Driving, Riding

Dolores Umbridge. Now in charge of speed limit policy.

Speeding fines handed out by courts are hitting a new high.  In 2013, nearly 115,000 drivers waited while a magistrate looked down, wagged a reproving finger and dished out an average £169 fine and three points.  In 2012, failing to match the number on the stick to the number on the dial accounted for 56% of the 730,000 fixed penalty notices drivers received – and cameras provided the evidence for 84% of them.

If you haven’t had a speeding fine yet, your odds of picking one up are shortening daily.

Why?

The press today says it’s all the fault of new, digital cameras.  Sure, they won’t make things any easier for drivers – but the real problem is Department for Transport-imposed, artificially lower speed limits.  And you probably didn’t even notice.

Unless you spend your time poring over the intricacies of Department for Transport Circulars, you won’t have spotted one snappily entitled Department for Transport Circular 01/2013 crawling into the light of day in January 2013.  It changed the way drivers and riders use the UK’s roads for ever.  And it’s opened the door to a massive increase in speeding prosecutions. In fact, it criminalised hundreds of thousands of previously safe, law-abiding drivers at a stroke.

Van crashes into speed camera

Speed cameras save lives. Apparently.

That dull, dusty document is so full of weaseling that it would make Dolores Umbridge blush.  In true, Umbridgeian fashion, it starts so reasonably that not even the most petrolheaded speed junkie could object:

“Speed limits should be evidence-led and self-explaining and seek to reinforce people’s assessment of what is a safe speed to travel. They should encourage self-compliance. Speed limits should be seen by drivers as the maximum rather than a target speed.”

Then, it works its way through suggesting that drivers should be “encouraged” to drive below the speed limit as a matter of course, before sneaking the bomb in at point 35:

35. Mean speed and 85th percentile speed (the speed at or below which 85% of vehicles are travelling) are the most commonly used measures of actual traffic speed. Traffic authorities should continue to routinely collect and assess both, but mean speeds should be used as the basis for determining local speed limits.

Doesn’t sound terribly significant, does it?  Mean, schmean.  So what?  It’s actually the most significant change in road safety policy since the introduction of speed limits themselves.  Apologies for the history lesson, but the context is important…

Speed limits used to be set by measuring the natural speed of traffic along a given road in free-flowing conditions. You then assumed that 15% of the drivers were going too fast and set the limit at the 85th percentile. Limits were designed to reflect the idea that most drivers were responsible – otherwise why let them have licences in the first place?

The majority drove around the limit speed because, in effect, the majority set it.  Circular 01/13 put an end to all that.  And, in fact, even The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) advised against it.

It made limits so artificially low that nearly every road where the new limits have been applied feels too slow – like the limit is a mistake.  Drivers lose attention, drift off into reverie and cease being engaged with driving.  Failing that, they look for the first available overtake, tailgate the limit-limpet in front of them and lose their sense in a red mist of frustration overtakes.

That means – for most drivers – they now need to spend an excessive amount of concentration simply on limit compliance.  “Well, if they don’t speed, they won’t get a ticket, will they?” tut the prigs.  But when compliance and safety move so far apart, the limits become risible.  Today, sticking to the limit doesn’t make you safe, it makes you an oddity.  When I comply, I’m tailgated, flashed, hooted, overtaken on bends and with oncoming traffic.

More damaging; the better driver you are, the more the new limits punish you.  If you’re used to observing well ahead, planning your drive or ride and anticipating the actions of other road users, you might as well not bother.  You’ll spend more time thinking about what you cook for supper than the road ahead.  They’re so artificially low that you could climb into the back seat, have a quick snooze, make a coffee and still be back in time to brake for any unexpected hazards.

As a consequence, drivers and riders are losing respect for limits.  As they rollercoaster on a single road from 20 to 30 to 40 to 30 to 20 to 40 to 50 to (briefly) 60 and back to 30, they’re driving by a blizzard of numbers, up and down like an MP’s expenses claim.  It’s like paint by numbers; a bad facsimile of the real thing.  But very, very much more dangerous.

