The Long Arm of the Law (in your pocket)

revenue cameraThis morning I missed a big speeding fine by pure fluke.  All of the streets around my house have a 60kph speed limit, all except one.  This other street has a lot of nice houses on it and somehow the street’s residents or inhabitants managed to get the speed limit down to a posted 40kph.  This is not a big street.  It does not pass through a school zone.  It goes down a hill then back up and travels in a more or less straight line.  Now I drive on this street every day on my way to and from work.  It is a short walk from my house.  And after more than a decade of driving on this road I can tell you that just about everyone drives at 60kph, all the time. You might encounter the odd ‘L’ plater doing 40kph, but that is pretty much it.  And it’s no less safe driving 60kph there than on all the many other surrounding streets which seem exactly the same and where the speed limit actually is 60kph.

That is by way of background. Anyway, off to work this morning at 7:30am and I turn left onto this street and happen to find myself behind a car going 40kph.  It wasn’t an ‘L’ plater, so I confess to getting a bit annoyed in the 500-or-so metres I actually have to travel along this street.  The car behind me even honked. And then we hit the T-junction where the street ends and — wouldn’t you know it! — a cop was pulling over cars aplenty and hitting them with speeding violations.  Presumably these were for going 20kph over the limit.  The State of Queensland was raking in the speed fine money this morning.

On a personal level I hit the lottery.  But for the grace of pulling out behind a tortoise-like driver I’d be a lot poorer and many demerit points richer.  Trust me.  It’s better to meet with triumph than disaster.  Only later did it dawn on me that the slow-poke driver in front of me had been tipped off in advance, because once past the cops he sped back up to a normal clip.  So once past the trap I immediately pulled over (for all the police officers reading this: I then got out of my car, pulled out my cell phone) and called all the friends I know who might use that street and warned them.  When I got to work I took everyone in my office corridor out for morning tea, on me.  Cheap at ten times the price is what I thought.

But here’s the thing.  These sort of speed traps have absolutely nothing to do with saving lives or safety.  They are revenue-raising gambits pure and simple.

Worse, they have the side effect of driving regular middle-class people (like me) to have less respect for the police.  Let me be blunt.  You can drive across all the InterState highways in the US, where the speed limits are 75 miles per hour, and the police don’t pull you over till you’re doing 10 over the limit, so 85 miles per hour.  That’s a 16kph leeway. In Canada and the UK there is also a big leeway built into the speed limits. In one Ontario provincial election one of the major parties ran on a pledge to remove speed cameras, and won.  Yet here in Brisbane if you take a tolled tunnel road where the speed limits are 80kph the many revenue cameras will ticket you if you go a paltry five kilometres per hour over the limit.  That amounts to being a paltry, insignificant three miles per hour over.  It has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with the states in this country – which, unique in the democratic federalist world, lack income-tax power, rendering them  desperate to find moolah.

Oh, hang on, it’s all about lives and safety, I hear some health and safety public servant cry.

Well, no it isn’t.

First off, if you were a true absolutist about safety being pre-eminent, and you totally ruled out any trade-offs between speed and other factors, you should favour speed limits of 10kph or lower.  That would end all deaths on OUR roads.  Of course, the costs would be huge – for the economy, for jobs, for getting to the hospital quickly.  But if you are prepared to ignore all costs and look only at benefits you can know doubt point to one or two. (And as an aside, our university top administrators in this country specialise in that sort of ‘benefit analysis’, as distinct from ‘cost-benefit analysis’, by which you forswear all consideration of the costs of your latest ‘innovative’ and costly one-size-fits-all gambit and just impose it because you perceive some distant possible benefit.)  But the fact is even the health-and-safety extremists, whether they admit it or not, undertake a balancing exercise that includes admitting that, unfortunately, people will sometimes get hurt on roads but that letting everyone travel faster than during the Middle Ages is worth it.

Secondly, despite Australia having one of the world’s most draconian speed-limit regimes and making relentless use of speed cameras whose infringement notices simply cannot be contested or fought in court (we have to take their word for it), our death toll on roads looks no better than in all the countries mentioned above — countries with much higher limits and which raise much less from fines. Put differently, if it’s not about the money then why do our road toll statistics look much the same as lots of countries with higher limits and more lemient enforcement programs?

