Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Stealth Cops Come Out

The DominionPost reports that Speed Police Can't Hide this morning."All speed-measuring devices are to be employed in an overt manner. No form of hidden or camouflaged deployment is to be used," it states.

It might have been a different story if police cars had Friend or Foe systems installed. Speed cameras could then wontonly edit out the Candid Camera moments starring its own officers.

The guidelines also state that the speed limits have been raised ten kilometres across the board. Regardless of weather conditions, car competence or driver experience, it is officially legal to cruise control your way through the densest of city traffic at 60 kilometres per hour. Unless you are a politician and you're running late for the footy, any car driving 11 kph over the speed limit will be fined.

Let us put aside the charges of revenue gathering for a moment(30 percent increase in two years). There is a much more important principle at work behind these guidelines. It is an admission by police that speed limits are arbitrary and covert speed cameras may cause more accidents than they prevent.

Speed doesn't kill. Lack of control does. When covert cameras are the norm, driving is a nerve-wracking experience. Government-trained terrorists can hide behind any bush, lie in any gutter, ready to assault wallets for the greater good. Keeping one eye on the road, one eye on the peripheral and one eye on the speedo is tricky when you don't have the eyes of a chameleon or the third eye of a mystic. It's OK for rich people. They can afford Hawk detectors.

In the days before speed cameras, Black Spot warnings were posted at accident-prone areas. These were swapped by warnings signs marked Speed Camera Area, and all was good. Then Speed Camera Areas were popping up in perfectly clear stretches of roads where few, if any, accidents had happened. They were hidden round bends, spooking drivers of nervous disposition into paroxyms of near-fatal hysteria. Who else has had a hit of adrenaline when surprised by a speed camera and almost flipping the Toyota, only to look down and see the needle on 90?

The level of fear and loathing increased when covert cameras meant more driver concentration was focussed on the side of the road rather than on it. The new police guidelines can be seen as a concession to their over-exuberance, a reality-check on their supposed public safety remit. While it's good to hear the police are to stop sniping drivers, it is still a long way from instilling a respect for the concentration needed to drive. Every speed camera operator must take responsibility for their obvious contribution to endangering drivers' lives, not saving them.

Up until a recent policy change, only the top ten percent of speedsters were ticketed by speed cameras. This made sense, as it penalised extreme speeding outside the standard deviation. Now, anyone going more than eleven kmh over the speed limit is done. It is now irrelevant whether traffic is flowing smoothly and safely, that people allow good distances between road users, that convoys match their speed for conditions. Road users are trusted less by authorities.

Driving is a dangerous pasttime. A million or more things can go wrong when you risk sitting inside a whizzing metal box. The tyres might fall off. The brakes might fail. You might get hit by lightning. The driver coming towards you head-on may be an American tourist assuming everyone drives on the right. Inside one's head, the survival instinct performs countless Newtonian physics calculations while the motor functions co-ordinate appropriate responses.

It is an issue of trust. Each and every driver implicitly trusts one another. They assume that their fellow travellers have their whizzing metal boxes in working order. They agree not to play chicken with each other and consent to drive in a manner consistent with conditions. Speed cameras throw a spanner into this dynamic.

For example, imagine we had three vehicles on a motorway. The first vehicle is a Mark I Ford Escort 1970 driven by a hard-working 19 year-old male hurrying to a stimulating job flipping burgers in a franchise. The second car is a tidy Toyota Rav4 1998 driven by a 36 year-old female accountant with an SUV-inspired superiority complex. Behind the wheel of the third car, a Volkswagen Passat 2004, is a 45 year-old highly-paid executive armed with radar detector and a salary which makes speeding tickets feel like mozzie bites on a mammoth.

Got that? For the moment we'll assume that this is not in Auckland because traffic is moving freely. When will these vehicles be in equilibrium? Easy.

The teenager will start in the fast lane, because that's what boy racers do when they are late for work. It ensures he rattles past the grannies with minimal haste, while showing how cool he is to any girls travelling in the back seat of their parents' cars.

Eventually he would demur to the thin-lipped woman flashing her lights impatiently at him in the 4WD that has never known mud. Reluctantly, the burger boy would ease into the middle lane while maintaining as cooler posture as possible. He is merely pulling over out of politeness and it has nothing to do with the smoke billowing out from the bonnet of his uninsured car.

The Rav4 cruises past the Ford Escort smoothly and twenty k's faster. The driver performs a cost-benefit analysis and concludes that it is much more efficient to maintain the current speed in the fast lane. After all, her vehicle is much more reliable than the teenager's. It is packed with life-saving goodies such as airbags, better at braking with ABS, and easier to steer thanks to power steering. The Baby On Board logo affixed to the rear window ensures other drivers keep their distance, even when six year-old Jemima is spending the school holidays with her father, that bastard former husband of hers.

She tells her shrink that she's not obsessive-compulsive but on the road the skill is put to good use, her eyes peeled for speed cameras. She inserts the knowledge of a $170 opportunity cost, if she gets clicked, into her equations while cruising at 125 kmh.

The man in the Passat knows there's no cameras for at least the next kilometre. Five days a week, for forty weeks a year, for twenty years, he has travelled this stretch of road. He knows which parts have good grip, and which parts have been most recently resealed. He can read other motorists like a shareholders' meeting.

Wrapped in a $100,00 galvanised sheet metal box, protected by airbags and Side Curtain Protection™, hermetically sealed in all sorts of figurative and literal ways, the suit on the carphone is as comfortable as he is on his corporate throne. While the teenager stares in awe and avarice at the silver flash that buffets past his immobile carriage, the businessman doesn't even register his existence.

With preternatural observation, the accountant recognises the status symbol in her rear vision mirror when it's still six cars back. She positions her Rav4 in the middle lane so the Passat will have no choice but to drive parallel to her for some time. Sure enough, the executive gives her the once over. The woman pouts slightly then gives him a little smile.

However, the executive's tastes favour lamb over mutton. He has noticed the Baby On Board logo and doesn't alter his plans to catch up with the escort who reminds him of his secretary. Once the car in front has been nudged into the middle lane ahead of the accountant, the Passat lunges forward and is gone.

If we repeat the experiment, including a speed camera this time, things change.

The teenager doesn't see the speed camera until the last moment, as he is wondering if the accountant's breasts are real. He gets ticketed and spends the next four months asking if people want fries with their order so he can pay the fine. The accountant sees the speed camera in time but brakes suddenly. The car behind rear ends her and causes a pile-up. No-one is seriously injured, but a lot of no-claims bonuses go out the door. The Rav4 is recycled into supermarket trolleys. Some time earlier, a beep has alerted the businessman and he slows to precisely 110 kph until the threat has gone. The chat with his sharebroker is unaffected.

This moral of the story is that speed alone does not present a threat. Fear of punishment is a blunt instrument and can lead to greater harms than it is supposed to prevent. Speed fines fall heaviest on people on low incomes, and rich people have nice cars.