavy rain, fog or when street lights have failed, the safe speed is much less than the set limit. Emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks may need to break the limit on occasions, yet are often caught by cameras. Promoting and enforcing one set speed in all circumstances is irresponsible as it will encourage drivers to ignore road conditions and so make the roads less safe.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Although individual cameras may occasionally suffer technical problems, the technology is thoroughly tested and reliable. A margin for error is allowed with machines typically set only to record vehicles at least 10 or 20% over the speed limit. Appeal processes do exist where drivers feel their penalty is unjust, and although these could be improved in some countries, this is not an argument for scrapping cameras. It is noteworthy that insurance companies and motoring organisations such as the UK's RAC and AA tend to advise drivers against challenging the evidence of speed cameras, such is their belief in its accuracy.

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No

Speed cameras are inaccurate and prone to errors, often catching drivers who have been observing the speed limit. Although appeal mechanisms against the judgement of these machines do exist, they are expensive and weighted against the driver; the authorities prefer to believe their profitable cameras rather than their taxpayers and road users.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Placing signs warning of speed cameras on a stretch of road, but hiding the actual cameras can avoid drivers suddenly changing speed. Over time, as drivers become used to observing speed limits more carefully, this will be reflected in safer driving all the time, not just when cameras are present.

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No

Speed cameras create dangerous driving as drivers often brake suddenly when they see a camera, or a sign for one, and then speed up again once they are past it. This makes accidents more likely, not less. By annoying motorists, speed cameras may make drivers more aggressive, and so more dangerous.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Speed cameras are cost effective as they take highly paid police officers off traffic duty, allowing them to do more important things, such as solving crimes, maintaining a presence on urban streets, etc. Speed cameras pay for themselves through fines and can even provide financial support for other police work. Studies have found that much more money is saved for the state and society through prevented casualties than is gained in penalties or spent on the cameras. The public can be educated to appreciate this benefit, especially as systems which apply penalty points for speeding offences instead of or as well as fines are clearly not solely motivated by greed.

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No

Removing police officers from traffic duty is bad, as skilled officers are much more able to detect and deal with dangerous driving than insensitive cameras, which will miss any driving offences committed below the speed limit. Cameras create an incentive for police forces to catch motorists out in order to profit from fines. This turns the police into petty bureaucrats milking the public rather than serving them, and creates bad feeling towards the police that is likely to produce problems in tackling real crimes.

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Argument #7

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Yes

Speed cameras produce additional benefits as improving technology allows them to be used for other purposes - e.g. tracing stolen cars and getaway vehicles, identifying unlicensed or uninsured vehicles, detecting drivers illegally using mobile phones, etc. Further improvements in digital definition and recognition systems may allow suspected criminals and terrorists to be identified and tracked as they travel as drivers or passengers.

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No

Speed cameras are a bad idea in their own right, but they present a wider assault on liberty if they can be used for other purposes. Allowing the government to track citizens' every move is a dangerous infringement on the right to privacy. Nor should we be confident in the technology, as recognition systems are very inaccurate and this will lead to may innocent citizens being harassed by the authorities.

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