Why do we have speed limits, and why do we have speed cameras?

The Locomotive Act 1865 (also known as Red Flag Act) required at least one person to precede on foot any self-propelled vehicle at a distance of not less than 60 yards, and that person had to at all times display a red flag and warn pedestrians and horse drawn carriages of their approach and assist as necessary. The act was repealed in 1896.

Everybody breaks the speed limit, right? So that’s okay because if I do and you do then it IS okay because we all do it sometimes. The 30 mph speed limit is a great exemplar of our collective justification for rule breaking – and in particular, our sense of indignation and sense of injustice when we get caught driving just a little over that limit. And if we were driving safely and, in our own opinion, we are a good driver (presumably based on the fact that we never get caught) this heightens our sense of unfairness.

On every road we think we know our own personal risk, and this view is further supported by our observation of the hazard signage displayed by the authorities. When a speed limit is set on an urban road, the majority of people that live on that road think that the speed limit is set too high. This is because it adversely impacts their risk to life and health (and the risk to their family also) to a far greater extent than that of the passing commuter. For example, if your child has to cross your road on a daily basis on their walk to school, then in your opinion the lower the speed limit the better. But for everybody else that drives on a road that is not their own, the speed limit is too low because they can’t see how or why the speed limit was set, and it’s not their children crossing the road.

Indeed, even on your own road it is permissible for you to break the speed limit because you know the road and the dangers, but it seems that other road users drive too fast on your road even when they are sticking to the limit.

When it comes to fixed speed cameras people drive within the limits. When that camera was put in place it was because there had been fatal accidents at that location. Conversely, just because there is no speed camera does not mean that there has not been any fatalities, it just means there hasn’t been a sufficient number of fatalities to invoke the installation of a camera. If motorists’ behaviour doesn’t change at such a location then a speed camera might ultimately arrive there. And the speed camera isn’t there to make people drive slower in order for them to avoid a fine, the camera is there to stop more people dying!

The argument about the acceptance of breaking speed limits lies between the two camps of “self” and “other”. As self, I think it’s okay to break the speed limit, and in others I think its wrong. This can be demonstrated by re-examining the locations of speed cameras. Between self and other there needs to be an arbiter or authority. One of the conditions that a local authority must meet to get a speed camera installed is that there has to have been at least two collisions resulting in people being killed or seriously injured in the preceding three years. Local residents want the road on which they live to be a safe place. From 1992 to 2016, speed cameras on UK roads reduced fatalities by between 58 to 68 per cent within 500 metres of the camera.

But instead of installing a speed camera to save lives, would it not be best to leave the open coffins of dead juvenile casualties by the road side, or perhaps show photographs of the victims, or display a poster listing the fatalities? In a civilised society we think not, instead we attempt to enforce the law. To display or portray the dead would be injudicious and insensitive. However, it would be possible to knock on the doors of the residents that live adjacent to those cameras and ask them if they know who died on their stretch of road, and unsurprisingly these residents will know precisely each of the fatalities in the last three years. But if you take that same resident back to the road where you live and ask them about the fatalities on your road, the chances are they will be ignorant to these facts, for that is your knowledge. Therefore, understandably, we all believe that we know better than others. Thus to enforce the law is to give you the level of safety you ultimately want on your own stretch of road on every road.

What is the purpose of any law? It is simply to induce people to act in the best way to protect and benefit not only themselves but the community around them. Laws set communal standards, ensure fairness and equity, arbitrate disputes, and protect our individual liberties and rights. Laws help people to act in the best way that they would act were there to be no law at all. Laws require people to act in a way that is the best for everybody and hopefully to the detriment of nobody. And herein lies a problem – can you enact a law in which everybody’s best interests are met on all occasions?

All laws should have the fewest words possible because each word has ambiguity, and ambiguity leads to interpretation, or wilful misinterpretation . Laws are there to encourage the maximum benefit, not the minimum compliance. Laws are in place not to ensure people do what they’ve got to do or even what they ought to do, laws are in place so people will do what they would choose to do for the maximum benefit of the community in which they live.

Surely when making a law we must go further than that just discussed? Laws are there to protect those members of society who cannot understand and follow laws; those members of our community that do not have the capacity, either mentally or physically, or through being too old or too young, to be cognisant and/or complicit. To these people the law must provide safety and security. So even if we feel that a law may not be applicable to us, hopefully we can appreciate it is applicable for those people we need to protect, the elderly (the generation above us) and the young (the generation below us), because even though by breaking a law there may be no damage to ourselves, there may be damage to those who have not got our ability of self-preservation without that law being in place.

It doesn’t change the fact that EVERYBODY breaks the law. A point or two on law. There is a legal term which comes from Latin – tu quoque. Quite simply, it is not an admissible defence in English law to say – “Well you did it too!”. Just because other people break the law knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, it does not give you the moral or legal right to break it also. And when it comes to intention there is another legal term that comes into play – malice aforethought – or to put more simply – did you plan to commit the crime or was it a misadventure? The legal difference between murder and manslaughter is that of intent.

The Red Flag Act was repealed 31 years after its introduction. This relaxation was to give people responsibility for their own actions and safety. One hundred and twenty five years later we have a complex set of road traffic rules – all of them enacted to do the same job as the man with the red flag. A total of 1,752 people were killed in reported road traffic accidents in the UK in 2019, and that year there were 25,945 seriously injured casualties on UK roads. In the UK the Penalty Point (PentiP) system recorded 2.4 million motoring offences in 2017. When we don’t see the coffins, we don’t see the rules.

And then in 2020 there was Covid and those “pointless” Covid rules. On the upside, lockdown meant fewer cars on the road so I guess there will be fewer road traffic accidents when the 2020 figures are released. The downside is one year on, we have had 125,000 UK Covid deaths and counting. Thank God we don’t see the coffins.

Published by The Sage Page


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