Photo Enforcement: Safety Champion or Revenue Generator?

The use of photo enforcement technology to monitor and regulate motorists is a hotly debated topic. On one side of the fence the official liners wax lyrical about the benefits for safety; on the other side, a growing number of dissidents are increasingly questioning Government motives. Rowan Watt-Pringle investigates.


Various photo enforcement technologies have been employed by traffic police in many countries for a number of years. These include fixed and mobile speed cameras; cameras placed at red light intersections to capture violations; and average-speed cameras.

Ostensibly and officially, this has been an attempt to reduce road accidents and fatalities, but anti-camera lobbyists claim that this is simply a way for those in authority to generate revenue, with most experts advocating a more wide-ranging focus on the problem in the attempt to make roads safer.

The official line

The official line is that not only are speed cameras effective at reducing driving speeds, but that they also greatly reduce injuries and fatal accidents.

It is also claimed that red light cameras are proven to reduce accidents and violations at intersections making use of the technology, and that these technologies are more effective than regular policing due to the fact that cameras are able to operate around the clock.

"There is a significant deterrent effect to cameras, both specific at the location, and also generally."

An exhaustive number of studies and reports have been compiled over the years to support the use of photo enforcement technology, with statistics seeming to show that it has been highly effective at reducing road accidents and fatalities.

The Scottish government, for example, released a report in 2010 analysing a 10-year period (from the start of 2000 to the end of 2009) following the introduction of speed cameras. The report claims that over this time, deaths and serious injuries at camera locations fell by 56%.

Another study in Philadelphia found that in the year following the instalment of red light cameras, incidents at the intersections with cameras fell by between 87%-100%.

The importance placed upon photo enforcement was never more apparent until the outcry surrounding the UK's recent decision to cut £38m in speed camera funding. Mick Giannasi, chief constable of Gwent and Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) road safety spokesman, has been outspoken in the British press about the dangers presented by the Government's recent decision, claiming: "There is a significant deterrent effect to cameras, both specific at the location, and also generally because people are concerned about being caught speeding," as well as asserting that "speed cameras are the cornerstone of reducing speeding and deaths on the road".

"There are numerous neutral studies that document the fact that ticket cameras increase, rather than reduce, accidents."

In an interview with the BBC in 2010, Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive of Brake, a British road safety charity, pointed to a University College of London report from 2004. The study, which encompassed 4,000 speed cameras over three years, found a 42% reduction in deaths and serious injuries at their locations. "Any reduction in the number of cameras is a real backward step in road safety terms," said Townsend.

In Australia, Victoria Police superintendent Dean McWhirter agrees, saying: "International research of the effectiveness of safety cameras overwhelmingly supports their use in reducing road trauma."

According to McWhirter, there are in excess of 70 mobile camera vehicles in the state of Victoria and approximately 200 fixed speed / red light cameras. "Safety cameras, fixed and mobile, are a key measure in reducing road trauma and risk to the community. They complement other road safety enforcement approaches that reduce speed, the risk of accidents and the severity of road trauma," he states.

Anti-camera groups, however, argue that these statistics are more to do with the improvement of vehicle safety features such as crumple zones and airbags.

The case against photo enforcement technology

Despite these official claims supporting the use of speed cameras, there is an ever-increasing wave of sentiment against the use of - or reliance on - photo enforcement technology.

Many road safety analysts and experts assert that official statistics have been shaped to suit the argument supporting the technology and do not represent the real picture. They also claim that rather than being a strategy for increasing road safety, cameras are simply a means of making money.

Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association (NMA) in the US, says: "There are numerous neutral studies that document the fact that ticket cameras increase, rather than reduce, accidents. Further, in those situations where ticket cameras have become unprofitable, they have invariably been removed."

Biller also highlights the fact that several US states prohibit the use of ticket cameras, adding, "Because some local government officials and ticket camera companies fabricate and distort their motives there remains a large percentage of the population that thinks cameras are being installed for traffic safety purposes. Over time they learn that these installations are for making money."

This is also the view in South Africa, where road safety is a major concern. "Speed cameras are a ploy to generate revenue - not only for the municipalities and traffic authorities, but for the big businesses behind them," asserts Howard Dembovsky, national chairman of Justice Project South Africa (JPSA).

"Using cameras for speed enforcement is a holistic approach with many factors in play to increase the probability of people having to pay fines," Dembovsky continues. "As much as many authorities will vehemently deny this, the statistics speak for themselves. In July 2009 it was revealed that 98.94% of all prosecutions instituted by the Johannesburg Metro Police Department were for camera-based speeding offences."

McWhirter disagrees with this assertion - at least from the point of view of police on the ground - saying: "The use of safety cameras is a pro-active road safety strategy to reduce the impact of road trauma through the issue of infringement notices, which ultimately has a positive impact on driver behaviour. The issue of revenue is not a focus for Victoria Police; revenue is the domain of government."

