Tory Boy Racers

The Conservative war on road safety has begun

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 27th July 2010

In every other sector, Conservatives insist that it is daft for human beings to do the work machines could do. In every other instance they demand that police officers be freed from mindless tasks to spend more time preventing serious crime. In all other cases they urge more rigorous enforcement of the law. On every other occasion they insist that local authorities should raise revenue and make their schemes pay for themselves. But it all goes into reverse when they are exposed to the beams of a fiendish instrument of mind control.

The moment they pass through its rays, Conservatives turn from penny-pinching authoritarians into spendthrift hoodie-huggers. They demand that a job now performed consistently and cheaply by machines should be handed back to human beings, who will do it patchily and at great expense. They urge that police officers be diverted from preventing serious crime to stand in for lumps of metal. They insist that those who break the law should not be punished or even caught. They clamour for councils to abandon a scheme that almost pays for itself, and replace it with one that requires constant subsidies.

What is this cunning device for reprogramming conservative brains? It is of course the speed camera. The government hates it just as much as the moronic petrolheads who dance with glee whenever one is torched.

It hasn’t yet announced a general policy of turning off speed cameras, but it knows that this is the likely consequence of its assault on road safety grants. After losing 40% of its government safety funding, this week Oxfordshire will turn off all its cameras(1). Buckinghamshire says it is likely to follow(2). All the other local authorities in England will have to start counting their options. The roads minister, Mike Penning, leaves us in no doubt about what he wants them to do. Local authorities, he says, “have relied too heavily on safety cameras for far too long.” By cutting the grant, he claims, the government is “delivering on its pledge to end the war on the motorist.”(3)

There is and has never been a war on the motorist. Motorists are handled more gently than anyone else: they are the only people who can expect to get away with breaking the law on almost all occasions. A war is an event in which people are injured and killed. Which circumstance most closely resembles one: an occasional £60 fine, or the daily carnage on the roads?

You can see the victims of the real war that’s being waged – the war against road safety – in every hospital and mortuary. Seven killed, 71 seriously injured, every day(4). About 120 children killed in Britain every year: 120 families plunged into lifelong grief(5).

Every two or three weeks I visit a spinal injuries unit in which a close friend is confined. He wasn’t hurt on the roads, but many of the other patients were. Every time I walk though that hospital I see the broken bodies, the shattered hopes, the endless complications, both physical and psychological, caused by the war being waged on the roads. You will see something similar in wards which specialise in the loss of limbs and eyes, the smashing of faces, the crushing of brains. This is the closest most of us will get to seeing the aftermath of war, a shattering of lives that bears no relationship to what Penning so crassly describes as the war on the motorist.

In other cases – climate change for example – the government has so far been able to resist the junk science peddled by the lunatic fringe of the Conservative party. But not here. The positive impact of speed cameras in reducing accidents is unequivocal. A study for Penning’s department shows that 19% fewer people were killed or seriously injured at accident black spots after speed cameras were introduced, above and beyond the general decline in accidents on the roads(6).

Yet the conspiracists in the Sun, the Express and the Daily Mail, on Top Gear and throughout cyberspace, insist that speed cameras exist only to tax and control us. They point to the example of Swindon, the first place in Britain in which the cameras were shut down, at the behest of a Conservative council. In the year before they were switched off, there was one death and eight minor accidents at the camera sites; in the year after, there were no deaths, two serious accidents and seven minor ones(7). “These figures”, the council’s leader, Rod Bluh, maintains, “completely vindicate our position”. They show that “fixed speed cameras are more about fund-raising than road safety.”(8) In reality they vindicate the proposition that he is innumerate, as they fail all tests of statistical significance. A study conducted by the Wiltshire and Swindon Safety Camera Partnership, across the whole county over three years, found that after speed cameras were installed there was a reduction at those sites in deaths and serious injuries of 69%(9). Mr Bluh’s hostility to the cameras might have more to do with the fact that he was banned for speeding(10).

As for the fund-raising issue, the Treasury takes some £85-90m a year from speed camera revenues(11) and shells out £110m to local authorities to run them(12): the cameras are almost self-financing, but not quite. So when Mike Penning maintains that “the public are concerned about whether they are there for safety or to raise money for the Treasury”(13) he’s engaging in a subtle deception: the public might be concerned, but he knows it’s not true.

Turning off the speed cameras, on the other hand, is a staggeringly expensive policy, if similar levels of safety are to be maintained. Oxfordshire is having to switch off its cameras for want of £600,000: a pittance by comparison to the £13.6m that Thames Valley police already spend on traffic enforcement(14). Penning’s own department reports a cost-benefit ratio for speed cameras of 2.7:1(15). The House of Commons Transport Committee examined the alternatives and found that “a more cost effective measure for reducing speeds and casualties has yet to be introduced.”(16) This Tory cut has nothing to do with saving money.

And even if speed cameras did make more money than they used, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Why shouldn’t there be a tax on breaking the law?

Penning might have fallen for another tabloid myth: that speed cameras are unpopular. The most recent poll whose results I can find show that 82% of British people surveyed approve of them, and that the percentage has been rising(17). The horror and fury being expressed by parents in Oxfordshire will be voiced wherever they are switched off.

The real reason why conservatives hate the enforcement of speed limits is that this is one of the few laws which is as likely to catch the rich as the poor: newspaper editors and council leaders are as vulnerable as anyone else. The conservative reaction to speed cameras suggests that they love laws, except those which apply to them.


1. Jamie McGinnes, 25th July 2010. Government axes speed cameras. Sunday Times.



4. Department for Transport, September 2009. Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2008 – Annual Report.

5. Department for Transport, 2010. Fatalities in reported road accidents: 2008. Road Accident Statistics Factsheet No. 2.

6. The headline figure is 42%, but once regression to the mean is taken into account it falls to 19%. See page 155. UCL and PA Consulting Group, December 2005. The national safety camera programme: Four-year evaluation report.






12. Department for Transport, no date given. Road safety grant – the allocation process.


14. Chris Walker, 24th July 2010. “We will still police roads”. Oxford Mail.

15. Department for Transport, no date given. The national safety camera programme: Four-year evaluation report.

16. House of Commons Transport Committee, 31st October 2006. Roads Policing and Technology: Getting the right balance. Page 40.

17. 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, Ev 73.