I was pleasantly surprised when, last year, Swindon became the first town in England to turn off its speed cameras. I’ve never been convinced by the arguments offered in their favour and genuinely believe they – like politicised speed limits – are a hazardous distraction that serve only as a modern form of highway robbery. However, they chime perfectly with the most unpleasant and pervasive facet of the British mentality; the need to control, to over-regulate and micro-manage every aspect of somebody else’s life.
But the real danger is not those drivers who absent-mindedly pass the camera at a mile or two per hour above the limit or even speed itself (OK, I’m prepared to make an exception for Chris Huhne). The real danger is that small group of drivers who fail to drive in a manner appropriate to the road conditions. It’s not a fixed group; I’ve been one of those drivers on at least three occasions, the first two because I was inexperienced and wilfully oblivious to the dangers and the last time because I took a chance while simultaneously forgetting that my car had a rev limiter. My sincere apologies to the oncoming driver..
None of these incidents involved breaking a speed limit – they all involved speed inappropriate to the conditions – which is why I was so impressed that Swindon had decided to switch off their cameras and invest their taxpayers’ money into something – it was implied – more appropriate to road safety than artfully deployed, revenue-raising speed traps. Being the first reverse in Britain’s ongoing mission to poke surveillance into every last detail of our lives, I was almost tempted to visit Swindon – just to demonstrate my solidarity – but then I discovered that I had to wash what’s left of my hair on that day.
And the day after..
Which was a pity because I hear that not only does the town possess England’s most complex roundabout but it also has the rare distinction of being twinned with Disney World in Florida. The Mickey Mouse link is clearly taken very seriously – the local council’s ‘partner’, Digital City UK, has not long defaulted on a taxpayer loan of £450,000 while failing to supply the borough-wide wi-fi internet access that it promised to install. Funnily enough, though, legend has it that the town’s twinning was based on a misunderstanding by Disney who assumed the roundabout to be some sort of theme park ride…
And now Swindon has announced its big new idea – traffic lights! Not just any old traffic lights but interactive traffic lights that turn to red when they sense a speeding driver: hopefully, it’s not dependent on Digital City UK’s putative wi-fi system for its operation.
By now, you might be sensing a few potential problems with such a scheme. For example, what happens if two drivers speed towards the same junction from different directions? Does the whole junction come to a stop? Perhaps a speeding bicycle could trigger the system? Many cyclists don’t seem to observe red lights. And where will the sensors be placed? According to the article, “To ensure that speeding vehicles have enough time to safely stop when the signals change to red, the Data Logger is located an unknown safe distance well in advance of the junction.” But if somebody is travelling really quickly, are they are likely to be across the junction before the lights react? Alternatively, if the sensor is a long way back, how will the driver know that the red light is due to his speed? How will anybody know if the light is red because that’s where it is in the cycle or whether it’s because somebody is speeding?
In fact, the last question is crucial to the success of the scheme because as you will have realised by now, it’s not just the speeding driver who is going to be penalised by being forced to stop – it’s all the other drivers in his queue. The whole madcap scheme is actually based on irritating other drivers so much that they will apply ‘social pressure’ to the miscreant. Don’t just take my word for it:
‘There is an element of shame but we expect people will learn very quickly not to speed. A little bit of social pressure from other drivers is not necessarily a bad thing.
‘A couple of glares through windows once they catch up with a motorist at the red light isn’t a bad thing.
‘Habitual speeders will see they will get to their destination quicker if they stick to the speed limit.’
Those are the words of Peter Greenhalgh, cabinet member for sustainability, strategic planning, property and transport at Swindon Borough Council. Somehow, you just knew that an idea like this had to emanate from somebody with the word ‘sustainability’ in their job title, didn’t you?
Nevertheless, he seems to be the very same Peter Greenhalgh who saw off Swindon’s speed cameras so I am inclined to feel a tad ambivalent towards him; perhaps there is a little more to his cunning plan than first appears? And in all honesty, I really hope the scheme works because for all its potential problems it is, at least, a genuine attempt to encourage personal responsibility through democratic accountability rather than the usual political trick of hitting drivers with a big stick until they’ve parted with all their loose change.
However, when I finally run out of excuses not to visit Swindon and I pull up behind a driver at a red light, I will decline Peter Greenhalgh’s entreaty to offer that other driver some social pressure. Not because I don’t suffer a splenetic, knee-jerk reaction to speed per se but because there is a very thin line between social pressure from other drivers and road rage – as the unfortunate Stephen Cameron found to his cost when he attempted to apply social pressure to Kenneth Noye. Surely, this is not what Swindon had in mind?
An apology: I promise, this is the very last time.. but one more question – if Chris Huhne finds himself in Swindon, will the lights ever be green long enough for the rest of us to escape?