Sunday, August 08, 2004

Are we going camera-blind?

It has been flagged for some time that we're going to get a privatised camera speed-enforcement system here. Now we're told that the legislation to provide for it will be introduced in the autumn session of the Dail.

It is probably too late to change any of the Government's thinking on this now. But all of us motorists who will be affected by it, and who will pay for it, should be thinking about it - and provoking discussion with our local representatives.

Just so there's no ambiguity: I am not in favour of speeding, or any reckless driving. I don't condone any behaviour that puts lives needlessly at risk, on the roads or anywhere else.

But I have views on speed cameras that don't go along the same road as the various agencies here who are advocating their use. Some of these are based on their worth or not in promoting good driving, others on more gut feelings, albeit ones based on common sense.

Some interesting figures first, though. A recent study on the effectiveness of speed cameras in Britain, carried out by London City University at the behest of the British Government department responsible for dictating road traffic policy, concluded that they save about 100 lives a year.

That is very good. Besides the most important fact that all these people are still driving around and living with their families for hopefully a normal span of natural life, the actuarial value of around 70 million euros also saved is not inconsiderable.

So, if you play the averages sum, every speed camera in Britain saves society around 14,000 euros every year. And this does not include the revenue generated by the 5,200 speed cameras used in that other island.

But let's get back to the lives saved. On the experience from Britain, and using the suggested figure of around 200 cameras to be operated in this jurisdiction, we might save around four extra lives a year for the investment.

That's, say, 3.3 million euros in actuarial terms. And again ignoring the revenue.

There's a small flaw in that argument, of course, which we might as well get out of the way now. Since much of the actuarial cost of an accident is established in infrastructural services such as hospital emergency rooms, police and fire attendance (which now charge for their work) at RTAs, from which it is not easy to unlock a cash equivalent in savings, then little enough of that will be recouped.

The revenue stream from cameras, especially with digital technology that makes them both much easier to maintain and much less costly to use, is a definite 'plus' for Government, though. Think of it, not in the altruistic safety terms, but as another tax, this time on driving your car even marginally over what in most cases is an arbitrary limit that bears no relation to the real safe speed possibility in any location.

The Government, the gardai, and the National Safety Council will all emphatically deny that there is a focus on revenue collection in speed enforcement. But a conversation with any garda in the front line will eventually draw at least a tacit admission that there is an undeclared quota system out there.

Those same gardai generally won't have an interest in fining people, more being a presence that reminds people to slow down. But their bosses as one travels up the rankings to where they become more political are increasingly performance-measured on tangible results, and these only show on paper in numbers ... or prosecutions and/or fines.

And that's another reason why you invariably find the radar guns used on the 'easy pickings' rather than known accident black spot areas. You meet the quota much quicker and can go home.

But back to what triggered this piece. The private company that is eventually awarded the provision/management contract of our upcoming speed camera system will not be paid on 'catches', we're told.

Of course they won't, not officially anyway. But to maintain the justification for paying them their fee to do it, the relevant Government department will want to see 'tangibles'. In other words, income. A declining 'catch' rate will not do either the company or the civil servant responsible for it any good.

So - and the technology already available makes it all the easier to do - these machines will be calibrated ever more finely, so that even miniscule and inadvertant breaches that can accumulate over a two-mile travel to something a bit more significant will keep the 'catch' rate up.

If you don't believe this, remember the clamper companies. Sure, they've cleared the streets of those who parked on double yellows or on the footpatch. But that means that the income streams of the early days diminshed. So most clamps now are put on cars owned by people who are maybe only 15 minutes over their alloted time at a parking space they've paid for in the first instance.

Because a declining income stream does neither the ... etc (see above).

And you also get more aggressive 'attitude' from clamping staff who in some instances even defy doctors and garda instructions in an obvious emergency, as recently happened in Galway. Where last year, also, we had the clampers working the cars of the elderly who had to park close to the church for Sunday Mass.

Anyway, my bottom line on what has become a bit of a wandering muse is this: rather than spend millions on providing and maintaining camera systems that only antagonise the driving public - the nation's largest single provider of tax revenue - I'll say what I've always maintained.

Spend the same money on a dedicated Garda Traffic Corps that actually patrols our roads, making them more available to deal with emergencies and to handle at first hand situations of bad driving other than mere speeding. Being pulled over for making a careless or dangerous driving manoevre will save far more lives than cameras ever will.

Or maybe I have it all wrong?

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