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Cutbacks strip speed cameras from Blighty's roads

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The proposition that speed cameras improve road safety looks likely to be severely crash-tested this summer, as government cutbacks make the likelihood of some counties becoming camera-free zones a near certainty.

According to the Guardian, all 72 fixed speeding cameras in Oxfordshire are likely to disappear as the county attempts to live with reduced money from central government. The switch-off could happen as early as 1 August.

Cue predictable squeals from road safety group Brake, whose campaigns officer, Ellen Booth, said: "It would be a disaster if these cuts were passed on in full by county councils to road safety partnerships.

"It would be especially hard to justify the idea that all speed cameras should be turned off. Speed cameras are a really cost-effective way of managing speed, which is one of the biggest issues on our roads.

"To get rid of them would be a backward step and we would really be risking people's lives."

Explaining the government’s decision, Road Safety Minister Mike Penning said: "In the coalition agreement the Government made clear it would end central funding for fixed speed cameras.

"Local authorities have relied too heavily on safety cameras for far too long so I am pleased that some councils are now focusing on other measures to reduce road casualties.

"This is another example of this Government delivering on its pledge to end the war on the motorist."

However, despite widespread certainty by safety campaigners and civil servants alike, speed cameras have never really won the hearts and minds of the nation. A poll in the Daily Mail this weekend, asking readers whether Britain would be better off with fewer cameras was pulling approximately 83 per cent in favour of that proposition on Sunday evening.

More seriously, there have long been concerns that the statistics used to justify speed cameras have been massaged by central government to come up with the answer wanted, as opposed to being based on the evidence.

Back in 2008, The Reg reported that the Department for Transport continued to use its original estimate for reduction in road casualties, despite recognising the contribution from a number of heavyweight academics questioning the high level claims made for speed cams (and publishing the academic refutation in its own research paper).

The DfT knew it was wrong but just couldn’t own up to having made a mistake. The Department continues to quote a figure known to be misleading on sites such as Think!, its main road safety initiative.

Such intransigence on the part of the road safety lobby – and failure to use even a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of pounds raised by speed cams since their inception to research their effectiveness fully – means that cameras continue to be poorly supported, as well as fuelling the view that they are there simply to generate revenue.

When Swindon Council decided last year to scrap funding for its speed camera programme and to invest instead in alternative road safety measures, the condemnation from above was instantaneous. Strangely, however, the council's own figures do not suggest the "carmaggedon" that critics predicted would follow.

A spokesman for Swindon Council told us last week: "When the cameras were working there were eight slight accidents and one fatal accident across the sites, and post-switch off there were seven slight accidents and two serious accidents." Hardly an impressive argument for cameras.

In contrast, the Devon and Cornwall Safety Camera Partnership is seriously worried about the likely effect of losing its camera grant. IT pointed us to a piece of research (pdf) claiming that over the nine years from 2000 to 2008, "there was a reduction of 75.2% (113 to 28) in Killed or Seriously Injured (KSI) collisions at camera sites, compared with a 24.5% (617 to 466) reduction in KSI collisions in the remainder of Devon & Cornwall".

So this "proves" that speed cams work? Not exactly. As with pretty much all official research on this subject, the comparison group – in this case "the rest of Devon and Cornwall" – may not be appropriate, rendering the entire research exercise pointless. There is also the issue – which the report itself raises – that the presence of speed cams on one stretch of road may push accidents to elsewhere in the county.

Ironically, switching off the cams may be the only way to work out whether they have been having an effect or not. Though again the analysis is not straightforward, and whether it is done in a robust fashion or not will depend very much on whether it is left to the advocates of the policy or to independent researchers. On past track record, don’t hold your breath. ®

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