Is it because Australians are really lousy drivers?  Or is it all about this being a nice little earner and, better still, it being what amounts to a regressive tax?  You don’t pay if you can afford a driver, do you?  And what about the costs involved in making plenty of people think the police ought to be doing something more productive with their time?

The basic point I’ve just made about speeding fines also applies to forcing people to wear bike helmets.  In cost-benefit terms when it comes to non-racing bikes there is no evidence that is beneficial either.  I managed to ride bikes in London and California, without a helmet, and life went on.   But I digress.  I’m off for a drink and to toast the Gods for my good fortune this morning.

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline

  • Bruce MacKinnon

    Yes, fraid so. On a memorable occasion as a much younger bloke I was returning to Canberra, and having a strong history of speeding tickets, there was no point system and I was on very good money, young and impatient. That day, I resolved, the tickets had to stop. I drove very carefully below the limit through all the traffic, down the Hume and at one point I must have surged or lost concentration on the speedo a little. I had been up visiting old Mum and Dad, and had a long boring night drive ahead. It was outside Warwick Farm Racecourse, a policeman was parked in one of the gates. He waved me in. I was a bit dismayed, as we are, plus puzzled, for I was trying hard to be good. I asked him what I had done.
    His reply was that he had only one ticket left in his book, he wanted to go home. I was clocked at 1km over the limit, so I was it.
    On one occasion, I had call to visit a NSW police station, reporting an incident. Beside the front counter on the wall was a list of all traffic officers at the station, 15 or 20, with the tally of the number of tickets by type they had written. It was evidently a performance rating tool. The implication of course was that the more tickets, the more effective and the better the performance of the officer. Where pay and promotion may be affected that’s quite an incentive to be petty.
    I drive long distances often , and often the police will be waiting at those spots at the bottom of a very steep hill, like the “big dipper” at Mittagong, under a bridge at the end of a long sweeping downward stretch of two lane expressway at Goulburn, where there has probably never been an accident. Unless you are in the know, you are a sitting duck for a ticket. Spots where there is a surprise stretch of lower limit where the sign is virtually invisible, especially at night in the middle of long stretches of 110kph are another favourite.
    These days I just set the cruise, but the big saviour is the Satnav. The cost of this thing has no doubt been returned many times over from the warnings it gives where signs or cameras may be missed.
    There are however different ways. I live in an area where there are many people from the Subcontinent these days. A JP over the road has a steady flow of witnessing Statutory declarations that the subcontinental driver was not driving the car at the time the radar pinged him. The supposed other driver signs to this effect and when outside, a handshake occurs on the footpath the “confessor” then puts something in his pocket. The JP watches this out the window. The going rate is $50. When the police then chase up this other person, the result is always “Oh, he’s gone back to India” He was on an International Drivers License. Works every time.

    • lloveday

      If governments were genuine about trying to reduce speeding rather than raise revenue, they would make a simplified Satnav compulsory – the part which displays the speed limits and beeps when exceeded – and provide free updates via internet downloads. If the costs to the governments (eg Medicare) of accidents allegedly caused by speeding are as high as claimed, they could provide them for free and still save money.

      If it were standardized Australia-wide, they could buy them by the millions for, I guestimate, less than $100, maybe $50, drivers could concentrate more on the traffic and road (I used to regularly use a road that had 8 speed zones in 1.6km) and speeding would be reduced, and according to them, lives saved. But they won’t do that because they would lose revenue

  • and3ford

    Every weekend I hop in a three wheeled airplane, hurtle through a grass paddock on three wheels at over 100k an hour, with birds and weather and whole lot of other stuff to consider steering the tiny little wheels with my feet and well bugger me I am OK. The same thing in a air bag padded car on four wheels on a tar road and well bugger me I am OK. Recently I made the mistake of driving and not flying to a weekend away, yep the tax fine came in the mail. Stop inserting yourself into my life and my wallet. If you want my respect Gov’t, Police etc then give me a little respect, you do not know what is best for me.

  • Rob Brighton

    Every time I head north to the big smoke Brisvegas I am reminded of the adage “Never get between a politician and a bucket of money”.

