DATA: Don’t get too excited about speed camera data just yet

Say cheese

One of the most frustrating and bizarre Freedom of Information request standoffs could be about to come to an end after the Government said more data about speed cameras must be released.

The Department for Transport has confirmed this morning that it wants councils and police forces – which often work as one when it comes to ‘road safety partnerships’ – to release more information about the cameras.

The DfT press release states:

This could include data about accident rates at camera sites, vehicle speeds and the numbers of motorists prosecuted or offered training after offences recorded by cameras.

The press release states that the government wants ‘full information’ about speed cameras to be released. Road Safety minister Mike Penning said:

“Public bodies should be accountable and if taxpayers’ money is being spent on speed cameras then it is right that information about their effectiveness is available to the public.

“The proposals I have announced today will help show what impact cameras are having on accident and casualty rates and also how the police are dealing with offenders.

“This is in line with our commitment to improve transparency of government data so that the public are able to make more informed judgements about the work of local and central government.”

In theory, this is potentially very good news – but there’s still a long way to go yet. The government has set a publication date of April. It did the same with council spending figures, due to be published every month from January, but what’s in place for those councils which fail to make that deadline?

And there’s also scope for wriggle-room on the part of councils and police forces. What has been announced today is an intention, with the details to follow. The police and councils will help decide what information is released – and if experience of requests under Freedom of Information requests is anything to go by, councils and police don’t really like releasing data.

Repeatedly when compiling FOI Friday, I see stories involving newspapers which have tried to find out how many tickets have been issued at each speed camera location, only to be refused the information using the law enforcement exemption.

Lancashire County Council once refused to release the information to me on the grounds it would prejudice the apprehension or prosecution of offenders – although ironically, the same council was keen to stress it would like nothing more than for the cameras to record no speeding offences.

It later transpired that in Lancashire up to 80% of speed cameras were switched off at any one time. The lesson you’d hope Lancashire County Council would learn from this would be that information always comes out, somehow.

More recently, the Express and Star in Wolverhampton was refused site-by-site specifics on the grounds that it could lead to vandalism againt the top-ticketing sites.

The actions of the authorities involved in speed cameras have only served, in the main, to increase suspicion over the worth of the cameras and the real motive behind installing them.

Only by releasing as much information as possible can councils hope to change their general mindset. At the same time, in those communities where mobile or static speed cameras have been put in place to reassure residents, those residents have a right to know that the presence of a camera isn’t just a sop to local concerns.

Here’s my list of six data parts the Government should insist councils release:

1. The number of drivers snapped by each camera: This will ensure that people know where cameras aren’t working – and a consistently high number of offenders suggests it won’t be working.

2. The number of days a camera is active: This will ensure that the public and journalists can quantify just how bad an area’s speeding problem is. Dividing the figure provided in point one by the active days in point 2 creates a reliable figure.

3. The number of times a mobile camera site is manned: Similar to point number two, but will also tell pro-speed camera communities whether they are receiving real support from councils.

4. The number of accidents within a mile of each camera site and within two miles: Originally, cameras were only placed in areas where the number of deaths or accidents passed a certain threshold – but many people say speed cameras only move the problem further up a problematic road.

5. The number of tickets which are ultimately paid, by location, and what the punishment is: This will tell the public whether or not a camera is being operated within the rules – ie no room for loopholes. A high number of speed awareness course punishments, only available to first-time offenders generally, could also suggest the camera isn’t clearly marked.

6. Speeds: The highest MPH snapped through the camera, and the number of offences by speeds, initially in one mph blocks closest to the speed limit (35mph, 36mph, 37mph etc) and rising in 5mph blocks as the speed rises. Releasing the average speed on the road before and after cameras were introduced, something many councils do collect, would also reveal how well, or otherwise, they work.

It sounds like a lot, but I believe it’s all data which is easy to extract. Now we just need the Government to hold firm.

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