I Fought The Law and The Law Lost

11 February 2015

Speed cameras are in the news again, so what better time to gather by the roadside to watch the glorious parade of naked, self-interested human deceit?

Photo by David Bleasdale

What’s yellow and vicious?

So, what’s causing the current frenzy of protest amongst motoring groups and drivers?


You see, some new cameras have been painted grey. But most people like their speed cameras to be yellow, so that they can identify them easily.

There is, of course, only one reason you’d ever need to easily identify a speed camera, which is that you want to slow down before reaching it. And there’s only one reason for wanting to slow down before reaching it, which is that you’re breaking the law and want to get away with it.

Of course, “I want to break the law and get away with it” is not the reasoning you’ll hear from anyone arguing for yellow speed cameras. You’ll hear other stuff instead. Take Tim Shalcross from the Institute of Advanced Motorists, for example:

It is hard to understand why camera partnerships or other safety camera operators are now going back on this policy [of painting cameras yellow]. We have worked hard to promote the safety benefits of cameras and the current tendency to make them inconspicuous risks undoing much of that work.

The clearly-implied claim here is that speed cameras cause greater safety benefits when painted yellow. Now, this may or may not be true (no research is cited, to my complete non-amazement), but even if it is true, I would suspect that any comparisons have been constrained by conventional attitudes to cameras, and specifically the attitude to their location.

Location, location, location

It has long been the case in the UK that speed cameras are sited only where there is a known incident blackspot. There needs to be evidence of specific statistical risk before we address the factors that create danger.

On the one hand, this seems reasonable: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other, of course, it means we have to wait for people to be injured or killed before we try to stop people being injured or killed.

But it’s not that simple.

You see, the focus is always on the location: someone was killed at this junction, a driver lost control of their car on that road, there was a pile-up on this roundabout…

Where you see that yellow square, you know that this is where the law applies.

But this comes with a subtle implication:

Where you don’t see that yellow square, you know that this is where the law no longer applies.

It’s not just speed cameras, either. If you’ve ever driven through a village on a rural A-road, you’ll have seen signs saying “Please drive carefully” as you enter and “Thankyou for driving carefully” as you leave. The latter is valedictory; thanks come after the action: “cheers! see ya!” The sign may as well say “You’re clear now: go on, give it some welly”.

Multiple aspects of signage and enforcement drip-feed a casual attitude to law on the road, each chipping away a little at the social value of responsible driving: sure, be careful here and there, but don’t fuss over it in general.

By focusing on known blackspots—and this is official policy, not simply a result of pragmatism—we’re not only being reactive rather than proactive, we’re sending the message that speeding is fine most of the time. Of course, “speeding” and “driving too fast” are two wholly different things (and the difference between them is worthy of an article in itself), but speeding is breaking the law, and the message is thus that breaking the law is fine most of the time.

Milking the situation

Barely anyone with a public platform dares undermine this attitude. Take Shadow Transport Secretary Michael Dugher’s recent statement on the matter:

We should have one universal standard whereby all fixed speed cameras are in accident blackspots and are painted yellow. Ministers should issue guidelines to the Highways Agency today to stop treating motorists like a cash cow.

There can’t be a road user in the country who hasn’t heard motorists referred to as a “cash cow”; not only in the context of taxation, but in the context of punishment for breaking the law. Naturally, the waters of the funding conspiracy theory are rather muddied by the reality: even the IAM’s policy statement on speed cameras notes that whilst central government receives the revenue, the decision to install the cameras is made locally, by those who bear the cost of doing so.

The bottom line is this: Dugher is just one of a swathe of apologists for lawbreaking, bolstered by the press who gleefully refer to grey cameras as “stealth cameras”. Stealth cameras! Sneaky cameras! Dirty, underhand cameras! Stinking, corrupt, bastard cameras just itching to catch you innocently breaking the law!

It’s avaricious populism, nothing less: the people want to break the law, and to ensure the support of the people we must support them in breaking those laws.

How about I suggest why covert cameras—lots of covert cameras—would be a good thing?

Invisible grimbisters

You may never have heard the word, but if you’ve driven on a motorway before, you’ll be familiar with the concept of a grimbister: “a large body of cars on a motorway all travelling at exactly the speed limit because one of them is a police car.” Deliberate protests aside, people obey the law when they know they’re being watched.

But let’s play with that last statement a little. It’s perfectly accurate at face value, of course, but beneath the surface it outlines the problem: we want people to drive better even when they don’t know they’re being watched. We need invisible grimbisters.

Now, the problem is that we’ve built a culture and a road network where people are encouraged to obey the law only where they see certain visual cues. So, currently, the grey cameras being added to motorways are, with absolute inevitability, catching people breaking the law. Fines are being issued, and people are moaning that it’s unfair. And, whilst I don’t personally have a single grain of sympathy for anyone legitimately fined for speeding, in a way they have a point: the system has trained them to do this. The system has said it’s ok to speed where there are no yellow boxes, it’s ok to drive carelessly once you’re past the village, it’s ok to ignore the law a bit until you’re told when it’s important.

And what’s required is for the system to retrain people. To do this, the connection between yellow boxes and enforcement must be broken. The potential for enforcement must be—well, not everywhere so much as anywhere. People need to believe that the law could be enforced no matter where they are.

And this covert quasi-omnipresence isn’t an approach that is restricted to speeding: it can be used to address other dangerous behaviours. All that’s needed is to decouple the risk of getting caught from the locations and the visual cues to which it is currently bound.

To argue against covert cameras is to argue for ever more lax attitudes to responsibility behind the wheel; to argue for them is to argue for a new system, one where the law actually influences behaviour because the enforcement of it is just pervasive enough.

In the meantime, of course, if you don’t want to be a cash cow—no matter what colour the speed cameras are—you absolutely have the choice not to be one. It’s your decision.


  1. Matt 11 February 2015 6:01pm #

    > Of course, “speeding” and “driving too fast” are two wholly different things (and the difference between them is worthy of an article in itself)

    I’d be somewhat interested in reading that article, actually.

    • Ian 27 February 2015 11:47am #

      Me too.

      There are plenty of lanes near me where without being anywhere close to speeding (ie. breaking the speed limit) drivers regularly drive too fast. A fairly constant call from the front of our weekend rides is “I hope he never meets himself coming the other way”. There does seem to be a widely held misconception that the speed limit is the target speed for travel rather than the maximum legally allowed.

    • D. 12 February 2015 8:59am #

      Yup – they do that here in Bristol, too: each week, the local paper publishes when and where there will be roadside speed cameras (ie. a policeman in a parked police van) running.

      They have recently started to switch the proper fixed box cameras back on in Avon & Somerset police area too – they are announcing which cameras are to be turned back on, but not when they will be turning each particular one. Apparently its absolutely disgusting, and just a revenue generator. Our local paper had a letter about how modern cars make it so easy to break antiquiated and old-fashioned traffic laws, that they need to review how many points people get for a breach (the writer had suggested only losing your licence when you get to 30-40 points, instead of 12).

      But like Bez says, if you don’t want to be fined or get points, then just don’t break the speed limit. Its not difficult.

  2. ianji 11 February 2015 9:57pm #

    For many drivers it would make no difference if speed cameras were totally invisible because their satellite navigation system warn them anyway.

  3. hungryspokeswoman 11 February 2015 11:04pm #

    Yes, thank you! Finally a sensible voice on speed cameras. I’ve been saying this to years but no one wants to listen, or is able to understand that the speed cameras are only a ‘problem’ to you if you’re doing something wrong, so stop doing that wrong thing (speeding) and you don’t have a problem.

    • D. 12 February 2015 9:05am #

      There’s never a cry in the media for the police to announce where and when they will be patrolling. Personally, I think this is terribly unfair on the burglary-and-robbery community.

      I guess it just demonstrates how much traffic offences have been normalised and just aren’t seen as “really” breaking the law.

  4. platinum 12 February 2015 12:07am #

    Same as how whenever the mobile camera vans are out, it’s a highly visible marked police van. If they started putting the cameras in the back of plain white vans, you would have 100% adherence to speed limits overnight.

  5. ianmac55 12 February 2015 12:14am #


  6. Baz 12 February 2015 9:41am #

    I completely agree that we need invisible grimbisters, but the problem is more complex than getting drivers not to speed so they don’t get caught. We need them not to speed because it is a bad thing for the society they live in. Would it be OK for people to murder as long as they don’t get caught? No. Most people would agree it is not. Or if murder is a bit of an extreme example, how about taking a dump in the middle of the street. Most people would also agree that is not good for society whether caught or not. Let’s bring speeding into line. It’s bad. Just stop it!

