A little-noticed clause in a 1991 Road Traffic Act passed by the British Parliament empowered courts of law to accept photographs taken by specially designed cameras as evidence a motorist exceeded a posted speed limit.
Conventionally, these Traffic Enforcement Cameras (also known as speed cameras) are claimed to be able to detect a vehicle traveling at an illegal speed, and then to take two photographs of the vehicle in quick succession, on a stretch of road painted with distance markers. This — it is said — enables the vehicle’s ‘true’ speed to be computed and supported by photographic evidence.
Speed camera technology has become more sophisticated with the passage of time. The early cameras functioned with ‘wet’ film, but the latest designs operate digitally, and even print out and automatically dispatch notices of fines and other penalties.
Until recently, British courts have accepted speed camera evidence without debate — the motorist is guilty unless he can prove himself innocent. In the wake of speed-cameras, have come other cameras, to detect a burgeoning variety of traffic violations, including making illegal turns, driving in a bus-only lane, jumping a red light, and so on.
In the latest development in the onward march of the speed camera, the London Safety Camera Partnership (a police-dominated committee that supervises the location and operation of such cameras in Greater London) has commenced an experiment with banks of cameras mounted on gantries above a major downtown highway.
The cameras photograph vehicle registration plates (which in the U.K. must be mounted on the front and rear of all motor vehicles), and send these images to a central computer that is — we are assured — able to calculate the average speed of the photographed vehicle.
Should the average speed exceed the permitted maximum, fines will be levied and penalty-points will be added to the driver’s licence. If the experiment is successful — and we can safely assume those behind it have already made up their minds that it is going to be a great success – then such cameras will be erected all over London, in provincial cities, and along the major freeways.
Big Brother — the Orwellian nightmare — has arrived.
Those who support the seemingly irresistible spread of the speed-camera do not see it that way. The law — they will tell you — is the law. Motorists who flout the law are criminals who deserve to be caught and punished. Besides — they will tell you — speeding kills. If lives can be saved with speed cameras, so much the better.
But is it?
In spite of the barrage of propaganda telling us that the technology is near-perfect, damn it, it isn’t. In England, over the past few years, a number of cases have highlighted technical deficiencies of speed cameras, resulting in prosecutions being abandoned at the taxpayers’ expense.
Speed cameras lack common sense. They are imperfect. They are often unable to function properly in poor visibility, or where the road has a curvature. The evidence that they reduce fatalities is also far from conclusive.
Research carried out in the U.K. by Motorcycle News in 2005 found that in areas where the number of cameras had been increased, so had road-accident fatalities — a phenomenon probably due to the fact that cameras distract drivers, who pay inordinate attention to them.
The rise of the speed camera has also resulted in the undermining of time-honoured British legal norms, dating from Magna Carta. It is — or used to be — axiomatic that an accused person was entitled not to incriminate himself. This is no longer the case.
When a camera snaps a vehicle, the registered vehicle-owner is required to tell the authorities the identity of the driver — for it is the driver who is prosecuted, of course, not the vehicle.
So owner-drivers are routinely required to give evidence against themselves. The alternative — to automatically penalize the owner of a vehicle where the police cannot identify the driver — may be a bureaucratic convenience. It is a legal travesty.
The true purpose of traffic-enforcement cameras, however, is not to save lives. It is — of course — to raise revenue. But in my judgment no amount of revenue so generated by a speed camera can compensate for its perverse effects.