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The great speed camera rip-off

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Friday, 28 April 2006


Speed almost never kills, but speeding fines always hurt too much. That’s why the current speed camera policy is grossly unfair. As far as road safety is concerned there is nothing that you can accomplish with a $200 fine that you can’t achieve with a $50 fine. Speed cameras on every road but lower fines is the answer to Australia’s speed camera fiasco.

The impost by the governments around Australia on motorists has reached record levels. In Victorian alone, in the first 10 weeks of this year 223,000 drivers were pinged by speed cameras. This injects about $500,000 a day into the Victorian government coffers. Australia wide the figure is approximately $2 million dollars per day. While governments around Australia are becoming increasingly dependent on speed camera revenue to balance their books, motorists are becoming increasingly grumpy and fatigued at the number and level of fines that have been issued.

This widespread dissension is justified. The level at which the fines are pitched is overly harsh compared to the level of wrongdoing involved. For years we’ve been told to cop the fines on the chin on the basis that, “speed kills - don’t speed and you’ve got nothing to worry about”. This argument is wearing thin with most motorists. This is not surprising: most cons get exposed in the long run.

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The current level at which speeding fines are pitched is unjust because it violates the most important rule of sentencing: the proportionality principle. This is the principle that the “punishment must fit the crime”. This requires there to be a matching between the seriousness of the wrongdoing and severity of the punishment.

In Victoria, for example, a car travelling at 63km/h in a 60km zone (there is a 2km/h tolerance) will set you back $131. Travelling at 73km/h in the same spot will cost you $210.

For a moment's inattention we are slugged around 25 per cent to 40 per cent of the minimum wage (now approximately $475 a week). The “harm” caused by speeding does not equal between 10 to 18 hours of labour because nearly always there is no harm done by speeding.

“Speed kills” is sloganist nonsense. In statistical terms the amount of times that a speeding motorist is involved in an “accident” is almost negligible. This is especially so where the motorist is only slightly over the limit. For conclusive evidence of this ask how many of the 223,000 Victorian motorists who have been photographed exceeding the speed limit in the first 10 weeks of the year had a collision at or around the location of the speed camera. The answer is almost certainly zero.

Motor collisions are caused by a number of factors and occur because of complex reasons. In some cases speed is a contributing factor, but it is nonsense to boldly assert that speed alone kills - it almost never does.

Governments won’t be able to develop a fair and workable speed camera policy until they look beyond the simplistic and silly sloganism of “speed kills” and look more analytically and strategically at what they should be doing about the road toll and reducing the incidence of speeding.

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If governments took the time to inquire, they would see that world-wide empirical studies show that the greatest deterrent to wrongdoing is not the size of the penalty but the perceived risk of detection. Bigger penalties do not lead to more obedience. To the extent that people make a cost-benefit decision about committing crimes, they generally only weigh up the risk of being caught, not what will happen if they get caught.

The best way to reduce the incidence of crime and speeding, in particular, is to increase the perception in people’s minds that if they transgress they will be caught.

This means that we should have more speed cameras - one on every street would be the ideal - but the level of fines should be significantly lowered. In terms of road and safety management there is nothing that can be achieved by a $200 fine that can’t be accomplished by a $40 to $50 fine. This is the level at which most speeding fines should be pitched.

Every dollar you pay for a speeding fine beyond $50 has nothing to do with making our roads safer. It has everything to do with crude revenue raising. There is certainly a need for governments to raise revenue to pay for important social goods, such as education and health. But in doing so, they need to implement honest and transparent policies. This is lacking in the case of speed camera fines.

The current levels of fines cannot be justified on the basis that “if you don’t speed, there is nothing to worry about”. Humans are not infallible machines. Even the most diligent driver will have momentary lapses in concentration and nudge over the speed limit at times (the only way to avoid this is to drive so far below the speed limit so as to be a hazard to other motorists).

When we do lapse we have a right to expect a penalty commensurate with the level of our wrongdoing, rather than being hit with outrageously high fines. This puts the law into disrepute. While most state governments have been shown to be clueless when it comes to issues of punishment and sentencing, even they can do better than that. It is time for the speed camera rip-off to stop.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on April 17, 2006.



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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is the author of 20 books and over 100 refereed scholarly articles. He is not connected with any political party or other interest group. He is the author of Australian Human Rights Law (forthcoming). Mirko is the author of Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

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