PICTURE: SPECS speed cameras M1 south J11 - J10 roadworks" by DeFacto
In early November, it was widely reported that Bedfordshire Police were proposing a scheme that would mean a fine for any motorist caught travelling at more than 70 miles per hour on the motorway. The proposal suggested that drivers be fined regardless of whether they were 10 miles or one mile per hour over the speed limit. The plan recommended a trial involving a busy stretch of the M1, and could be rolled out by next April.
What makes these plans even more controversial is the fact that the primary reason for such a draconian clampdown is money, a means of replacing cuts to police funding with increased revenue from speeding fines. Now, instead of disgruntled drivers having to come up with arguments about how the Government treat speed cameras like cash cows, the police are doing the arguing for them.
Why are the police being so brazen about this?
The speed limit on the motorway is 70 miles per hour, and those caught travelling at speeds above this – regardless of by how much – are breaking the law. Nonetheless, a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on even the most minor infringement on this limit is very bold. If the argument from police was simply that driving over the speed limit is dangerous, and therefore measures to punish even the slightest offenders is justified, the scheme would be less newsworthy. It is the nature of the reasons given by police that makes this such an unusual story.
The grounds for Bedfordshire Police being so shameless in their attempts to raise extra cash is to do with cuts to funding from other sources – primarily, the Government. Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner Olly Martins explained the logic that the force has taken in this instance. “If it is a question of reducing the force by 25 officers or introducing this scheme, then I am going to go for this every time,” he stated. The implication is that without such measures, police officer numbers would be down in Bedfordshire and, by extension, across the country. Martins explained further: “We have lobbied the Home Office for fair funding but they have not listened, so I am forced to come up with new ways of raising revenue. Strict enforcement of the speed limit could raise as much as £1 million, so it is something I have to take seriously.”
But is this scheme fair on drivers?
Taking Martins’ explanation of the reasoning behind the scheme further, this plan could be seen as taking the onus of police funding away from the Government. Put simply, it could be perceived as the police force punishing the public for the financial choices of the government. If the scheme raises the kind of amount that Martins quotes, there would even be less reason for the Government to increase spending again. If the Government won’t provide enough funds believed necessary for a police service, then that commissioner must find another way of funding such a service. It is his duty. If this other means of funding works, the Government will have made its saving without impacting on police numbers. So has the Government put the public and the police force in a double-bind in this instance?
To be clear, motorists caught speeding under this new scheme would be forced to either pay £100 and have three points added to their licence, or pay £90 and attend a speed awareness course. Of course, the latter option is preferable to most offenders, as it not only means paying less in direct fines, but also means insurance premiums are protected due to the lack of penalty points accrued. If a motorist caught speeding chooses to pay the £100 fine and take the points, the fine they pay will go straight to the Treasury. However, if the motorist’s choice is to attend a speed awareness course and keep their licence clean, the £90 they pay will go to the police force providing the course. This is an unusual funding method, but one that is lawful. Commissioner Martins rightfully states when questioned about this, “If motorists do not like it, then they can stick to the speed limit.”
What about road safety?
The fact that this scheme has not been framed as an issue of road safety in any way whatsoever is indicative of the dispute at hand. This looks like a public airing of a disagreement between the police and the governing body to whom the police answers and by whom the police is funded – namely, the Home Office. The distinct lack of acknowledgement of what such measures might mean for road safety clearly shows this.
But the question of road safety is relevant to this debate. What consequences these measures have on road safety are very important. After all, there have been calls to raise or even remove the speed limit on motorways. Stopping distances are perhaps most important, and knowing the limits of your vehicle at any given speed is arguably the most valuable skill a driver can possess. It would be refreshing for there to be a motorway speed limits. In the last few years, reports from Germany have suggested that whether a stretch of Autobahn had a speed limit or not had no effect on the probability of whether or not a crash would cause a fatality. More recently, however, there have been calls for permanent speed limits on all German roads, suggesting that there is nothing happening on that country‘s roads that goes against what has been suggested by studies the world over: “The higher the speed, the greater the probability of a crash and the severity of the crashes.”
Speed limits vs safe driving
The level at which the speed limit is set is the subject of intense debate. With cars every year becoming safer and more adept at handling higher speeds without issue, there is a growing debate over whether the police may be punishing perfectly safe drivers for breaking the speed limit. It is possible to drive at 80, 90 or even 100 miles per hour safely, so the argument goes. The most important thing is to recognise when it is safe to travel at those speeds.
If the speed limit of a given road is arbitrary, a scheme like the one suggested by Commissioner Martins is even more likely to punish safe drivers. However, this argument can only go so far. Drivers are taught about stopping distances, and reminders are in place on motorways about ‘keeping your distance’, often with visual reminders in the form of painted chevrons spaces evenly apart on the road surface. However, there must be a level at which all drivers treat as a limit. Right now, on the motorway network, that is 70 miles per hour.
If nothing else, this scheme will hopefully ignite debate over more than just police funding. The issue of what makes a safe driver at speed is something that is all too often negated to the sidelines.
It seems like the only people debating the idea of a safe driver driving above the speed limit are those who do it routinely and unsafely. The notion of fining a driver going 71 miles per hour on the motorway should bring this debate back into focus for driving instructors and policy-makers, and that can only be a good thing.
Eric Rogers writes on car technology and road legislation.
He runs Dash Witness, a dashboard camera company