  7. andrewrh 12 February 2015 10:17pm #

    I’ve seen comments about recently rolled-out 20mph areas along the lines of: at least now people are speeding at 30 not 40!
    Also, some people comment that their car is incapable of going 20mph – quite how they park the darn thing then is a mystery to me!

    (living in a 20mph town)

    • Notak 13 February 2015 12:29pm #

      I also live in a 20mph town. It’s made some difference to people’s driving, not a huge amount, and obviously it hasn’t made people drive at 20mph. But I still think it’s a good move and that’s partly because 30mph IS better than 40mph. Surely – replace ‘better’ with ‘less bad’ if you want – it has to be an improvement, however small?

      Moreover, I think this legislation is a leader of public opinion and behaviour rather than a response to it. Just as with drink-drive laws: introduced in the ’60s, people complained their right to have four pints after work was being taken away. In the ’70s, drink driving was still normal. But at some point – late ’80s, I’d say – the existence of the law, coupled with other public campaigns, changed popular opinion. In the case of speed limits though (or anything done now) we might have self-driving vehicles before we get round to enacting that cultural change!

  8. Notak 13 February 2015 12:19pm #

    When speed cameras were introduced in the UK, back in the early ’90s, and long before they were painted yellow, I was working as a motorcycle courier. I used to cover 40-50,000 miles a year and I was often speeding, as well as, I’m sure, breaking other traffic laws. I know I did many things which I would now consider at least a bit risky if not downright reckless. Yet I kept (and still have to this day) a clean licence. Not a single point. Ever.

    How? I remember thinking at the time that to be caught by a speed camera you had to be careless. Even though they were, at that time, grey boxes often hidden behind large road signs or under trees. You must have been simply not paying attention to the whole road – because the whole road is far more than just the strip of tarmac you drive on. Let’s remember, for instance, that at most speed camera locations there are white lines marked on the carriageway (or lane) edge for timing. There are lots of clues if you’re paying attention, looking. Anyone caught speeding by a camera really also deserves a penalty for driving without due care and attention!

    One thing, however, has improved regarding these cameras. Back then, they were only triggered at a margin over the posted limit. This was widely mentioned in the press at the time. In the case of the A420 between Swindon and Oxford, for instance, which has a 50mph limit, the margin was at least 20mph. DAHIKT! Now, as I understand it, there is no margin.

    • Bez 13 February 2015 2:14pm #

      Yup. They’re sort of a tax on crap observational skills.

  9. matt 15 February 2015 7:42am #

    But where is your evidence that most drivers are breaking the law most of the time? From the numerous speed surveys I’ve seen compliance is the norm (albeit non compliance is a significant proportion). This holds true for pretty much all types of road unless and only seems to fail where the speed limit has been poorly set.

    • Bez 15 February 2015 9:48am #

      Where did I say that most drivers break the law most of the time? Most people break road laws some of the time, some more often than others.

    • Alan Davies 17 February 2015 6:14pm #

      From my own experience, both driving and cycling (and of course as a pedestrian) the majority of drivers break the law deliberately, wilfully and negligently a lot of the time. That equates to when they think the law is not watching. In my experience most drivers will break the law when they know that the law is not looking.

      • D. 20 February 2015 10:11am #

        Thats true. Here in Bristol they have introduced blanket 20 mph limits on most city roads (other than the ‘main’ spine roads). The local newspaper (I use the term advisedly) and its website comments are ‘full’ of good law abiding citizens explaining that they have no intention of obeying the speed limit because “its stupid” and “its harder to drive so slowly” and “the road wasn’t built for you to drive at 20”. They cannot see any problem with this attitude, and honestly genuinely don’t seem to think that it is breaking the law.

  10. Alan Davies 20 February 2015 7:38am #

    I was reminded of a piece that appeared in the Daily Telegraph 22 May 2012 the day after the 20th anniversary of the first Gatso camera in the UK

    It was installed on the A316 at Twickenham Bridge where the speed limit is 40 mph but it was set to operate for vehicles travelling at 60 mph and above (they only intended to catch the worst offenders). In the following 22 days 22,939 drivers were caught travelling at 65 mph or above.

