There is a strange paradox on British roads. Our police spend immense manpower and capital budgets on speed cameras, which, it is often argued, they do primarily because it generates huge revenue in fines, but the evidence on lives saved seems at best dubious and often contradictory – to the extent that some forces have now disabled speed cams altogether.
The arguments are well-rehearsed so let’s just start with the key facts of driving: you should always drive at a speed appropriate to the conditions, and always concentrate totally on the road. The conditions may take into account weather, the volume and behaviour of other traffic, the state of your own car, the presence of pedestrians and many other factors.
Yes, if speed is excessive it can make an accident worse, but it is the inattentive and danger0us driving that cause an accident, rarely the speed alone – and if that is the case then the driver is being reckless anyway. So why, you may ask, are the police focusing so heavily on speed above all other factors, when what they need to do is ensure attention to the road and safe behaviour? Speed limits are not a panacea, and punishing drivers who are going over the limit but otherwise driving safely is not the answer!
After all, the impact of cameras is often counterproductive. Sure, it may slow down traffic in built-up areas, but drivers will focus on the camera and their speed, thus taking their eyes off the road. They also tend to slow down to 10mph less than the speed limit, creating bunching traffic and the risk that an inattentive driver who doesn’t notice the cam may plough into the back of the more observant road user.
Furthermore, there is nothing magical about, say, a 70mph limit on a motorway – 71mph is no more or less likely to cause an accident than 69mph. Police policy is generally to prosecute those going 10% over the limit, though in practice you are unlikely to be done if caught slower than 80, and the faster traffic typically moves at 85-90 on a routine basis, policed increasingly by average speed checks measured by the time you take between monitoring cameras which may be several miles apart.
Is it any less safe than going at a religiously-observed 70? If road conditions are good and the driver is paying attention, probably not. Remember that the limits were created at a time when cars were considerably less save, and many could not reach 70 at all, let alone cruise all day at that speed. Most cars nowadays are built to run at 85 all day.
Mine is equipped with adaptive cruise control, which automatically brakes and accelerates up to a pegged maximum set by the driver, and leaves a preset gap up to the car in front. All I have to do is steer! Hey presto, it becomes much easier for me to focus on the road, even on those long journeys where our attention wanders and we get into autopilot mode – and that happens to every driver, no matter what we think we do.
Simple moral of the tale: focus our police resources on dangerous driving, drunken and inattentive driving (eg. there is a widely-flouted law against using mobiles while driving!), you will save far more lives that way.