Bez: “I Fought The Law and The Law Lost”

February 11, 2015

Speed cameras are in the news again, so what better time to gather by the roadside to watch the glorious parade of naked, self-interested human deceit? Bez tells it like it is…


What’s yellow and vicious?

So, what’s causing the current frenzy of protest amongst motoring groups and drivers?


You see, some new cameras have been painted grey. But most people like their speed cameras to be yellow, so that they can identify them easily.

There is, of course, only one reason you’d ever need to easily identify a speed camera, which is that you want to slow down before reaching it. And there’s only one reason for wanting to slow down before reaching it, which is that you’re breaking the law and want to get away with it.

Of course, “I want to break the law and get away with it” is not the reasoning you’ll hear from anyone arguing for yellow speed cameras. You’ll hear other stuff instead. Take Tim Shalcross from the Institute of Advanced Motorists, for example:

“It is hard to understand why camera partnerships or other safety camera operators are now going back on this policy [of painting cameras yellow]. We have worked hard to promote the safety benefits of cameras and the current tendency to make them inconspicuous risks undoing much of that work.”

The clearly-implied claim here is that speed cameras cause greater safety benefits when painted yellow.

Now, this may or may not be true (no research is cited, to my complete non-amazement), but even if it is true, I would suspect that any comparisons have been constrained by conventional attitudes to cameras, and specifically the attitude to their location.

Location, location, location

It has long been the case in the UK that speed cameras are sited only where there is a known incident blackspot. There needs to be evidence of specific statistical risk before we address the factors that create danger.

On the one hand, this seems reasonable: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other, of course, it means we have to wait for people to be injured or killed before we try to stop people being injured or killed.

But it’s not that simple.

You see, the focus is always on the location: someone was killed at this junction, a driver lost control of their car on that road, there was a pile-up on this roundabout…

Where you see that yellow square, you know that this is where the law applies.

But this comes with a subtle implication:

Where you don’t see that yellow square, you know that this is where the law no longer applies.

It’s not just speed cameras, either. If you’ve ever driven through a village on a rural A-road, you’ll have seen signs saying “Please drive carefully” as you enter and “Thank you for driving carefully” as you leave. The latter is valedictory; thanks come after the action: “Cheers! See ya!” The sign may as well say “You’re clear now: go on, give it some welly”.

Multiple aspects of signage and enforcement drip-feed a casual attitude to law on the road, each chipping away a little at the social value of responsible driving: sure, be careful here and there, but don’t fuss over it in general.

By focusing on known blackspots – and this is official policy, not simply a result of pragmatism – we’re not only being reactive rather than proactive, we’re sending the message that speeding is fine most of the time.

Of course, ‘speeding’ and ‘driving too fast’ are two wholly different things (and the difference between them is worthy of an article in itself), but speeding is breaking the law, and the message is thus that breaking the law is fine most of the time.

Milking the situation

Barely anyone with a public platform dares undermine this attitude. Take Shadow Transport Secretary Michael Dugher’s recent statement on the matter:

“We should have one universal standard whereby all fixed speed cameras are in accident blackspots and are painted yellow. Ministers should issue guidelines to the Highways Agency today to stop treating motorists like a cash cow.”

There can’t be a road user in the country who hasn’t heard motorists referred to as a “cash cow”; not only in the context of taxation, but in the context of punishment for breaking the law. Naturally, the waters of the funding conspiracy theory are rather muddied by the reality: even the IAM’s policy statement on speed cameras notes that whilst central government receives the revenue, the decision to install the cameras is made locally, by those who bear the cost of doing so.

The bottom line is this: Dugher is just one of a swathe of apologists for lawbreaking, bolstered by the press who gleefully refer to grey cameras as “stealth cameras“. Stealth cameras! Sneaky cameras! Dirty, underhand cameras! Stinking, corrupt, bastard cameras just itching to catch you innocently breaking the law!

It’s avaricious populism, nothing less: the people want to break the law, and to ensure the support of the people we must support them in breaking those laws.

How about I suggest why covert cameras – lots of covert cameras – would be a good thing?

Invisible grimbisters

You may never have heard the word, but if you’ve driven on a motorway before, you’ll be familiar with the concept of a grimbister: “a large body of cars on a motorway all travelling at exactly the speed limit because one of them is a police car.” Deliberate protests aside, people obey the law when they know they’re being watched.

But let’s play with that last statement a little. It’s perfectly accurate at face value, of course, but beneath the surface it outlines the problem: we want people to drive better even when they don’t know they’re being watched. We need invisible grimbisters.

Now, the problem is that we’ve built a culture and a road network where people are encouraged to obey the law only where they see certain visual cues. So, currently, the grey cameras being added to motorways are, with absolute inevitability, catching people breaking the law. Fines are being issued, and people are moaning that it’s unfair. And, whilst I don’t personally have a single grain of sympathy for anyone legitimately fined for speeding, in a way they have a point: the system has trained them to do this. The system has said it’s OK to speed where there are no yellow boxes, it’s OK to drive carelessly once you’re past the village, it’s OK to ignore the law a bit until you’re told when it’s important.

And what’s required is for the system to retrain people. To do this, the connection between yellow boxes and enforcement must be broken. The potential for enforcement must be – well, not everywhere so much as anywhere. People need to believe that the law could be enforced no matter where they are.

And this covert quasi-omnipresence isn’t an approach that is restricted to speeding: it can be used to address other dangerous behaviours. All that’s needed is to decouple the risk of getting caught from the locations and the visual cues to which it is currently bound.

To argue against covert cameras is to argue for ever more lax attitudes to responsibility behind the wheel; to argue for them is to argue for a new system, one where the law actually influences behaviour because the enforcement of it is just pervasive enough.

In the meantime, of course, if you don’t want to be a cash cow – no matter what colour the speed cameras are – you absolutely have the choice not to be one. It’s your decision.

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