Speed cameras - love them or (more likely) hate them, they’re here to stay. And as with most technologies, there is room for improvement - highlighted most recently when Wheels magazine sponsored a journalist to drive from Melbourne to Sydney at a cruising speed of 130km/h in all 110km/h zones.
He did so without encountering on-road police enforcement, slowing only for fixed speed camera sites and for lower speed limits if posted.
Perhaps more surprisingly, despite an attempt by Wheels magazine to spark a community debate for higher speed limits, most Australian drivers agreed with the police response.
That the Wheels magazine’s driver was not booked on his personal Cannonball Run was by chance, but widespread use of a new enforcement technology – average speed cameras – will mean that he will be caught in the future, and, indeed, the full pattern of his behaviour will be uncovered.
In fact, the speedster driver admitted that he slowed and stayed within the 110km/h limit for the first 40km of freeway north of the outskirts of Melbourne, as he had been told that an average speed camera system was operating.
Average speed cameras – or point-to-point (P2P) speed cameras – are a relatively new form of speed enforcement that measures persistent or sustained speeding over distances, rather than the (possibly) transitory speed of a vehicle at a particular point on the road.
Average speed cameras have the potential to significantly reduce the number of road crashes and fatalities by enforcing a minimum travel time for vehicles over a specific distance.
The system uses two separate cameras located some distance apart: from less than 1km, through to 75-80km lengths.
The camera technology can determine if a vehicle has travelled faster than the minimum legal travel time for a specific section of road by reading and matching vehicle number plates at each camera site.
Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and Optimal Character Recognition (OCR) technology is used to match the vehicle registration details. The average speed of a vehicle is calculated by dividing the distance between two camera sites by the time taken for the vehicle to travel between the two sites.
If the average speed of a vehicle exceeds the speed limit for that road section, the offence data are forwarded for infringement processing and vehicle owners linked with validated offences are issued a penalty notice.
A ‘silver bullet’
Average speed camera technology is likely to be a “silver bullet” to further improve road safety; but there is a need to plan for, and manage, the impact of this technology on driver licensing systems (demerit points) and the courts (such as licence appeals).
The safety benefits of point-to-point speed cameras primarily involve reduced vehicle speeds, leading to fewer traffic crashes and their resultant injuries and fatalities. However, the benefits may extend to improved traffic flow, reduced congestion and journey times, and reduced vehicle emissions and noise.
In short, a potential wide range of savings across safety and sustainability domains.
To date, there have been few problems with average speed cameras. Some disbenefits may arise if the enforcement thresholds are set at the speed limit, and there is no overt publicity (signage) of the use of the technology, but such shortcomings can be easily avoided.
The major impact appears to be an initial spike in speeding offences, as drivers have to learn about the system and have to modify their habitual speeding behaviour. This results in:
large numbers of drivers being detected and infringed for speeding offences
a flow-on impact on Traffic Offender Programs, and on local courts through licence appeal proceedings
multiple offences being detected before drivers are able to modify their speeding behaviours consequent to the new enforcement
the possibility of political and media backlash, with claims of “revenue raising”.
Implementation in Australia
Australian states and territories showed early interest in average speed cameras, but a full roll-out of the technology has been slow:
NSW trialled the technology in 2005, but only deployed it across 21 roadway lengths from 2010. It is only used to enforce heavy vehicle speeds (while monitoring all vehicles). Transport for NSW has acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of car drivers and motorcyclists are detected for speeding offences but are not being penalised
Victoria deployed a trial average speed camera system in 2007, but it was turned off over 2010-2012 due to technical issues. It is currently enforcing speed limits across a 54km length of the Hume Highway north of Melbourne
in the ACT, average speed camera systems have been deployed, which monitor and enforce speed limits for all vehicles
Queensland and South Australia have commenced trials to test the technology, with no announcement as to deployment dates
Tasmania, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory do not use average speed camera technologies.
Point-to-point speed cameras are a relatively new technology, and there is not a solid research base for the longer-term efficacy of this form of speeding enforcement. However, the early data from jurisdictions who have introduced the technology are very promising in terms of:
reductions in speeding behaviour (as measured by drops in infringements issued, as well as lower average vehicle speeds in surveys of traffic flow)
reductions in crashes, particularly in serious injury and fatal crashes.
The reported reductions are remarkable. In The Netherlands, use of average speed camera systems has been very successful, with the results of deployment of a site at Rotterdam being a 47% reduction in all crashes, and a 25% reduction in fatalities.
In Amsterdam, the proportion of vehicles exceeding the speed limit dropped by 90%. In Scotland, an average speed camera site in Strathclyde saw fatalities reduced by 50%, and, again, a 90% reduction in speeding vehicles.
In Italy, road fatalities across average speed camera lengths dropped by 50-100%!
Unlike other forms of speed cameras, point-to-point speed cameras record images of all vehicles using the road length that is under surveillance, not only those vehicles that have been actually detected speeding (as with existing speed cameras). These data are then used for subsequent examination to detect speeding offences.
The storage of such records may have privacy implications, as has been raised by the recent ABC Four Corners program that examined the use of ANPR technology by NSW police.
Such Big Brother concerns over surveillance should be placed in context. Heavy vehicle traffic has been monitored across eastern Australia by the Safe-T-Cam system for several decades, and in NSW Safe-T-Cam camera sites are used for average speed camera enforcement.
Overseas, Pay As You Drive (PAYD) insurance is becoming common, with insurers collecting regular performance data on vehicle usage, including distance driven, times of travel, instances of harsh accelerations or braking, high g-force cornering and illegal speeds.
Beyond such individual data, roads authorities routinely collect data regarding traffic volumes and speeds, road usage, etc. Police also use traffic enforcement as a means to address general crime, such as detection of stolen vehicles and the movement of stolen goods. After all, the use of public roads is not a private matter.
Incentives for compliance
On the positive side, the collection of these data can enable governments to introduce behavioural change incentive schemes for drivers who are not speeding (similar to the “Speed Camera Lottery” trialled in Sweden) using hypothecated speed camera revenue for road safety purposes.
For individual drivers, PAYD insurance provides incentives through lower premiums for safer driving.
Why bother enforcing speeds?
Speed – the travelling speed of a motor vehicle – is regularly cited as a major contributing factor in traffic crashes and the resulting injuries.
There is a positive relationship between increased vehicle speeds and increased crash risk and injury severity. Conversely, small reductions in vehicle speeds can produce significant reductions in crash outcomes.
The use of point-to-point speed enforcement should be complementary to other automated and manually-operated approaches to speed enforcement, rather than being viewed as a replacement for existing efforts. As was found with random breath testing to target drink-driving, point-to-point cameras will be indispensable as a method to bring enforcement to a sufficiently high level to effect change in drivers’ speeding behaviours.
Fixed speed cameras have a site-specific, effect whereas the point-to-point camera system has a length or segment-long influence on drivers and their speeds, thus reducing any halo effects associated with drivers learning about the location of a fixed enforcement site.
It seems the question now is when – rather than if – average speed camera technology will receive widespread deployment in Australia.
To eschew the use of this technology would be a serious failure of state and territory governments, and compromise the efforts to achieve the goals of the National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020.