Paul Oakden, who runs my UK Office in Market Harborough, recently received a call (I don’t think he got the name of the caller) whose opening gambit was “Is your boss an idiot?”. I understand that Paul’s immediate response was that he hadn’t quite worked that out yet.
The reason for the call, and the question, it turned out, was a Tweet I’d caused to be posted earlier in the day, which read “The RAC says that speed cameras save a few lives. (And they make the lives of millions of motorists miserable)”.
Now I admit that this Tweet (like so many of my Tweets) was flippant. I apologise to anyone who has suffered or perhaps lost a loved one in a road accident, who may have found the tone regrettable. But also like many of my Tweets, there was a serious point here.
The first point to make is that the RAC’s conclusion is strongly disputed. The Alliance of British Drivers had a distinguished academic look at the same data that the RAC used, and came to the opposite conclusion. There is also a widely-publicised case that speed cameras increase accidents and fatalities. For any fair-minded person, the jury is still out
But there’s another point to bear in mind. Any politician can get cheers of approval by saying that you can’t put a price on human life, and that any action, no matter how expensive or disruptive, is worth it if it saves a life. But a moment’s consideration shows that this is not so.
Take health. Within limited budgets, there is only so much one can do. If we have only say £10,000 to spend, is it better to spend it on treatment that will extend a pensioner’s life for a few months? Or on a life-saving operation on a teenager? Speaking as a pensioner, I have no doubt that the right thing to do is to spend the money on the teenager.
Or road safety: If you have a sum of money which would pay for (say) an extra five miles of motorway, or an extra 200 miles of crash barriers, which do you go for? Both will save lives. I’d say it’s legitimate to choose whichever saves more lives for the money.
On speed limits, there is clearly a trade-off between safety on the on one hand, and speed and convenience on the other. Indeed when the government was arguing for an 80 mph limit on motorways (they seem to have forgotten that plan), I believe it cited the economic benefits of faster travel. Improved economic performance is associated inter alia with better diet, longer life expectancy and resilience to natural disasters, so more road safety (if speed limits impact negatively on economic performance) could mean other damaging consequences elsewhere.
If, as my caller seemed to imply, harsh imposition of speed limits (and presumably lower limits) were always worth it to save lives, then why not a universal 30 mph speed limit? Or twenty? Or bring back the Red Flag Act and have a man walking in front of every motorised vehicle, and a maximum speed of 4 mph. There has to be a balance between safety and realistic mobility. So it is legitimate to take the view that speed limits, for the most part and generally, are now too low, and that pressure from groups like BRAKE to lower them further will be damaging.
It is certainly the case that modern cars are hugely safer than those available when (say) the M1 was opened and the 70 limit introduced. I have been roundly castigated for admitting that I occasionally stray over the speed limit on the motorway — yet I am constantly overtaken by a stream of vehicles going faster than me.
Meantime the penalties associated with speed violations and speed cameras are (I would argue) disproportionate. Loss of a driving licence when points tot up is a massive penalty. For those who live in rural areas, it is practically house arrest. It is a severe curtailment of liberty. And it may be imposed on someone who has done his best to comply, but has three times in three years been caught inadvertently a few mph over the limit. Since so many people are over the limit so much of the time, enforcement is, in a sense, random. Every day when you check the post, there could well be a ticket and three points in it, which is why I say that speed cameras make life a misery.
There are too many do-gooders keen to parade their compassionate concern for human life, and oblivious to the collateral damage. We need to get a more reasonable balance for speed limits, for enforcement and penalties.