    If I knew how to put in a linkI would; here is the URL

  11. nicky 27 February 2015 12:08pm #

    If you believe the argument that speed cameras need to be painted bright yellow, then surely undercover police officers should do to?

    After all, both the camera and the officer are there to prevent, detect and prosecute those who break the law?

  12. Nico 27 February 2015 2:06pm #

    This attitude to speed cameras is dumbfounding for a Continental, as we’ve had camouflaged static and mobile speed cameras for decades.

    In France one of the few good things Sarkozy did was to stop the traditional yearly presidential pardon that cancelled speeding tickets; combined with the camouflaged cameras whithin 12 months the rate of people speeding had collapsed, because you can get caught anywhere, at anytime. I haven’t noticed the French economy collapsing any more than the UK one in that time, or traffic jams to be any worse.

  13. Timothy Nohe 28 February 2015 5:17am #

    We have speed cameras here in the States. Some of states anyway. My own State legislature passed enabling legislation that said they could only be used in school zones and work zones, and that they could not be used for revenue enhancement.

    And their operation was promptly contracted out to the lowest bidder who manages them for profit.

    And they are left on in work zones whether workers are present or not. Throw up some cones, drive in a speed camera truck. Ta da! Cash point!

    And they run the ones at the school 24/7/365. It doesn’t matter if no children are present or school is not in session. Let’s put it not on the narrow two lane roads where children who might need protecting from speeders parade by in solid queues on the north and south sides of the school. No, because no one drives fast there. Let’s put it instead on the four lane road with almost no foot traffic where we can make a dollar.

    My own delegate to the State legislature voted these things in. My own delegate now calls them “The Profit Centers.”

    I can literally get a photo speeding ticket on my way to Christmas Midnight Mass in the school zone where no children are present who need to be protected. I don’t because I know where the stupid flashy thing is.

    But it in fact does nothing but catch Rolling Road newbies unawares. (OK. Them and my stupid son who hasn’t figured out where it is yet and that would be a failure of my parenting skills I suppose. He’s such a dummy.) Most scofflaws approach it below the speed limit and speed up once past.

    But there is another argument that flies around about speed traps.

    Flashing lights to warn of radar.

    Enabling legislation for the use a doppler radar speed detection guns specifically states that it must be used for enforcement, NOT revenue enhancement.

    So if I see one and flash my lights to oncoming traffic, what do they do? They slow down. Boom! The radar has done it’s job. The radar is deployed and the traffic slows down.

    Ah! But the police claim that what I have done by flashing is to allow a speeder avoid a ticket. And what is the result of the ticket? Not slower traffic. It’s a fine. And a fine means money in the state/county coffers. It is revenue enhancement.

    So but flashing my lights, I am slowing traffic down and not raising funds for the county or state.

    Painting the camera boxes yellow is a good thing. If people know where the cameras are they will slow down at least as long as necessary to get by them. Habitual drivers near the camera do that anyway.

  14. Jonathan Quirk 15 June 2015 8:31pm #

    There is another point to be made about the colour and hence the visibility of fixed cameras: some drivers, regardless of whether or not they are speeding, slam on the brakes when they spot a camera. This behaviour may catch a following driver by surprise and could lead to a collision. Making the cameras as visible as possible should help to reduce this panic braking because the cameras can be seen more readily.

    • Bez 15 June 2015 10:18pm #

      So what you’re saying is that stealth cameras catch tailgaters as well as speeders, then? 🙂

  15. James Johnson 4 July 2015 8:16am #

    The law in the UK was changed in 2001 and states that safety cameras should be painted yellow to ensure visibility, as shown on page 4 on the link below:


    Yes, motorists should not break the law by speeding, but at the same time the cameras should not be breaking the law by not being visible.

    Maybe the speed limit on a motorway / dual carriageway should be reviewed. The 70mph speed limit was introduced during the 1960’s – modern cars have so many safety features and improved braking that surely the speed limit could be increased by another 10mph Motorists need to be educated to not just obey the speed limits, but also about the correct use of lanes on a motorway / dual carriageway. I do a lot of travelling and the amount of middle lane hoggers on the road is becoming ridiculous.

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