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

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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.

Comments (22)

    Great and worthy rant, but you missed the larger and unchallenged assumptions that lead to the whole culture of speed cameras. I have heard this very eloquently put in a radio documentary by the office responsible for installing the original UK GATSO. It goes like this…

    An accident happens on a stretch of road. Perhaps for the first time in a decade. A young driver, possibly drunk – doesn’t matter, makes a mistake and he and his three passengers die. Those 4 deaths are used by local road safety group to argue that this is a dangerous stretch of road and get a camera installed. Now every year there is no accident on that stretch of road leads the same group to claim that it has saved 4 lives.

    Multiply these specious statistics up across the country and we find that thousands of casualties have been prevented annually since the introduction of speed cameras and the farce is self sustaining.

    But hold on a minute… Before the invention of a machine for issuing speeding fines, speed was statistically around 11 or 12 on the list of contributory factors in causing RTC’s. Furthermore, although it is clear that fatalities caused byt vehicles are drastically reduced at speeds under 30, which is why worldwide this is a common choice for urban speed limits.

    Enforcing speed limits generally is not really making the roads safer as is clearly shown in the statistics. Despite significant and ongoing improvements in vehicle safety for both occupants and those hit by them, the figures are stable or worse year on year – little significant change.

    Some of the more enlightened observers are beginning to come to the conclusion that installing millions of cameras is no substitute for the hundreds of highly trained Traffic Police we are losing annually as a result of budget cuts. They are the ones that enforce the rules which really matter like car maintenance, lane discipline, general rules of the road. The truth is that, as with armed conflict, the only solution here is feet on the ground.

    I suppose in practice we have to hope for a machine to detect close passes and drivers pulling out on us, or carry our own cameras and hope we survive the encounter so we can deliver the evidence!


    Thanks—a pretty constructive response 🙂

    I don’t think the argument “missed the larger and unchallenged assumptions” as such. It’s perhaps not explicit about the single-incident example that you quote, but it’s all part of the location-focused attitude: it’s the location that makes the law applicable. Whether or not that location is a true blackspot is arguably a quite separate issue.

    I confess I’ve not tried identify the correlation—which, lest we forget, is not causation—between camera numbers and casualty figures (or, more pertinently but less availably, collision figures) but there are of course plenty of confounding factors such as improved vehicle occupant protection, which is a huge factor in high-speed collisions.

    As for the issue of feet (or perhaps wheels) on the ground, yes, it’s an absolutely desirable thing. But the funding for that has to come from somewhere. And where better than the pockets of people who choose to break one of the laws whose purpose is similar to those extra officers? 🙂

    Also, on rather a tangent: We shouldn’t overlook the fact that speed is not only a factor in collisions (by making them both more likely and more serious) but it’s also a factor in pollution. From personal experience, a difference of about 10% in speed at motorway speeds gives around a 10% or more change in fuel consumption and thus a similar change in emissions. Immediate safety isn’t the only issue when it comes to motorway speed control.

    For a second I thought I’d stumbled onto piston heads site.

    Grey camera is for penalising a driver who went too fast. Yellow camera is for remiding the driver to check their speed. The yellow camera is more likely to cause an actual reduction in speed so will increase road safety (marginally). But it’s all fiddling while Rome burns IMO. 5 year compulsory retesting will do more for road safety than a million cameras of any colour.

    Quite. A yellow camera is the cue to obey the law. The point is that obedience of the law is desirable everywhere. Persisting with a reliance on visual cues is an absolute barrier to this.

    And, yes, I agree: 5-yearly retests would almost certainly be much more effective. Maybe a future article 🙂

    An unpopular view might even be that we have too many drivers of too low a standard on the road. Solutions are obvious but would be massively unpopular. While potentially great in terms of pollution reduction from one point of view, they’d necessitate the transport rethink we’ve been avoiding for decades.

    Not holding my breath though…

    I’m not sure I want to live in a society with the expectation of universal police surveillance, however much it may reduce speeding… I’d much prefer more traffic police, more effective punishments, and 10 yearly resits.

    So why are cameras installed on new roads as part of their build. Would there be a claim to say that the road must have been badly designed and dangerous in this case

    Am I weird but I try to obey all speed limits because in general there is a reason for them. I have a car which I can set max speed limits and also a cruise control. By the careful use of these it is reasonably easy to relax knowing that with care you cannot break any speed limit.

