Anti-speed camera campaigners have seized upon statistics from Swindon Borough Council that show a slight reduction in accident numbers in the nine months since the devices were removed in the Wiltshire town as evidence that they have minimal effect on road safety, and are simply a means of generating money for local councils and HM Treasury – or, “a tax on motorists,” as they are often termed.
The data will no doubt be studied closely by local authorities elsewhere in the country, with several having already announced that they are discontinuing speed cameras or are considering doing so, in part motivated by the Coalition Government’s announcement shortly after May’s general election that it was withdrawing funding for new cameras and slashing the Road Safety Grant by 40% from £95 million to £57 million.
Earlier this month, Oxfordshire became the first county to turn off speed cameras, and Wiltshire is due to follow suit in October. Meanwhile, Buckinghamshire is cutting one in five of its speed cameras, Lancashire has stated that it, too, expects to reduce the number it operates, and Essex and Dorset are reviewing funding which may lead to a reduction in cameras in operation in those two counties.
Leaving aside the point, often conveniently ignored by protesters, that if all motorists complied with the law and drove within the speed limit in the first place there would be no need for speed cameras, it’s questionable whether the data do in fact show a significant reduction in the number of accidents.
According to The Daily Telegraph, in the first nine months after the cameras were switched off in Swindon on July 31 last year, there were 315 road traffic casualties in the area as a whole, down from 327 in the comparable period the previous year, a reduction of around 4%. There were two fatalities compared to four, while the number of people seriously injured fell from 48 to 44.
However, at the actual locations of the four speed cameras, there has been minimal change in casualty figures, with two people seriously injured and 12 slightly injured in the nine months following the switch-off, compared to one fatality, one serious injury and 12 less severe injuries in the comparable period in 2008/09. That suggests that, while Swindon Borough Council has said that money saved on speed cameras will go on what it says are more effective road safety measures, those aren’t providing a tangible benefit as yet.
Local councilor Peter Greenhalgh, hailed “a new motoring hero” by Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson in 2008 for his efforts to abolish speed cameras, said: "I think our decision has been vindicated because here in Swindon we have seen a slight fall in the number of accidents. We have been able to invest the money we were spending on cameras in other physical road safety measures such as vehicle-activated warning signs.”
He continued: "I'm not going to claim that everywhere should turn off their cameras but there are a lot of cameras around the country that aren't delivering the results in road safety that everyone would want."
Peter Harry from the motorists' organisation PePiPoo – motto, “Helping the motorist get justice,” although a perusal of its website suggests that “evade justice” might be a more appropriate description, said: "This proves what we've been saying all along, and adds more and more weight to our argument that speed cameras have just become a way to raise money from motorists."
However, Katie Shephard of the road safety campaign Brake, which is against the removal of speed cameras, disagreed, saying “There is a wealth of academic research that demonstrates that speed cameras are an effective way to reduce crashes and nine months is still too short a period to assess the situation in Swindon."
However, the senior policeman in charge of the roads portfolio for the Association of Chief Police Officers has warned that cuts in government funding for speed cameras will lead to lives being put at risk.
Mick Giannasi, who is Chief Constable of Gwent Police, is reported by The Times to have written to Road Safety Minister Mike Penning to express ACPO’s concerns over the “unintended consequences for road safety" caused by spending cuts.
"We have invested heavily in infrastructure. There is a danger that it is dwindling away," he told the newspaper, with his remarks also quoted in The Guardian.
"I think a vacuum has been created and people are reacting to that inappropriately,” he continued, saying “if nothing is put in place, speeds will rise and casualties will grow,” and added that he was “disappointed with the level of leadership" shown by the government.
Meanwhile, Julie Spence, who is soon to step down as Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police and is the longest-serving head of any police force in the country, condemned speeding as “middle class antisocial behaviour."
Mrs Spence told The Daily Telegraph that "People think, 'We should be able to get away with it'. They wouldn't tolerate law breaking by somebody else but they do it themselves without thinking.”
She continued: "It all seems OK until something tragic happens, like a child dies because of a road traffic accident."
The Chief Constable added that while anti-social behaviour is typically thought of as vandalism or disruptive youths, “for too many it is the antics of drivers who refuse to accept that speed limit signs apply to them. Driving without care or consideration for other road users is probably among the worst kind of anti-social behaviour in its truest sense, because serious offenders can, and do, kill,” she added.
However, the Department of Transport has said that "it is right that local councils decide how best to tackle specific problems in their areas".
A spokeswoman for the department said: "We ended central government funding for new fixed speed cameras because we don't believe we should dictate to councils that they use them as the default solution in reducing accidents.”
Referring to the cut in the Road Safety Grant, she said: "It is not true, however, that the government has cut all funding for road safety. Rather, we have removed ringfencing from local authority grants so that councils are able to set their own priorities.
"We would expect that road safety would remain a priority for local communities and that local spending would reflect that," she concluded.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.