Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Speed cameras must not be considered a panacea for traffic safety

By Alan Buckingham - posted Monday, 27 October 2003

Excessive speed is involved in at least one-third of fatal accidents according to a NSW Road Traffic Authority report. Sickened by the needless death on our roads, governments across Australia are taking action to reduce the death toll by lowering speeds. In some States speed cameras have been handed a central role in ridding the roads of the speeding menace.

But these policies are misconceived. There is no simple relationship between speed and death, and speed cameras aren't saving lives.

Australia's roads are not the dangerous places they are often portrayed. Between 1980 and 2002 there has been a 48 per cent reduction in the number of road fatalities, with most of this drop occurring between 1980 and 1991. This is now one of the safest countries in the world to drive: nearly twice as safe as Belgium and an astonishing seven times safer than Turkey.


If speed did kill then the safest roads would be urban roads where speeds are lowest. In fact, the reverse is true. It is freeways, where speeds are much higher, which are the safest roads.

Speeding is rarely the cause of accidents; certainly nowhere near as high as the figure of one-third that is frequently quoted. To get to this figure reports often refer to any accident that has speed as a component as being "speed related". But showing that speed is related to an accident does not show that it was the primary cause of the accident. British data, collected by police at the scene of accidents, show that "speed" was a definite contributory factor in just seven per cent of accidents.

A bad driver travelling 20 km/h below the speed limit can be a far more dangerous driver than one travelling 10 km/h above the speed limit. US data show that it is those who travel moderately above the mean speed who are the safest drivers while the least safe drivers are the slowest and fastest. Although speed cameras will catch the very fastest, they also catch the safe, moderate speeder and they completely fail to catch the dangerous, slow driver.

Since 1992 Britain has experienced an explosion in the number of fixed cameras such that now there are an estimated 5000 in operation. What has been the effect on the number of fatal deaths on British roads during this period? Since their introduction, the average rate of decrease in fatalities is half that of the preceding ten years.

The picture is similar in Australia. Victoria has had mobile speed cameras since the end of 1989 and NSW introduced mobile speed cameras in 1991 and fixed speed cameras in 1999 yet the overall drop in fatal deaths since these dates is no different from that experienced in Australia taken as a whole. Moreover, in both of these States the downward trend in fatalities has slowed considerably in the last few years.

There are two reasons why speed cameras don't make our roads safer. The first is that speeding is rarely the cause of accidents.


The second is cameras encourage drivers to stick rigidly and unthinkingly to speed limits. In so doing we run the risk of creating a nation of speedometer watchers who drive according to the diktat of the camera rather than according to the prevailing road conditions.

Driving culture in both Australia and Britain has been nurtured over the years to encourage attentive driving at speeds appropriate for the conditions. It is this (together with better roads and improvements in car safety) that explains the impressive drop in road fatalities. It also explains why Belgian and Turkish roads are so much more dangerous to travel on; the same road culture isn't dominant in these countries. The danger is, we risk throwing away our driving culture in pursuit of the opposite culture which promotes compliance rather than judgement.

The growing obsession with speeding and speed cameras is a mistake. Speeding is rarely the primary cause of fatal road accidents and attempts to catch speeders through increasing use of speed cameras are failing to make our roads safer (though they are generating a lot of extra revenue for State politicians). Rather than the pointless pursuit of speeders, road safety policy should return to fostering a conscientious driving culture.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

This article was first published in The Herald-Sun on 17 October 2003. It is based on research published by The Centre for Independent Studies in Policy magazine (Spring 2003). Alan will present a lecture to the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney on Wednesday October 29.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Alan Buckingham is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Bath Spa University College, England.

Related Links
Bath Spa University College
Centre for Independent Studies
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy