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Speeding and the Law

An Open Letter to the Minister of Transport

by David Ball

Dear Mr Byers,

I am writing to you on the subject of speeding by motorists and the punishment thereof. I have been considering this subject for some time now and have given it much thought as it seems to me that the whole matter of the enforcement of speed limits has now become  contradictory and possibly self-defeating.

Two specific cases have prompted me to write this letter. The first case is of a motorcyclist who was recently convicted of doing 104mph in a 60mph zone in Market Harborough Magistrates court. He was fined £500 and given six penalty points. I do not know the time or location of the offence, but it seems to me that anyone going at that speed at any time needs taking off the road, if only to protect themselves and others who may encounter them. There is no way that the offence was anything other than deliberate and calculated.

Contrast this with the father of a friend of mine, who recently fell foul of a static camera in Northampton. He did so early one morning at about 4am whilst there was no-one else about and was doing 38mph in a 30mph zone. For this he received the usual fixed penalty fine and three penalty points. It would appear to me that the difference between the two offences and the number of penalty points awarded is disproportionate. This is especially the case given that once someone reaches 12 penalty points then they often receive a driving ban.

Now for many people a driving ban can have a catastrophic effect, should they need to use a motor vehicle to enable them to earn a living. This should then only be used where the driving offences concerned show a persistent disregard for the laws of the road. Someone who drives whilst drunk, without insurance, dangerously, at highly excessive speeds or at more moderately excessive speed several times, should undoubtedly face a period off the road. However I have to ask whether anyone who has 4 convictions in the range 5 - 10mph above the speed limit is in fact deserving of such a ban? Within the fixed penalty range there are obvious contradictions, in that four offences of driving at 35mph in a 30mph limit are punished by the same fines and points as four offences driving at 49mph in a 30mph limit. It is surely obviously apparent that these two offences are simply not of the same order.

The now widespread and growing use of speed detection cameras is the reason for this, where the handing out of fixed penalty tickets has now become an administrative action rather than a sensible application of the law by a police officer. Living near the Northamptonshire border I am well aware of the experiment within that county that has seen the number of tickets issued
per annum increase 18 fold, to in excess of 80,000. Given that they are ploughing back revenue into additional cameras then I presume that this figure will continue to rise.

Furthermore once people start to slow down for the cameras it is my understanding that the intention is to lower the trigger threshold, so where a camera may at present may by set to trigger at 36mph, once the number caught starts to drop then it will gradually be lower to 35mph, then 34mph etcetera. I believe that the Northamptonshire experiment is deemed to be a success and that we will see many more cameras springing up around the country over the next few years. Should the Northamptonshire figures extrapolate nationwide then we will see annual tickets issued numbering in the millions. The effect of tens of thousands of people receiving driving bans resulting from this will cause untold misery and suffering to individuals, and huge economic dislocation to the country as people are no longer able to continue in their work.

There is a degree of cynicism amongst a lot of people with regards to the new policy of allowing local police forces to keep the revenue from speeding tickets. There is now an incentive for police forces to maximise fine revenue for budgetary reasons rather than because of safety reasons, but of course whenever challenged they simply cite the 'benefits' of  speed cameras, quoting facts in isolation to 'prove' their point. Meanwhile I believe that officers devoted to traffic patrols have in fact fallen due the success' of speed cameras. Unfortunately cameras do not catch reckless or dangerous driving manoeuvres, nor do they spot drivers using mobile phones on the move, which have been implicated directly in significant numbers of road deaths, but whose use only warrants a fine and no penalty points. In fact the evidence indicates that mobile phone use is very dangerous with respect to its impact on driver reaction times, but as pursuing this would involve extra police manpower it is perceived as not being a priority. No wonder that the cynics are today having a field day when it comes to speed cameras.

At this point it is worth my while saying that I have thus far never been convicted of any driving offence, received any fixed penalty tickets, speeding or parking, nor have I ever been involved in an accident. Furthermore I support the principal of reducing the speeds at which people are driving at, and I myself have long done my best to obey all speed limits, even where they do seem at times to be of little point. I travel each day between Market Harborough and Lutterworth, a road with a mixture of small villages with 30mph speed limits and countryside with de-restricted speed limits. I usually arrive at either end of the road with a queue of cars behind me, even though I have driven either at or very close to the speed limits at all times. Thus you would expect someone like me to be behind you in you attempts to reduce the speed at which people travel, and
the truth is I fully support your intentions but am horrified by the all stick and no carrot approach that is being adopted.

The conversations I have with people on the subject leads me to conclude that many many others think as I do. We all want to get speed down, we all want to reduce dangerous driving, something speed cameras often have little or no effect on, but I think you need to look again at what you are doing to achieve this.

