Fast and Loose

The anti-speed camera campaign is based on junk science.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th November 2007

Loth as I am to threaten my reputation as a bilious old git, I feel compelled to shock you. I am going to praise the government. New Labour has done something brave.

Last week the transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick said he intends to double the penalty for drivers who break the speed limit by a wide margin(1). This means that people could lose their licences after committing just two offences. The papers are furious. The petrolheads have called for a petition which “will get as big a response as the road pricing one.”(2)

Yes it’s brave, but not quite as brave as you might think. Despite endless attempts by the media to trivialise it, an RAC survey reveals that 62% of drivers still regard speeding as a serious offence(3). Even more surprisingly, 82% of British people surveyed approve of speed cameras, and the percentage has risen slightly since the mid-1990s(4). There is a genuine silent majority here, which is rarely represented in the media.

Nowhere is more nonsense spoken about this issue than on the BBC. Its Top Gear series has become a sort of looking-glass Crimewatch, in which the presenters enlist the public to help criminals foil the police. There are tips on how to avoid prosecution and endless suggestions that speed cameras are useless or counter-productive. The tone was set in 2002, when the team demonstrated that you could beat the cameras by driving past them at 170mph(5). Since Richard Hammond’s crash last year, it has had to temper the message a little – but only a little. How, while BBC editors are sacked for mis-naming the Blue Peter cat, does Top Gear remain on air?

In the Sun, Top Gear’s lead presenter Jeremy Clarkson abandons the wink and the nudge for blatant incitement. “As I drove down the M20 into Kent last Monday, I noticed that most of the speed cameras had been burned out by vandals. This is disgusting. It is ridiculous, criminal and stupid that the person who savaged these life-saving devices should target the M20 … and then stop. Why did you not keep right on going? I can think of six cameras on my way home that would be immeasurably improved with a spot of petrol and a match.”(6)

The tabloids throw up their hands in horror at almost every other species of crime. They praise the police and demand that they are given greater powers and that law-breakers serve longer sentences. On this issue they take the opposite position. Richard Brunstrom, the North Wales police chief who is waging war on speeders, is denounced by the Daily Mail as “the Mad Mullah of the Traffic Taliban”(7). The Sun calls him “barmy”(8) and a “politically correct prat”(9).

In Saturday’s Telegraph, Christopher Booker and Richard North published a long article appropriately titled “Speed cameras: the twisted truth”. A sharp decline in the death rate on the roads suddenly slowed down in the mid-1990s. They attribute this to the government’s new focus on enforcing the speed limits, especially by erecting speed cameras. What they fail to mention is that deaths started falling sharply again in 2003(10), after the number of speed cameras had doubled in three years(11).

They use similarly selective data to argue that there is no evidence that cameras have reduced deaths even at the spots where they are deployed. They hang their case on an oversight in a government report published in 2003. The report claimed that the accident rate had fallen by 35% where cameras had been installed. Booker and North rightly observe that it had failed to account for a statistical effect called “regression to the mean”. There might have been an abnormal blip in the accident figures, which would have returned to background levels of their own accord. The truth, they maintain, is that “speed cameras actually increased” the rate of accidents.

But what Booker and North fail to tell their readers was that in 2005 the government conducted a new analysis, which took account of regression to the mean(12). The new figures showed an average reduction of 19% for collisions which caused deaths or injuries after speed cameras had been installed(13). Why do Booker and North not tell their readers that the statistics had been corrected and still showed a major decline in the number of accidents?

Their article is a long catalogue of intellectual dishonesty. In support of their claims that speed cameras are worse than useless, they also use a report by the House of Commons Transport Committee(14). It said, they maintain, that “an obsession with cameras was responsible for a “deplorable” drop in the number of officers patrolling Britain’s roads”. It says nothing of the kind, and the word “deplorable” does not feature anywhere. But here’s what it does contain: “Well-placed cameras bring tremendous safety benefits at excellent cost-benefit ratios. A more cost effective measure for reducing speeds and casualties has yet to be introduced.”(15) Booker and North also lay into one of my columns. That’s fair enough: it’s a national sport. But to make their narrative more convincing, they alter the date of the column by a year(16). Their claims about speed cameras, like much of the material in their new book, are pure junk science, cherry-picking the helpful results and ignoring the inconvenient ones.

