To drive in Britain is to measure out your trip in speed cameras. As inevitable as road signs and as implacable as the meanest state trooper, they lurk everywhere, the government's main weapon against impatient drivers.
It is a shame that so many people hate them.
Among the ways that motorists have made this clear: spraying the cameras with paint; knocking them over; covering them in festive wrapping paper and garbage bags; digging them up; shooting, hammering and firebombing them; festooning them with burning tires; and filling their casings with self-expanding insulation foam that, when activated, blows them apart from the inside out.
Visual examples can be seen on the Web site of a vigilante group called Motorists Against Detection, which displays color photographs of smashed, defaced and burned-out cameras — pornography for the anti-camera movement.
In a nation that is estimated to have some 4 million surveillance cameras — more per capita than any other in the world, civil liberties groups say — there are currently as many as 6,000 spots for speed cameras, annoying drivers in the country and in the city, on highways, urban arteries, service roads, suburban streets and rural lanes.
“Speed cameras can't detect tail-gating, bad driving, drink driving or drug driving,” said a spokesman for the group, explaining his objections. An occasional contributor to British radio debates about traffic regulations, he uses the name Captain Gatso — after the most common form of speed camera — because, he says, he wants to avoid arrest.
The government does not keep figures on camera vandalism, so it is impossible to confirm Captain Gatso's claim that the group, known more commonly as MAD, has attacked more than 1,000 cameras, or that its members are “grown-up people, with normal jobs, who are cheesed off,” rather than hooligans engaging in “willy-nilly childish vandalism.”
But if there is a battle between motorists and speed cameras, the cameras are surely winning.
The government says the cameras have been a resounding success, reducing speed by an average of 3.5kph at speed-camera sites, reducing the numbers of people speeding at the sites by 31 percent and reducing by 42 percent the number of people killed or seriously injured at the sites. In public opinion surveys, they point out, a majority of Britons say they support having cameras on the roads. But theory is one thing; practice is another. People like to drive fast, and bridle at being told what to do. About 2 million are caught by the speed cameras a year, generating more than US$200 million in fines.
“It's incredibly difficult to get people to come to terms with slowing down here,” said Francis Ashton, the road safety manager for the city of Nottingham. “In the States, you have much slower speed limits and there's more of a culture of sticking to the speed limit.”
The cameras detect cars that are exceeding the speed limit, often with radar technology, and take flash photographs of the license plates; a ticket is then issued. A speeding offense adds three points to a driver's license. Because drivers who amass 12 points in three years are punished with six-month driving bans, people go to enormous lengths to avoid detection.
In a recent case, 28-year-old Craig Moore, an engineer from South Yorkshire, ran into trouble when, in the words of a spokesman for the Greater Manchester Police, “instead of just accepting that he had been caught traveling above the speed limit, Moore decided to blow the camera apart.”