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Comment: If speeding doesn't cause accidents, then why do we have speed cameras?

Published: 26 June 2007

Updated: 19 November 2014

The Government has just published its response to a call from MPs for motorcycles to be fitted with speed limiters to cut accidents.

The response is: It wouldn’t work. Only 4% of motorcycle accidents are caused by speeding and measures should instead focus on major contributory factors.
It should come as a relief. If the response had been different, we might have been a step closer to bikes which automatically slow down if we stray over the limit. 
But it’s also galling. Because if speeding doesn’t cause accidents, why do we have over 5,000 speed cameras on UK roads? Why have over 12 million UK motorists been convicted by speed cameras since 1992? Why has over £700 million in fines been paid? Why have licences and livelihoods been lost for creeping over the limit by a few mph?

In 2000, when speed cameras began to spread more rapidly as fines started to be ploughed back into building more, the Government’s position was totally different. Then it told us: “Research has shown that speed is a major contributory factor in about one third of all road accidents. This means that each year excessive and inappropriate speed helps to kill around 1200 people and to injure over 100,000 more. This is far more than any other single contributor to casualties on our roads.”
MCN said at the time that the figures were little short of lies, arrived at by taking the number accidents in which speed was reported as contributory factor and adding on some in which it was not. The feeble justification was that other contributory factors, such as travelling too close to the vehicle in front, were likely to have more severe consequences at higher speeds.

If pressed, Government can point that while earlier figures referred to both exceeding the speed limit and going too fast for conditions, the latest figure refers just to exceeding the speed limit. But that leaves the question of why it has taken till now for them to acknowledge that measures to stop speeding will only tackle the latter.

It’s a revealing picture of how Governments manipulate research to suit their policies, rather than the other way round. Unfortunately, fines, lost licences and livelihoods aren’t the only consequences. The excessive focus on speeding has led to a neglect of other accident causes, such as simple bad driving or riding, through a fall in traffic police numbers. Now Loughborough University has reported that the UK has fallen behind in accident rates compared to other European countries - our crash rate fell by only 7% between 2001 and 2005 compared with a 35% fall in France. Which means the real cost of the spin is lives.

• Calls for speed limiters on bikes came from the Transport Committee, a group of MPs appointed by the House of Commons to scrutinise Government transport policy. Here’s what the Transport Committee demanded, along the Government’s response in full…

Transport Committee: Motorcycle accident rates are far too high. They have been for ten years. It is time to consider radical action to tackle this problem. A case was made to the Committee for limiting the speed of the more powerful motorcycles, though some technical issues still need to be resolved. The Government’s work on Intelligent Speed Adaptation is encouraging. We recommend that the Government commission a companion piece of research on the viability of introducing speed limiters on motorcycles in order to stimulate a sensible debate of the options.

Government response: The Department concurs with the TSCs observations that motorcycle accident rates are too high, and we are seeking to address this through the various measures set out in the Government's Motorcycling Strategy. The Committee will recognise the progress that has already been made in this area, 2005 motorcycle casualty rates1 are 8% lower than the previous year and 26% lower than the 1994–98 baseline level.
In targeting accidents, research should focus on the major contributory factors. Road
Casualties Great Britain 2005 identified “exceeding the speed limit” as a contributory factor in only 4%2 of motorcycle accidents. A speed limiter would address a proportion of those accidents, but wouldn't necessarily impact on instances of inappropriate speed or “going too fast for the conditions”, a contributory factor in 9% of motorcycle accidents.

Limiting “the more powerful motorcycles” to a top speed such as 70mph would potentially prevent only a small number of accidents which take place above the highest GB legal speed limit. Restricting the speed to 70mph would not address speeding in areas with lower limits, such as 30mph urban areas. In addition, focusing on “more powerful” motorcycles will not address accidents involving small and medium categories. Nor would it address accidents involving any motorcycle where the speed of the motorcycle was not a factor.

The Department is reviewing current knowledge in respect to driver behaviour with “intelligent” devices along the lines of ISA and a report is due to be published later this year. We will continue to address the high rates of motorcycle accidents through the Government's motorcycling strategy actions and ongoing research programmes. Currently there are no plans for motorcycle speed limiter trials or for speed limiters of any type to be made compulsory.

• To find out how the Government’s response also shot down claims from the Transport Committee that motorcycles cause more pollution than cars, get MCN, June 27.

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