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UK.gov plans more active-traffic motorway ANPR cams

As Big Blue takes over in the Big Smoke

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Things are jumping in the world of UK roadside cameras. In the last 24 hours the main contract for the London congestion charging zone has been won by IBM, edging out former provider Capita, and the government has announced plans for many more speed cameras on motorways - to be used in "active management" of heavy traffic.

Regarding the IBM congestion-charging win, it appears that only Capita's executives will be discomfited. The Times reports that the existing technology and 400 staff will probably move lock'n'stock to IBM when it takes over the job in 2009.

Details of the bids received by Transport for London (TfL) haven't been released, but there is no suggestion that TfL were unhappy with the service provided (and initially developed) by Capita. Rather, it appears that IBM simply made a lower bid, with TfL saying the winning offer was the "most economically advantageous" of three received.

The Times quotes Cazenove analyst Robert Plant as saying: "IBM has stated its intention to target congestion charging internationally and we believe that it bid keenly."

One might speculate that Big Blue is quite willing to take a bit of a loss leader in order to gain experience in one of the world's most important traffic-charging and monitoring schemes, ahead of a possible global uptake. The running of the TfL Low Emissions Zone goes along with the Congestion Charge, and the zone could see further expansions in future.

In a move by the national government as opposed to Mayor Ken's city one, it was also announced by the Department for Transport (DfT) that large parts of the UK motorway network will get new speed cameras.

The motorways have of late been relatively safe places to break the speed limit, with few cameras and traffic police often feeling their time could be more productively spent elsewhere. The official view has seemed to be that while speeding on the motorways is dangerous, it isn't as dangerous as speeding on smaller and twistier roads.

This view doesn't seem to have changed; the new plans are prompted not by deaths and injuries but by traffic jams and tailbacks. The theory is that tailbacks form when drivers brake aggressively in heavy traffic, with the knock-on effect down a lane of cars building up until drivers are actually brought to a halt, even though there is no problem at the head of the queue.

By holding motorists down to lower top speeds at peak times, the DfT believes that this stop-start effect can be prevented and the traffic kept moving, so yielding better journey times for all - and obviating the need to build more road.

However, merely flashing signs at motorists saying that the speed limit has been temporarily reduced doesn't affect their behaviour much; this is where the new speed-cams come in. DfT trials on the M42 and M25 have found that 95 per cent of drivers complied with temporarily-lowered speed limits as low as 40mph, not wishing to be fined. This had the desired effect of reducing journey times, fuel consumption and vehicle emissions. Added journey-time benefit was also achieved by using the hard shoulder as an extra lane.

By its nature, this active traffic control can't use old-style enforcement cameras, as they require only a very brief slowdown. The new systems have to use Automatic Numberplate Recognition (ANPR) to work out a car's speed over a more substantial distance.

ANPR is disliked by civil liberties campaigners, as it generates a record of where and when a car has been. In theory a system could be organised in such a way that records of law-abiding drivers weren't generated at all, but that hasn't been the way things have panned out. In reality, existing UK ANPR systems have recorded every car passing every cam. This data has been used by police and spooks to track the movements of suspected criminals and terrorists after the fact. In London, the TfL congestion cams now offer near-real-time access to the special-powers police and their spooky chums.

ANPR has also been referred to in the context of a national road pricing scheme, but used alone it would be relatively easy to beat. At the moment, indications are that the DfT and its ministerial bosses have no appetite for exceptionally intrusive and expensive technologies that a proper UK-wide road pricing scheme would require. As for the terror-fuzz and spooks, they seem to be getting the camera networks they crave anyway, largely without having to touch their own budgets; so they're probably quite happy.

In summary, active traffic management may very well offer faster journeys and less pollution. It also offers the chance to avoid concreting over yet more of Blighty's green and pleasant land. But the largely unnoticed consequence is an almost certain extension of the government's ability to easily and cheaply carry out automated surveillance en masse.

Times coverage here and here

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