All these people turn, as a final resort, to a man by the name of Paul Smith, who runs a campaign called Safe Speed. He’s quoted everywhere whenever there is a speeding story in the news. He claims to have found, through statistical analysis, that “speed cameras make our roads more dangerous.”(17)

In 2005, he challenged me to a radio debate. I accepted, and floored him with a simple question. Has he published his analysis in a peer-reviewed journal?(18) A peer-reviewed journal subjects new scientific claims to expert scrutiny. Without peer-review, those of us who aren’t experts can’t tell whether they are a work of genius or total hogwash. No, he hadn’t. In fact he had been asked by the leading journal in the field (Accident Analysis and Prevention) to submit his work for review, but he hadn’t taken up the offer as he didn’t “have time”. (He went on to boast that he had spent 10,000 hours compiling his website.) But he said he would seek to publish a peer-reviewed paper within six months.

I rang him on Friday to ask how he was getting on. “I never did see peer review as a particular need,” he answered. “I mean for heaven’s sake, there’s so much peer-reviewed crap out there that it’s just not a modus operandi for us.”(19) So just what is the status of his evidence? Beside the statements on his website, Smith lists “source, justification and links”. His central claim is as follows: “We simply don’t believe that a significant proportion of accidents are caused by exceeding the speed limit.”(20) If he cannot demonstrate that this is true, his entire case collapses. Its source, justification and links? He cites this and only this. “Pure opinion, based on considerable driving experience.”

www.monbiot.com

References:

1. Ben Webster, 9th November 2007. Penalty points double for speeding drivers. The Times.

2. http://www.pistonheads.com/gassing/topic.asp?f=23&t=460906

3. Ben Webster, ibid.

4. Claire Corbett, School of Social Science and Law, Brunel University, 2006. Memorandum submitted to the House of Commons Transport Committee, 31st October 2006. Roads Policing and Technology: Getting the right balance, p.Ev73. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmtran/975/975.pdf

5. Top Gear, 2002. Series 1. You can watch the clip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph-qv4gYAE8

6. Jeremy Clarkson, 21st July 2007. Speed cameras have been burned out by vandals. The Sun.

7. Charlotte Gill and Ray Massey, 27th April 2007. Brunstrom horror. Daily Mail.

8. No author given, 3rd November 2006. Anger at verse for top cop. The Sun.

9. Jon Gaunt, 16th October 2007. Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom. The Sun.

10. Department For Transport, Scottish Executive, National Assembly For Wales, September 2007. Road Casualties Great Britain 2006, Chart 1b – Indices of population, vehicle stock, motor traffic and casualties: 1996 – 2006. NB – THIS IS THE CHART LABELLED 1b ON PAGE 84, NOT THE ONE ON PAGE 8. http://www.dft.gov.uk/162259/162469/221412/221549/227755/rcgb2006v1.pdf

11. Department for Transport, viewed 11th November 2007. Safety cameras – Frequently asked questions, p7. http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/roadsafety/speedmanagement/safetycamerasfrequentlyasked4603

12. UCL and PA Consulting Group, December 2005. The national safety camera programme: Four-year evaluation report.

http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/roadsafety/speedmanagement/nscp/nscp/coll_thenationalsafetycameraprog/thenationalsafetycameraprogr4598

13. The figures are summarised by the House of Commons Transport Committee, 31st October 2006. Roads Policing and Technology: Getting the right balance, p38.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmtran/975/975.pdf

14. House of Commons Transport Committee, 31st October 2006. Roads Policing and Technology: Getting the right balance.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmtran/975/975.pdf

15. ibid, p40.

16. This is the column they are referring to: George Monbiot, 20th December 2005. The anti-social bastards in our midst. The Guardian. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2005/12/20/the-anti-social-bastards-in-our-midst/

17. Safe Speed, viewed 11th November 2007. About Safe Speed. http://www.safespeed.org.uk/pr114.html

18. The Right Hook, on Ireland’s Newstalk 106, 6pm, Tuesday 20th December 2005.

19. Paul Smith, 9th November, pers comm.

20. Safe Speed, viewed 12th November 2007. Claims Section, 2.08.

http://www.safespeed.org.uk/claims.html

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