Firstly the entire system of using cameras is automatic mechanical justice that is totally at odds with our nature as human beings. In times gone by the police would use common sense when it came to prosecuting motorists, and many would take into account road conditions, location and time before deciding whether or not to recommend the motorist for prosecution. Indeed, often a stern warning would on some motorists have the effect of making them slow down without the need for further action. With speed cameras there is no warning; if you are caught you get the ticket, even if after many years of trouble free motoring you accidentally let you speed build up. It is very hard to keep your speed constant and given the power of modern cars mistakes
can be made. In certain circumstances in the past, for example when a motorist was taking someone to hospital at speed, such as a woman in labour or someone in a serious condition, I have heard of police cars stopping the vehicle, and upon realising the cause of the offence, actually escorting the car to hospital. I wonder whether a man with his wife in labour could be forced to choose between birth on the highway or a succession of speeding tickets? It may be possible to go to court to fight these, but at what cost in time, money and effort?

I have to question exactly who these cameras are catching? I have seen many people head into villages, break hard for the camera, pass through the 'danger zone' at 30mph, and put their foot down as soon as they have passed through it. These people obviously know the location of cameras in their locale and are simply selective in their aggressive driving. I believe it is
now possible to buy equipment that tells you camera locations whilst driving, and which downloads updates each evening. So I have a feeling that many end up catching the more 'normal' motorist who has made an error rather than the regular speeders who have taken their own precautionary measures. Also, I wonder whether you tend to catch people who are 'out of area'? If
you are in unfamiliar areas, trying to read direction signs as well as following an unfamiliar road, it is relatively easy to fail to spot a change in speed limit, especially if the sign is located say at a roundabout or junction where the motorist is suffering from information overload. Thus it is possible to overlook a change in speed from 40mph to 30mph in a built up area and end up getting a ticket.

An area with a lot of speed cameras I recently passed through is south of Stoke on Trent. Here they have adopted a very sensible policy of displaying signs warning of cameras which include the speed you are supposed to be doing as well. This ensures that the motorist is well aware of the required speed and can make no error. I would also suggest that after any change of speed limit 2 additional signs are displayed after 100m and 200m to again give any driver in error further warnings.

What is really needed though is some additional driver aid to allow drivers to maintain the legal speed without having to keep their eyes glued to their speedometer. Recently I have realised that I seem to spend an increasing amount of time checking my speed to ensure I am not breaking the limit. Every second your eyes are off the road it is possible to miss something, so I have to ask whether this actually has made me a safer driver? An idea I have is that some kind of transmitter could be installed at each change of speed limit that can be picked up by a device linked to the vehicle's speedometer. This could be linked to an audible warning device so that the driver could be warned that he/she is exceeding the speed limit. If this were to be in place then the driver of any car with the device fitted, which should be compulsory on all new cars, could have no excuse whatsoever for failing to observe the speed limit, and then by all means fines and penalty points would be appropriate.

In the meantime I believe the current 20mph fixed penalty band needs to be split up. At more than 10mph above the required speed limit the three penalty points and the fine should remain as they currently are, with court appearances for those who are more than 20mph over the limit. At a speed below 10mph greater than the speed limit I believe that a fine should be
levied but I feel that the penalty points should not be awarded. Additionally I would suggest that for all motorists, for every mph over the limit you are you should have to do ½ an hour of community service. Thus someone who is clocked at 36 mph in a 30 mph limit would be facing a fine and 3 hours of community service. Someone doing 49 mph would have a fine, 3 penalty points and 9½ hours of community service. Someone doing 55mph would be facing a court appearance with a larger fine and more penalty points, or a ban, and 12½ hours of community service. Thus those who have broken the law would be giving something back to the community. I suspect that the result would be a massive increase in community service which could be very positive for the country if properly directed.

I urge you to give serious consideration to my suggestions, as it is my belief that the current set of punishments for speeding offences are illogical, and by making no differentiation between those exceeding the speed limit by 3 mph and those doing so by 19mph the laws could be open to some kind of legal challenge under Human Rights Legislation.

Finally, as an aside it does seem to me to be bizarre to be enforcing the speed limits ever more assiduously whilst simultaneously deciding to reduce the classification for cannabis related offences. There is no way that anyone accidentally smokes cannabis, but people do break the speed limit by mistake. Cannabis smokers take huge medical risks, and should they not be protected by legislation in the same way that road safety laws are enforced? Also, as most cannabis is brought into this country by organised criminal gangs, those who smoke cannabis are ultimately supporting a terrible evil that impacts in many ways on the country. Whatever motorists do, by accident or design, they never support organised criminal activity!

Yours sincerely

Mr D. P. Ball

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