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Oxfordshire cops switch speed cameras back on

Seventh speedy sense prompts three-point turn - but will it work?

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Oxfordshire police have turned speed cameras back on as others throughout England switch theirs off, prompting questions as to whether senior police and county council figures are playing politics.

Last August, following the withdrawal of central government funds, Oxfordshire made motoring history by being the first county to switch off its speed cameras. This move is reported to have saved some £600,000 per year.

Lobbying on both sides was intense, with those who believe in the usefulness of speed cameras issuing dire warnings about the inevitable "carmageddon" to follow, and sceptics suggesting that there would be little change.

Other counties followed, although none quite so publicly. Critics have since suggested that although Oxfordshire suffered from being the first to switch off (and therefore newsworthy), the fact that it made such a song and dance about the issue will have alerted drivers to the fact that the county had become a cam-free zone, in a way that other counties (such as Wiltshire) managed to avoid.

Today, however, as a number of other counties, including the West Midlands, Northamptonshire and Hampshire switch off their cameras, Oxfordshire is switching its cameras back on. The police have broken off links to the Thames Valley Road Safety Partnership (TVRSP), which previously provided support for speed cameras in the county and entered into a bilateral agreement with the County Council, under which money from speed awareness courses will in future be used to fund cameras.

So they have incontrovertible evidence that the switch-off was a bad thing? Er, no.

Figures released today by Oxfordshire Police show that for the seven months from August 2010 to January 2011, the total number of casualties across all of Oxfordshire rose from 1171 to 1179: that’s an increase of eight, or just under 0.7 per cent.

At camera sites themselves, the total number of collisions rose from 60 to 62, with injuries increasing from 68 to 83. Sadly for Oxfordshire’s Speed Supremo, Superintendent Rob Povey, in the press this morning with the assertion that we "know" that speed kills, the entirety of this increase of 15 casulaties came from non-serious injuries.

Slightly "better" news for the pro-cam cause comes from the breakdown of casualty and collision figures across the whole county. This shows a year on year increase for the seven-month period of 50 per cent in respect of fatalities, with deaths rising from a low of 12 in 2009/10 to 18 in 2010/11. Serious casualties showed a slightly less dramatic increase – but an increase nonetheless – up by just under 12 per cent from 160 in 2009/10 to 179 in 2010/11.

In addition, monitoring of speed at a small number of fixed camera sites by the TVRSP showed a significant rise in the number of speeding offences committed.

The difficulty with this decision – and the reason that those in favour of speed cameras, such as Superintendent Povey, do so much to harm their own cause – is that the evidence does not support the conclusions drawn. A number of studies over the years have shown that there is some effect from speed cameras on accident reduction.

This conclusion was marred by the fact that the Department of Transport continued to claim, dishonestly, that the effect was as high as 40 per cent, despite the fact that most experts reckoned the direct gain from speed cameras was half that.

More widely accepted is a view from Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, who acknowledges that speed cameras are "controversial" but quotes a study by Professor Richard Allsopp (pdf) suggesting they prevent 800 fatalities or serious injuries each year (KSI).

Professor Allsopp, as most experts in this field, does not disaggregate fatalities, since although the general view is that speed increases total KSIs, the question of whether a particular accident will result in a death is far more complex and related to many factors other than speed.

It may well be that speed cameras in Oxfordshire helped reduce incidents, but the figures provided by Oxfordshire Police – without any analysis by those previously employed as experts – are not, by themselves, enough to draw any serious conclusion. The fact that a senior police officer should claim they does tells us more about a lack of Police respect for statistical evidence than anything about what is actually happening.

Run the figures backward, and the actual casualty figures for 2010/11 are very much in line with a long-term trend decline running back to 2001, with blip years in different categories across the period. So, 2004/5 reported overall casualties well below trend, while fatalities in 2006/7 were massively up on the previous year.

But then, it seems likely that this debate was never all that much to do with the evidence. As the BBC reported in November last year, plans to turn the cameras back on were already "under way" then. At that point, it is possible that the police were working, at most, on just two months worth of evidence.

We asked Oxfordshire Police for comment on the decision, but have received no response yet. ®

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