Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Jeremy Clarkson, Swindon and a pile of stones.

On the most recent episode of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson managed to achieve what I thought was impossible: He made me dislike him even more than I do now. We’re talking Melanie Phillips levels here.

How? He congratulated, to rapturous applause from the audience, Swindon Borough Council’s Councillor Peter Greenhalgh, for leading the Conservative-run council’s proposals to withdraw funding for speed cameras.

As the Independent reported, Greenhalgh recently labelled speed cameras “a blatant tax on the motorist”, and suggested that “there are much more important things we as a council should do instead of acting as a law enforcement arm of this government."

Meanwhile, back at the Top Gear studio, Clarkson, Hammond and co. reached orgasmic levels of excitement, and promptly awarded Councillor Greenhalgh the 'Top Gear Trophy of Excellence' for “services to common sense in the face of blatant Government stupidity”, before cutting to a picture of a throne (which, if I had my way, they would tie Clarkson onto before placing it on the fast-lane of the M25).

And so the story began to spread, virus-like, across the internet forums: A victory for common sense! A brave stand against attacks on the innocent motorist! A battle against the tax-stealing government! A step towards ending the nanny state! And so on.

SwindonWeb, an unofficial website which aims to cover “anything and everything to do with Swindon”, gave their local readership a chance to comment:

“Doing 70 in a 30 is wrong, but I’ll bet most people get done doing 40-45 in a 30. And on a dual carriage that's not the crime of the century!!!!!! God I hate the government."

Exactly, what’s wrong with 45 in a 30? That’s only 50% above the legal limit.

"Nice one make a change for Swindon to lead the way, now to get the boys in blue to give us a break as they think its now a good excuse for them to take over and rake in the cash. Bike cops with laser guns police camera vans, Get back to work and catch some real criminals."

This is the tipping point: ‘Mikeyb’ uses the phrase which sums up all that infuriates me about a large proportion of motorists: Their beliefs that speeding, careless driving – and even drink driving – are somehow not crimes. (Or at most are just minor crimes).

“The police should concentrate on real criminals”: Those that oppose any interference in their motoring lives seem to operate from this mindset.

Except it’s not a human right to drive. It’s a luxury – it should be earned. To argue that clamping down on abuse of this luxury is an attack on your civil liberties is absurd.

Yet for some people the ‘unnecessary’ enforcement of driving laws is more than just an annoyance. It becomes a matter of principle:

A petition on the 10 Downing Street website to scrap speed cameras, set up by the pressure group 'Safe Speed’, attracted over 28,000 signatures.

The Safe Speed campaign was founded by the late Paul Smith, who died last year. Immediately under the heading on the homepage of their website is a lone advert which seems almost a deliberate attempt to alienate any potential convert who may have otherwise been prepared to give the site a chance: “A very significant number of prosecutions are defective. The trick is to find the defect. A good firm of specialist lawyers may well be able to help. Safe Speed recommends…”

The central theme of the entire campaign, once you’ve boiled it down, is summed up by the following: “As soon as we increase regulation individual responsibility is reduced”.

By regulation, he primarily means speed cameras and strict speed limits. The former is an easy one – Smith sets out to try and prove that speed cameras simply do not work and can be counter-productive, and (to his credit) steers away from the cash-raising argument in favour of what is reported as being 5,000 hours of research.

The latter is more complex. His argument is hard to pin down. He begins by claiming he “welcomes properly set speed limits”.

But then goes on:

“Speed limits do little to modify the speed of traffic, and should never be used to attempt to modify the speed of traffic”.

Overall it is clear that although he argues for more variable limits, on the whole he means increasing the limit, the most extreme example being on rural roads:

“This is where we see the most problems with modern speed enforcement. The safe speed on British rural roads varies from 0 mph to over 150 mph, yet we have a "one size fits all" 60 mph national speed limit.”

Yes, that’s not a misprint. He is seriously suggesting you can safely drive on some rural roads at over 150 mph.

So if speed limits (and cameras, etc) detract from “individual responsibility”, what does he mean? And what, ultimately, is his solution?

“This leads us towards a very, very simple road safety strategy - if we can make our average driver just a little bit more like a class one police driver then we should expect accidents to fall. In order to achieve this we need to feed it right at the foundations of individual responsibility and attitude.”

I see.

Shortly after the Swindon story broke, the Independent ran an article entitled: ”The Big Question: Do speed cameras work, or are there better ways to make our roads safer?”

Rather fittingly they chose Swindon itself when arguing the case.

After a page of discussion, it reaches a few conclusions for and against speed cameras. So, do they work?

- Studies have shown that a reduction in the speed limit to 20mph in built-up areas causes a 60 per cent fall in accidents
- Evidence from Swindon showed a 30 per cent reduction in the numbers of people killed or injured since cameras were installed
- At 10 of the sites in Swindon where cameras were introduced, no road accident deaths have been recorded

- Critics say it's not speed that kills but tiredness and careless driving. It's this that should be targeted with safer driving campaigns
- Speed cameras are being used as an easy way for the authorities to bump up their revenues, antagonising the public
- Cameras are counter-productive in creating a tendency for drivers to break the speed limit when they are not around”

This pretty much sums it up: The argument in support of cameras uses statistics, the arguments against do not. Worse, the opposing points actually drift from the question itself. The fact that speed cameras may be used as a money raiser is hardly an effective criticism of their effectiveness. And the third point is just bizarre. Surely if drivers break speed limits when cameras are not around then this is even more reason to keep them, unless this is some sort of twisted protest?

If I decided to start throwing stones inside a nightclub, it would raise two questions. The first would be: Why would you bring a pile of stones into a nightclub? To which I would respond: Ok, it is not the best analogy, but stick with me.

The second (and obviously more relevant one) is: Am I doing anything wrong? This seems a ridiculous question. Of course I’m doing something wrong, stupid and dangerous. I’m throwing stones around a dark room that is full of people. There is a pretty good chance I am going to hit someone and do some real damage.

But then again, maybe I’m not intending to hit anyone. Maybe I’m just enjoying throwing my stones. Maybe I think I’m an excellent shot and there is very little chance I will strike some bystander. And I’ll be damned if any nanny state starts infringing on my rights to hurl stones around. They should go and concentrate on real criminals – burglars and the like.

Granted, this is possibly the most ridiculous, convoluted analogy you could make, but I think the general point is reasonably clear.

I could drive at 50 mph on a road with a 30 mph limit, I could have a drink or two more than I’m supposed to before stumbling into my car, but still fool myself into believing I can handle it. (And I’m not going to have some PC government telling me otherwise!)

As for the effects: If I were mugged in the street, I may lose some valuable possessions, and it may be a traumatic experience, an event which could take a while to get over. But if I were hit by a car doing 50 mph when they should be doing 30 mph, I will probably not need to worry about my emotional state, because I’ll most likely be dead. Which is worse?

But somehow vast numbers of people don’t see the average careless or speeding driver as a criminal (unless they’re poor, working class teenagers from a council estate). Whole campaigns are set up to attack the laws and regulations which govern how we can drive, groups rally in support of a man who destroys speed cameras, and a councillor who plays political football with people’s lives gets a standing ovation from Jeremy Clarkson.

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