  • tony.negline@ftsolutions.com.au

    There are many aspects of the speed limit issue that I find really interesting. All the speed limits are arbitrarily set by a faceless bureaucrat. Several years ago near my home they recently installed a red light and speed camera at an intersection. A public school is on the corner. They are only meant to put these devices in places where there have been either lots of accidents or fatalities. I couldn’t recall either ever occurring so I wrote to our local member, Mr Dominello, and asked his office to provide the statistics that justified the camera. I have regularly reminded them of my request but so far I’m still waiting for the research. The camera has made the stretch of road shockingly slow especially in evening peak periods. To make matters worse a mobile speed camera regularly sets itself up about 500m past this speed camera. We have a van and I have been very tempted to park it behind this vehicle so it cannot function properly.

    Another aspect of speeding is that it only looks at the issue one way – those who exceed the speed limit. But I personally think those who travel in a car less than the speed limit are actually more dangerous but they don’t get any penalties. I could be doing 5km/h down a freeway and nothing would happen to me. But if I do 120km/h?

    I live in a suburb where many residents have extremely poor driving skills and going slowly on roads or not knowing how to park or moving slowly into an intersection are all par for the course. These are probably racist thoughts but sometimes I quietly wonder about the validity of some licenses. Nothing ever happens about these poor driving skills yet if I go a small amount above an arbitrary speed limit I get fined and penalised.

    Now school zones. We have a school near us that is on a main road (not the school I mentioned above). The government first installed a variable speed camera then a pedestrian bridge and a cement wall to protect the children from the evil cars. The camera has remained as have the variable speed limits. Go figure? Why are there lower speed limits outside secondary schools? The age of reason is about Year 3 – that is about age 7 – so except for the early years of school they are not required. Finally Pacific Highway in Sydney is almost a continuous 40 zone morning and afternoon because of all the schools and several speed cameras – many of the schools are high end private. It is a major road and the slowing of traffic has a major impact on economic activity. Is it too much to ask that someone might use a bit of commonsense and put in pedestrian bridges etc? I suppose banning greyhounds has a greater priority. I could say lots more.

    • ianl

      > ” … many residents have extremely poor driving skills …”

      The truth behind this finally dawned on me about 10 years ago, after a longish stint driving around various European countries (yes, I was doing the actual driving for work-related reasons and yes, driving on the RHS side of the road required my utmost concentration, and I did dislike it … every driving instinct I had for traffic was exactly wrong).

      These experiences showed me that well-ordered traffic on F3 equivalent highways did not have to be rigorously policed at 110kph to prevent collisions. In fact, the collision rates were lower than Aus despite increased population and traffic densities. For those who glibly cry “Autobahns – we don’t have them”, well, such people have simply not driven on European highways (not better than the F3) and certainly have never negotiated, say, an Italian village.

      So I wondered at the causes of the difference I saw and experienced. How could a Portugese highway with quite high density traffic have said traffic travel at 140kph without causing mayhem, but an Aus F3 would ruthlessly enforce 110kph ? I already knew that aquiring a European driving licence was a stringent process, spread out over several seasons to really test knowledge and capabilities, unlike the Aus approach.

      So then the answer slowly came. Using a European-style driving test in Aus would, of course, be politically very unpopular. It would even lose votes … many of them. So the politicians flick-pass the problem to the police, the ambulances, the hospitals. And then, George Orwell-style, claim that heavy-handed police traffic harassment is the solution to this.

      As someone here (I think) remarked, Australians have a world-class disrespect for authority and a world-class enforcement system to try and overcome this.

  • mvgalak@bigpond.com

    The stringency of an enforcement creates a traffic hazard of its own. Now, imagine you do not have cruise control for whatever reason. An Australian driver is forced to check the speedometer more often, than it is necessary so as not to be clocked by the overzealous Police, therefore taking his/her eyes off the road. I believe this awareness of being vulnerable to a fine , even if over the limit by the mere 4-5km creates the danger in and of itself.


    I have had many corpses in the morgue who thought they could drive faster than their Guardian Angel could Fly.

    • ianl

      Glibly silly – you asked them why you thought they were “speeding”, of course ?

    • PaulKJ001

      It’s not the speed, it’s the sudden stops.

  • Ian Matthews

    Until you or someone like you James, gets elected to parliament, state or federal, for those of us who are being treated like milch cows nothing is going to change. Please run mate.

  • Keith Kennelly

    Don’t speed

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