Exceeding posted speed limits is ubiquitous on U.S. roads, in large part because motorists correctly perceive there's little chance of a penalty. Getting a ticket, let alone becoming involved in a crash or getting injured, isn't likely to happen to any speeder on any given trip. This doesn't mean there's no cost. The steep societal costs include the loss of an estimated 13,000 lives each year in speed-related crashes on U.S roads. To slow motorists down, especially the fastest ones who pose the greatest risk, there has to be enough speed limit enforcement to foster the perception that a penalty is likely.
This is where speed cameras come in. They can operate around the clock in multiple locations to identify virtually every motorist going a set amount above the speed limit. Because most drivers don't know where the cameras are located, the effect can be to reduce speeds across road systems. Research confirms that this saves lives.
Yet speed law enforcement of any kind elicits opposition going back to the old speed "traps," which didn't seem to have much to do with safety but were set up to fund local police departments with fines paid by out-of-town motorists. In more recent years, enforcement based on radar has proved unpopular enough to spawn an entire industry of radar detector manufacturers.
Cameras evoke more controversy including whether the person who gets the ticket is the actual speeder. The broader issue is Big Brotherism. U.S. courts have specifically upheld camera use, but opponents still claim they unconstitutionally invade privacy.
Objections like these aren't confined to the United States. They've been raised wherever cameras have been deployed including Great Britain and Victoria, Australia, where speed cameras have been in use for many years. The backlash in Great Britain, for example, has included destruction of the cameras themselves.
Differences between these experiences and what's happening in U.S. jurisdictions is that officials elsewhere aren't caving in. They're operating their camera programs — and expanding them — despite the opposition. Officials in 75 countries rely on speed cameras extensively (see Status Report special issue: automated enforcement, May 4, 2002). In some cases the cameras are generating more than half of all speeding tickets. In contrast, speed cameras are being operated in only a handful of U.S. communities.
"What we can learn from officials in Australia and Great Britain, in particular, isn't how to make speed cameras popular with everyone. They aren't going to attract universal approval anywhere. But in Victoria and Britain the minority of people who oppose cameras aren't being allowed to dictate policy when it comes to public safety. The message we can take from this is to go ahead and deploy speed cameras," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research. "Don't wait for the vocal opponents to change their minds or go away. They won't. So address the camera opponents without scaling back speed enforcement or, worse, shying away from using cameras to begin with."
Victoria and Great Britain examples
Speed cameras have been used in Victoria, Australia, since 1985 and in Great Britain since 1991. By 2000 there were about 4,500 camera sites on British roads and similar or even more extensive deployment in Victoria by 2001-02.
But the deployments differ. Cameras are in wide operation across Victoria's road system, for example, but they're confined in Great Britain to where speeding is believed to be a problem.
What these approaches have in common is success. The proportion of motorists exceeding speed limits has declined by as much as 66 percent on Victoria's road system and by 32 percent in Britain since camera programs began. Crash reductions of 6 to 35 percent have been found at sites in Victoria, while in Britain deaths and injuries in crashes have been reduced by 40 percent. British researchers report that benefits of speed cameras exceed costs by 4 to 1.
Still both camera programs have elicited controversy, often heated, and the opposition has persisted even as the safety benefits of cameras have accumulated.
In Victoria controversy intensified as the number of cameras was increased during 2001-02. Complaints arose about ticketing people at locations where motorists perceived that speeding wasn't hazardous. Another complaint involved whether camera equipment was reliable enough to ensure that the vehicles identified by the cameras actually were exceeding speed limits. This culminated in the 2003 indictment of a vendor who had supplied inaccurate equipment —but not before the use of speed cameras was suspended for a year or more at three sites.
The issues in Great Britain are similar. Is promoting safety a ruse? Is the real goal to raise revenue? Are speed limits set deliberately low to catch more violators and raise more revenue? Media coverage of these and other suspicions prompted the government to issue guidelines for camera deployment, including instructions to paint the cameras bright yellow to avoid complaints of unfairly being ambushed. But this hasn't quelled the opposition. In recent years activists claim to have vandalized or destroyed 600 cameras along British roads.
The proportion of motorists exceeding speed limits has declined by as much as 66 percent on Victoria's road system and by 32 percent in Britain since camera programs began.
"It hasn't been easy," Ferguson notes. "Cameras aren't any more popular than any other kind of speed enforcement. But an important lesson is that officials in Victoria and Britain haven't allowed opponents to derail their camera programs. In fact, the programs have been expanded. And the majority of drivers support this policy."
Eighty percent of people surveyed in Victoria in 1991 said they favored using speed cameras, and this level of approval hasn't eroded. It's the same in Great Britain, where 75-80 percent of drivers have favored camera use for years, even as more cameras have been deployed and more tickets issued.
Support isn't as high in the United States, but it's sufficient to support camera programs. Fifty-four percent of people surveyed last year said they favor this approach to curbing speeders. In the District of Columbia, one of the few U.S. jurisdictions to use speed cameras, public support has remained steady at more than 50 percent of motorists despite negative press and even an editorial that dubbed the cameras "frightening" (see "Speed cameras still favored in D.C. despite negative publicity," Sept. 14, 2002).
Guidelines from the British program suggest it's important to choose camera locations carefully to retain public trust. When officials running a pilot program in Colorado didn't do this, there was backlash (see "Officials nationwide give a green light to automated enforcement," 11, 2000). It's equally important to spell out why the cameras are being used, tell motorists what the penalties are for violations, and avoid ticketing systems that appear geared to issuing the maximum number of citations.
Potential safety benefits
Measured vehicle speeds on Virginia roads with posted limits from 40 to 55 mph indicate that 20 percent of motorists are going 10 mph or more faster than the limits. On rural and urban interstates in Colorado, nearly 25 percent of vehicles were observed going 80 mph or faster (see Status Report special issue: speeding, Nov. 22, 2003). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says speed is a factor in one-third of all fatal crashes.
"The travel speeds and the deaths could be substantially reduced if officials in U.S. communities catch up with their counterparts elsewhere and deploy speed cameras," Ferguson says.