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Swindon’s speed cameras – politics over policing

The Wiltshire and Swindon Road Safety Partnership’s withdrawal of fixed-location speed cameras in Swindon from 31 July – reported in that day’s Swindon Advertiser – provoked a number of reactions – some delighted, some appalled.

Swindon Advertiser: Swindon’s speed cameras are turned off

One driver who had reportedly been driving minicabs in Swindon for 50 years (really?) was delighted – he’d been caught out only the previous week because it had been raining hard, he was talking to his passenger and he “forgot it was a 50 mph area”. But he was “only doing 57 mph”, which of course makes it all right.

At least part of the reason the decision’s been welcomed – and the reason it was made in the first place – is that it’s perceived as a kind of stealth tax, with the proceeds ending up in Whitehall rather than in the local council’s coffers. Back in July 2008 when the proposal to remove the cameras was originally taken, the councillor responsible for transport issues in Swindon, Peter Greenhalgh, described fixed speed cameras as “a blatant tax on the motorist”. This in spite of the fact that the central government then releases money to the council for road safety measures.

Many of the doubts expressed over the decision have been based on fear that many drivers will take advantage of the absence of speed cameras to throw caution to the winds. The head of the Wiltshire and Swindon roads policing unit has said that there was a reduction of more than 30 per cent in the number of people killed or seriously injured in the year to April 2008, compared with pre-speed camera levels. Which makes a mockery of Greenhalgh’s assertion, quoted in The Sun in October 2008, that “in 2007/08 70 people had been killed on the streets of Swindon and this was proof that the cameras were not working to curb motorists’ excessive speed”. A political decision based on a dodgy use of statistics rather than a road safety one, then.

It’s a rather sad comment on British society that speed cameras, and indeed surveillance cameras generally, needed in the first place. The UK is frequently quoted as having the highest number of CCTV surveillance cameras per capita anywhere in the world. This is rather ironic for a people that prides itself on its respect for civil liberties and privacy. Have our consciences really all atrophied so far that we need the constant presence of cameras to remind us to behave considerately to our fellow citizens?

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