By Dr Helen Wells
The President of the Police Superintendent’s Association Ian Johnston will next week talk to his Association’s conference about how the public’s confidence in the police is “dented and bruised” . One policy which will be receiving his attention is the use of speed cameras, which he suggests are one of the causes of this decline in public confidence. He will note that more needs to be done to convince the motoring public that using speed cameras to catch speeding drivers is “a legitimate and fair activity”. But why does a technology which, we are constantly told, is helping to save hundreds of lives a year on our roads need to be justified, and why does the public continue to resist the message that they are a legitimate road safety tool?
Whenever I think about these questions I come back to the statistic that 80% of drivers think that they are better than average. What this means out on the roads is that we are unlikely to respond well to measures that are introduced to limit the amount of danger that ‘average’ drivers cause in a specific set of circumstances. Unfortunately for the government, police and the variously-titled Safety Camera/Road Safety/Casualty Reduction Partnerships that operate speed cameras, the speed limit is one such manifestation of the average – set at a level at which it is believed the average motorist will be causing a risk, based on average levels of traffic flow, in average weather conditions, with average amounts of pedestrians around. As such, the majority of above-average drivers are likely to consider themselves unfairly restricted by limits that are applicable to drivers with what they consider to be inferior skills to their own. They are also, of course, going to consider themselves unfairly punished when they engage in behaviour that would be risky if other people were doing it, but they feel is perfectly safe for themselves.
Viewing things from this perspective may also help explain the government’s often-quoted statistic that between 70 and 90% of drivers ‘support the use of speed cameras as a road safety tool’. Perhaps, logically, we are accepting of interventions that promise to protect us from the inferior driving of others, while hostile to those which seem to punish us for engaging in behaviour that we believe to be safe. After all, receiving a Notice of Intended Prosecution through your letter box a couple of weeks after you engaged in the punishable act is testament to the fact that you got home safely and hence that your behaviour didn’t hurt anyone. Punishing people for behaviour that causes risk – not necessarily harm – is perhaps always going to appear a little unnecessary, regardless of any legitimate deterrent effect it may have.
If most drivers do, indeed, consider themselves to be less risky than those they share the road with, then speed camera enforcement can be viewed as not just illegitimate, but as a risk in itself. Drivers who, for various reasons, consider their driving licence to be essential to their day to day functioning may well feel that the ‘real’ risk being posed on the roads is not caused by their driving at 34 mph in a 30 mph zone, but in the potential revocation of their licence as a result of four speeding convictions. The camera can then be viewed as a source of risk, not a source of protection from it, and become fair-game for a variety of increasingly popular ‘personal crime prevention’ measures, ranging from radar detectors, to false number plates to direct vandalism of cameras – all of which protect the ‘victimised’ driver from the risks of punishment.
A professional driver once told me that there are three things that people hate being told they are bad at – parenting, driving and sex. Ian Johnston’s task, however, may be to convince drivers that they are not actually as good as they think they are. If he wants to improve the image of the police in the eyes of the public, this might not be a good place to start.
Read more about the unintended consequences of speed cameras in Helen Wells' research article in the Internet Journal of Criminology.