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Driving

£300k for a 0.85mph speed reduction?

You might have spotted that Oxford now has a blanket 20mph limit.  You might also have spotted the hacked-off Transit van hugging your rear bumper, flashing his full beam and leaning on the horn as you attempt to comply.  That’s SO much fun when you’re on a motorcycle on the city’s wet, diesely roads.

But the limits aren’t just dangerous, pointless and ugly – they’re expensive.  £300k according to last week’s Oxford Mail – enough to keep eight libraries open.  And for what?  Well, according to the stats I saw from a Freedom of Information request, the new limits have achieved an average reduction of, er. 0.85mph.  The council spreadsheet had even rounded that up to 0.9mph.  Still, one must take 0.05mph where one can get it. Continue reading

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Driving

Flash, bang, wallop. Again.

So it would seem that Oxfordshire County Council are about to turn on the speed cameras again, just a few months after they were turned off.  I wonder why?

I suspect yesterday evening’s BBC news story explains a lot.  The bulletin featured a 9 year old girl from Nuneham Courtney explaining that she wanted drivers to be safe as they drove through her village.  For her, this meant them slowing down – and she thought a camera was the best way to make sure they did.  She was eloquent, clear and clearly cared about safety and her village.  Some shots of roadside “speed kills” posters drawn by local school children, then I was on.  Middle aged, grey-haired fat bloke with an argument that explained how driving is a complex thing and suggesting speed cameras were too blunt in the way they work. Continue reading

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Driving

Training is bad for you. Apparently.

This year sees crashes at their lowest level since records began. We’re killing fewer people than ever – although the rate of fall has slowed markedly since the mid 1990s. Cars have airbags, side-impact bars, seatbelt pre-tensioners, anti-submarine seats, ABS, TCS, TSB, SOS and probably even BBC too. If your car looks after you so well, why does anyone still need to bother getting trained? Continue reading

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Driving

In speed camera land, numbers mean what we like

It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people who don’t like speed cameras.  I’m one of them.  But my objections are based on what I’ve observed by training drivers and riders.  I think I know what makes people safe and what makes them dangerous.  By and large, compliance with a posted speed limit does not come into either category.  I’ve trained plenty of dangerous drivers who’d never exceed a limit and plenty of fine ones who would – happily.

So a great deal of speed camera policy stands or falls on the stats.  And there lies a rather large problem.  Here’s why… Continue reading

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Driving

What are speed limits for, Daddy?

What are speed limits for?

Depends who you ask.

Some people would stick up their middle finger and say “for ignoring”.  Others would treat them with the reverence of a holy relic and demand they’re never, ever broken.

A rather fundamentalist view of limits – and their enforcement – has driven road safety policy in the UK since 1992.  “Speed kills so kill your speed” has been the cornerstone of road safety.  And killing your speed has meant adhering, limpetlike and no matter what else, to the speed limit.  No ifs no buts.

It wasn’t always that way. Continue reading

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Driving

All’s fair in love, war and PR

Well, there’s a surprise. Since Oxfordshire County Council pulled the plug on speed cameras, speeding has increased. A bit. In a couple of places. Where the limit was too low anyway and the cameras sited on long, straight roads.

The BBC has, predictably, gone semi-hysterical, with the headline “The number of drivers speeding…has increased by up to 88%”.

Chaps, it’s just a WEEK since the cameras went off. Can you not spot a desperate attempt to use PR to keep Partnership jobs when you see it? And did you do no research at all before publishing? Continue reading

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Driving

It’s the end

Well, apparently, that’s it for speed cameras in Oxfordshire.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if road safety was as simple as some people believe?  Lots of nice ‘facts’.  A clear, easy solution to save lives.  Even better if we could enforce that solution automatically by machine.

Van crashes into speed camera

Speed cameras save lives. Apparently.

Continue reading

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