Analysis - Cars - Snap happy

Liz Booth asks whether speed cameras are there for safety or financial reasons and looks at their implication for the workplace.

Speed cameras, the bane of every driver's life and the subject of plenty of urban myth, are saving 100 lives every year, according to a government study published in June.

But although the findings of the three-year study of accident rates on roads with cameras show an overall 40% cut in the number of people killed and seriously injured, the fact remains that at some locations fatalities are actually rising. And stories still abound of drivers caught three times in a single day banned before they realise and of fines filling the government's coffers as a sort of stealth tax.

But how much is myth and how much are the cameras affecting everyday life? The statistics are frightening. Back in 1999, the government said speed cameras were used to provide evidence in 49% of cases involving motorists' speeding - about 551,000. By 2002, the figures had risen to 1.5m cases involving the cameras - and of those 94% were caught for speeding and about 6% for travelling through red traffic lights.

There are around 5,000 fixed cameras in the UK. The government denies that fines are a stealth tax and insists the cameras are there to promote road safety.

Transport secretary Alistair Darling claims that the 40% reduction in serious injuries and deaths at camera sites proves that cameras are working (see box, right).

Arguments rage on either side - road safety groups campaign for greater use of traffic calming while websites have sprung up to warn motorists about the location of cameras and selling gizmos designed to 'alert' the driver to impending cameras.

Attention has also been drawn to the funding system, an overhaul of which might help to convince the public. Cameras alone raised a staggering 68m in 2002/03.

While the AA says the government should strive for a system that removes the raising revenue concern, Darling says: 'The best camera is the one that doesn't raise a single penny because it is encouraging people to slow down.'

Say cheese

But what about the other effects of being caught on camera? As it stands, offending motorists automatically receive three points on their licence, regardless of how much over the limit they were travelling.

And once motorists have accumulated 12 points or committed four offences within a three year period an automatic ban follows. In 2002, some 30,000 people were banned from driving.

But motoring groups have argued that this system is unfair; if police are using speed cameras to catch offenders, in theory, a motorist could accumulate 12 points within a matter of days - almost before becoming aware that they had been caught.

In May, the government announced a review of the system after ministers admitted they were worried that too many people who need their licences for work were having them removed.

At the time, Darling said: 'I think it is important to differentiate between somebody who does one or two miles over the limit and those who are driving 30 or 40 miles over the limit.'

The news was broadly welcomed by the motoring groups who also urged the government not just to look at the excessive speed but at the circumstances.

Speeding past a school, for example, should be a worse offence than, say, driving fast down an otherwise empty dual carriageway at night.

Even the head of road policing at the Association of Chief Police Officers, Richard Brunstrom, has called for change, saying that education should be offered instead of the current automatic points and fine system.

Workplace impact

Ministers have admitted they are worried about the impact on the workplace although there is little hard evidence of a major problem.

In theory, employers could face a logistical nightmare if, say, their top salesman lost his licence but still needed to reach appointments.

A lengthy ban could have serious repercussions for the company's bottom line, particularly if it was a small business dependent on just a handful of performers to bring in business.

The AA's head of road safety, Andrew Howard, says that, in fact, the vast majority of people mend their bad motoring habits after receiving a first penalty. His most recent statistics show that the numbers receiving bans are falling.

And research figures also show that half the population watch their speed after receiving their first three points. About one-third of the population will then be watching speed cameras rather than their overall speed while only about 16% will continue speeding regardless.

However, the picture is not as encouraging once a ban has been received - about 25% of those who are banned will then go on to commit the crime of driving while disqualified - something which could result in a prison sentence.

Awareness is the key for employers. They have increasing responsibility for their staff and a responsibility which is extending to the road.

Employers' responsibilities

Last year the Health & Safety Executive published guidelines for employers whose staff drive while at work. Employers are being made responsible for checking that staff have a licence and that they are not accumulating too many points.

Howard suggests that employers should suggest remedial action for staff who are habitually being caught and have a strategy in place to handle those that are banned. And he stresses that employers have a responsibility not to encourage speeding - suggesting that you cannot afford overnight accommodation and expect your staff to travel from Basingstoke to Manchester and back is not responsible.

In the wake of the Gary Hart crash at Selby, resulting in the train crash which left 10 people dead, the courts have taken a strong line, even giving one director a suspended sentence for advocating speeding on the road.

Howard believes that employers should also think of their reputation.

He knows what a field day would be had if he was to receive a ban as the head of road safety.

Mark Keavney, product manager of commercial motor at Norwich Union, says companies must audit their staff regularly and keep extra checks on staff who have more than six points on their licence. He says insurers will want to know about serious motoring offences while it is up to employers to make sure no-one with a ban is using a company vehicle.

He suggests using outside companies to run regular audits and check with the licensing authorities in Swansea in case employees are not being honest.

'It is all very well to have your spouse take you to and from work,' he says, 'but employers must be told what is happening.' And he says that employers should also be checking that employees' own vehicles are fit - if they are to be used for work. Employers should see insurance certificates, MoT certificates and the driving licence before sanctioning staff to use their own vehicles.

'Simply by doing these checks it should encourage better driving,' he says.


•   Per year before: 265

•   Per year after: 160

•   Absolute change: -105

•   Percentage change: -40% (Figures are annualised averages and relate to 3,376 camera sites in partnership areas)

Source: Department for Transport


•   Blue is the new black when it comes to cars. In 2002 blue was the most popular coloured car followed by red; silver; green and white - not much of a change from a decade earlier when red topped the list, followed by blue; white; silver and green.

•   Last year there were slightly more than 29m cars on UK roads - a record number.

•   Last year the Ford Focus was the most popular new car, followed by the Vauxhall Corsa, Vauxhall Astra, the Ford Fiesta and the Peugeot 206.

•   The E-type Jag is the UK's most loved car of all time.

•   The average life span of a car in the UK is 13.5 years.

•   73% of UK households have at least one car, compared to 55.8% of households 30 years ago.

Be the first to vote

Rate this article

Related Articles