According to Dembovsky: "Cameras have a place in law enforcement, but not nearly to the extent that traffic authorities and municipalities have been lured into using them." He goes on to point out that most speed and red-light cameras are not purchased by the traffic authorities, but are provided by the very companies in charge of processing facilities, with the processing of fines raising several issues, ranging from incorrect reading of number plates to discrepancies between the vehicle in the photograph and the vehicle registered to the recipient of the fine.

Rob Handfield-Jones, MD of advanced driving school Driving.co.za, says that current estimates indicate that as many as 6m speeding fines are issued in South Africa every year.

"Despite a seven-fold increase in speed prosecution since 1998, the fatality rate has doubled," reveals Handfield-Jones. "The unavoidable conclusion is that speed prosecution diverts policing resources from the violations that actually cause fatal crashes."

British group Safe Speed "does not campaign against speed limits or appropriate enforcement of motoring laws, but argues vigorously that automated speed enforcement is neither safe nor appropriate".

Safe Speed provides a wealth of statistical information illustrating that cameras not only fail to prevent accidents, but can actually cause them by distracting the driver. Likewise, Brian Gregory, chairman of the Association of British Drivers (ABD), highlights research published in November by Canadian road safety expert Al Gullon, which found conclusively that the primary cause of road traffic accidents is driver distraction. Speed cameras, it was found, merely increase driver distraction, consequently increasing the risk of an accident.

"Cameras have a place in law enforcement, but not nearly to the extent that traffic authorities have been lured into using them."

Statistical propaganda

Biller believes that official statistics 'proving' that photo enforcement technology greatly reduces violations and fatalities are, quite simply, propaganda, stating: "There is no consistent correlation or cause and effect relationship between enforcement, issuing tickets and traffic safety."

Malcom Heymer, ABD traffic management advisor, expands on this: "The obvious adverse effects of cameras, like sudden braking, are compounded by the far more serious problem caused by the excessive focus on speed limit enforcement. This sends the subliminal message that rigidly observing speed limits is the key to being a safe driver. This is not the case, as drivers must take responsibility for adjusting their speed to suit the conditions."

Another factor to consider is that even if fatalities and serious injuries are reduced at camera locations, this does not take into account the fact that drivers might become briefly more vigilant around cameras, effectively becoming less vigilant once they pass a camera. Consequently, incidents could in fact rise elsewhere, effectively negating the reduction of accidents at camera sites.

The emergence of a number of current and former police officers in England, as advocates for the anti-camera lobby, could be telling.

In 2005, Alan Gordon, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, highlighted speed enforcement strategy shortcomings: "The irresponsible siting of speed cameras for income generation has been a highly effective means of eroding public support for the police. Their benefits are strictly limited to speeding offences and do nothing to tackle the array of other dangerous driving offences."

In 2004 Steve Walsh, a former constable and member of the ACPO speed camera team, gave a telling indictment of speed camera deployment: "Our aim was to ensure that speed limits were observed, but if you succeed in getting people to observe the speed limit then you produce no income. Forces were only allowed to join the 'cash for cameras' scheme if they signed up to increasing massively the numbers of tickets issued. It was not about road safety."

Education, engineering and enforcement

Experts highlight the importance of returning to the 'Three Es' of policing, namely: education, engineering and enforcement.

Biller advocates the physical improvement of roadways as being the single most effective traffic safety tool. "Replace a narrow, two-lane highway with sharp curves and poor shoulders with a four-lane highway with gradual curves and good shoulders, and accidents and fatalities will plummet, even though speeds may increase dramatically," he explains.

He also cites the importance of any regulation that eases or enables smoother traffic flow - such as realistic speed limits and the elimination of unnecessary stop signs and traffic lights.

According to Heymer: "The use of vehicle-activated signs is a much cheaper and more effective solution than speed cameras at genuine high-risk sites. It is notable how quickly many local authorities have decided to reduce or abandon their use of speed cameras in the face of budget restraints, suggesting they were not convinced of their effectiveness in the first place."

"The use of vehicle-activated signs is a much cheaper and more effective solution than speed cameras at genuine high-risk sites."

"Enforcement should be the last resort, rather than the main focus, as is currently the case," Gregory adds.

Dembrovsky suggests a novel approach: "If our highest national speed limit is 120km/h (75mph), why don't we enact a law and specifications that keep vehicles within this limit? The reason is simple: it would eliminate funds generated by speeding fines."

He cites education as being the most important factor for promoting road safety and is backed up by another British former chief constable, Paul Garvin, who claimed in 2003: "We ought to be altering driver behaviour, rather than adopting a blanket speed camera approach that doesn't effectively tackle the problem."

It remains to be seen whether authorities will continue to focus on traffic photo enforcement technology; clearly, though, its efficacy as a road safety strategy is being increasingly thrown into doubt. Despite this, however, many policemen are still committed to the strategy, with McWhirter concluding: "Whilst there is public debate on the issue of speed cameras, Victoria Police remain committed to our approach to safety cameras."