    In the 90’s I lived in Germany and the Polizei would quite often park an unmarked camper van on the side of the road for a few days with a speed camera in it, or mounted in a wheel bin, or place one on a small knee high tripod at the side of the road. Imagine the outcry in the UK if the Police did that here.

    I am of the firm opinion the only reason for installing a speed camera is to generate revenue. I’m no saint and in times past have broken the speed limit multiply. I think the idea of sustaining skills and ensuring retests, responsibility and using police to pragmatically enforce behaviours is the answer. We live in a cost conscious society is it cheaper to fine people or educate them?

    On the A12 between the Redbridge round about and the Lea Fly over 4 speed cameras in each direction were in place the day the road opened for the first time, Accident black spot?

    Mainly revenue generation imo – I enjoy biking and I enjoy driving and have come across lots of dangerous activities that a camera looking at a very short stretch of road won’t catch but a policeman would, eg boy racers braking hard for cameras and then speeding up and braking again before next camera.

    “dangerous activities that a camera looking at a very short stretch of road won’t catch but a policeman would, eg boy racers braking hard for cameras and then speeding up and braking again before next camera.”


    Isn’t that exactly the problem with painting them yellow that the article addresses?

    Nicely put. Interesting that the funding side of policing raises its head, I’d consider a similar argument for cameras to fund police as cigarette tax funding the NHS. (Stands back and waits for the response)

    I think ultimately it doesn’t matter what colour they are – they are static and look at that that same piece of road. I pass 2 cameras on my way to work and back and know exactly where they are – you could camouflage them if you wanted, I’d still remember where they are and so would the boy racers.

    Nice column. We have a law, it should be obeyed whether you agree with it or not. Cameras should be frequently moved and covert.

    I can’t imagine any other law being enforced in a way that basically says “it’s fine to do what you want”. The Daily Mail would be up in arms if the Police tackled street drug dealing only with uniformed officers and particular areas with signs that said ‘no dealing in front of this sign’ but effectively tolerated it everywhere else.

    Chris DB – it’s cheaper to fine them. And the problem now is that the fines and penalties, and chance of being caught, are not sufficient to ensure that people obey speed limits.

    Set them off with impunity when driving towards them, risk and ticket free, BUT, you do need to know which ones !

    See, they can be fun as well.

    the road from my house to Laggan Wolftrax trails is 80 miles of average speed cameras for the nearly the entire length of the A9 in Scotland. (although there is some speculation that the average speed cams are in pairs but that’s neither confirmed nor denied).

    The interesting thing about it is that whilst people were pretty annoyed at first the road seems so much quieter because everyone is doing the same speed now, the spacing between cars is now larger and not bottlenecked up behind larger vehicles.

    I am a convert. I have to admit to being one of the “dangerous” A9 overtakers in the past. I just have to leave 20 mins earlier now, but the actual experience has become more enjoyable – if only – helped by satnav set to beep at me at 70mph

    Funding is a macguffin in this context. If there was a will it would be funded. The issue is political will. Any attack on the freedom of drivers, whatever the justification is as politically damaging as attacking the NHS. We all know that the way drivers behave, particularly toward vulnerable road users is due to the relatively infinitesimal chance of getting caught and prosecuted. The chances reduce dramatically if you remove officers from the roads.

    I live in South Wales, so I am extremely familiar with the deployment of speed cameras in the name of road safety. I am also in the bike business and I can tell you endless stories of drivers who get away with injuring or killing peds and cyclists without fear of prosecution or any read sanction because there’s no-one around to deal with them and the jury will be full of people who also treat other vulnerable road users as an unnecessary inconvenience rather than human beings.

    38 Degrees are running a campaign atm in favour of strict liability – I urge you all to sign up.


    It has long been the case in the UK that speed cameras are sited only where there is a known incident blackspot.

    Is this true?
    Locally to me this does not seem to be the case as one of them is opposite my parents house and there has been no accident for over 25 years. Its a steep hill that is 40 at the top and 30 at the bottom.
    If they are going to do them they will have a greater benefit [ income generation or speed reduction] if they are “hidden”

    anyone with an ounce of road sense realises that it is not ok to speed where there arent any yellow boxes. A fundamentally flawed over complicated point of view , from somebody who doesnt understand the mentality of the typical driver. The point of the camera should be empahsise a blackspot, if its painted yellow , then a driver is more likely to see it and to have slowed down , in which case its served its purpose.

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