After 20 years in service, the Gatso has earned millions in revenue, but has it actually reduced accidents?
By: Nick Gibbs
The man responsible for introducing speed cameras to Britain’s roads is angry. “I think it’s a fiasco now,” says former policeman Roger Reynolds. It was Reynolds who, 20 years ago, flicked the switch on Britain’s first-ever camera, a Gatso on the westbound A316 over Twickenham bridge in Surrey.
Drivers were initially given a sporting chance. The dual-carriageway through this part of leafy south-west London is a 40mph zone but Reynolds remembers the camera being set at 60mph. “We were trying to catch the worst,” he says.
And the worst were pretty bad in what Reynolds described as a notorious accident spot. In an eye-opening reminder of the casual attitude to speed limits back then, the trial camera on the Thames bridge recorded an astonishing 22,939 drivers exceeding 65mph in 22 days, Reynolds told the Richmond and Twickenham Times back in 1992.
A traffic division sergeant with advanced photography skills, Reynolds was a natural choice to lead the development team comprised of Dutch camera maker Gatso, the government and Reynolds’s employer, the Metropolitan Police. He went on to oversee a network of 750 cameras around London.
When he left the police in 1999, he reckons public opinion was still on his side. “At no time did I prosecute below 40mph in a 30mph,” he says. “To do so at 32mph is ridiculous – and they wonder why there’s a backlash against speed cameras.”
Prosecution numbers track the Gatso’s journey from safety device to “scamera” in the eyes of many drivers. In 2000, according to Home Office figures, just under 600,000 motorists were caught speeding by cameras in England and Wales. In 2007 that figure had shot up to 1.8 million, which, at £60 a pop, represented an annual income of more than £100 million.
According to Reynolds, the camera’s downfall started in 2000 when the so-called “netting off” system allowed local authorities to receive a percentage of revenue from their cameras.
Local police and councils joined forces to form safety camera partnerships, picking out sites which the government would then fund.
It meant camera numbers multiplied from 1,600 in 2000 to 4,737 in 2007, according to AA figures. But the partnerships hadn’t factored in the effectiveness of the cameras.
“When you put a camera in, the number of speeders always reduces. Suddenly there’s no money coming in, so they drop the trigger speed from 38mph to 35mph to pay the bills,” says Reynolds. “What good did that do but alienate the public?”
Stories of individual cameras racking up lottery incomes did further damage. Most notorious is site 050, the M11 southbound camera near Chigwell in Essex, installed in 2000 at the point the motorway limit drops from 70mph to 50mph. In 2003, 9,639 drivers were prosecuted, netting more than half a million pounds. Even worse, figures showed accidents had actually risen since its introduction.
Anti-camera groups reacted by becoming more militant. “We targeted that M11 camera about 20 times over the last 10 years,” says the self-styled Captain Gatso from Motorists Against Detection (MAD). “We used all sorts of methods, [including] when you put a tyre round it and light a rag soaked in unleaded, to burning it out with Thermite and low-level stuff like spraying it with paint.”
Hate figures emerged, most notably the chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom. Dubbed the Mad Mullah of the Traffic Taliban by tabloids, Brunstrom waged what he called a “personal crusade” on speeders between 2001-2009.
No tactic was too devious, including one memorable trick back in 2008, when a mobile camera was hidden in a horse box.
Despite all this, the British public is still generally in favour. “We’ve done opinion polls on cameras since 1998 and we’ve never seen acceptability below 69 per cent,” says the AA’s Andrew Howard. “I’ve replied to as many letters from people who wanted cameras as those that didn’t.”
The evidence they reduce accidents seems overwhelming. Since the introduction of speed cameras, deaths on Britain’s roads have halved from 4,229 in 1992 to 1,850 in 2009, the most recent figures. Of course road safety has improved in many other ways, but plenty of individual trials have proved the effectiveness of cameras.
One of the most persuasive took place in west London at 21 sites in 1997. Monitored over 36 months before and after installation, fatalities dropped 69.4 per cent.
“We couldn’t claim all the reduction, but I’d argue the cameras had a big effect,” says Reynolds.
“It was never about the fines but about reducing fatalities and injuries. That was our pure motivation. When you’ve been picking dead people off the road for 22 years of your life, you want to do something about it. I’m very proud of what we achieved.”
As he describes it, prosecution wasn’t the original aim. “The whole point was to remind people about speed, not to catch them,” he says. “Right from the beginning we worked a dummy system, with only one in eight cameras live.”
Even today, the AA reckons there’s only about 500-600 cameras equipped actually to record speed. The dummy ones had a rudimentary version of the Doppler radar, whose sole job was to set off the flash. According to Reynolds, it meant £1,000 for a camera vs £10,000.
In 2007 the funding for speed cameras changed, with local authorities given a fixed road-safety grant with more freedom to allocate it. “They found they’d rather spend money on more useful things than prosecution,” says the AA’s Andrew Howard. “Suddenly speed awareness courses became popular and prosecutions dropped.” In 2009, the number of fixed penalty notices issued for speed-limit offences had fallen from 1.8 million to 1.1 million in just two years.
When that grant was reduced in 2010, many authorities slashed back funding to speed cameras or choked it off altogether, most famously in Oxfordshire. The county’s cameras are now back on (assuming they work) but it was clear the square-headed highwayman was not the force he once was.
Looking back over the 20 years since their introduction, it’s easy to see how speed cameras alienated drivers. It’s not the camera’s fault, says Reynolds: “I will argue the device is a major road safety feature. It’s not the camera that should be demonised, it’s the way people deal with it.”
HOW THE GATSO WAS ADAPTED FOR BRITAIN
Developed by Dutchman and former rally driver Maurice Gatsonides, the Gatso camera needed work before it satisfied UK authorities. It uses Doppler radar to measure the vehicle speed, only activating the flash when it’s sure the car is over the set limit. But the Home Office wanted a secondary check. “They recognised it was controversial, so they went for belt and braces,” says ex-policeman Roger Reynolds, who led the development. That became the secondary flash, allowing the police to measure the car’s distance on road markings half a second after the first one. During trials green cat’s eyes were used for measurement, until Reynolds persuaded the Home Office to use white dashes. These were initially painted along the side of the road to avoid distracting drivers. Reynolds says motorists often challenged the technology in court in the early days and he was frequently called as an expert witness. “I never lost a single one.”
Average speed cameras for cities
The success of average speed cameras within motorway roadworks and other, more permanent schemes has sparked an urban version, dubbed Safe Zone by its creator, German tech giant Siemens. The results released last year of an independent trial outside a school in Poole, Dorest, showed the number of vehicles driving at 40mph past the school dropped from 64 per hour before the cameras were fitted to as few as 16 afterwards. The cameras communicate with each other via 3G to track vehicle speeds.
Dubbed TreadCam, this device is embedded into the road to scan tread depths with cameras and lasers and flag up illegal tyres. The Association of Chief Police Officers has confirmed it is investigating whether to bring the £43,000 machines from Germany into the UK, but has said that initial applications could be to check truck tyres coming off ferries at major ports.
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