Traffic cameras were first introduced to the UK in the 1960s, but none has had the impact of the infamous Gatso camera. Those yellow boxes have saved countless lives, and yielded millions in revenue, as well as being almost universally detested by all road users!
25 years ago, the first Gatso was switched on along a particularly notorious stretch of the westbound A316 over Twickenham bridge in Surrey. The speed limit along this dual carriageway is 40mph, but initially this camera was set to 60mph because, according to Roger Reynolds, the policeman who has the dubious honour of having switched the camera on, “we were trying to catch the worst”.
It seems they had their work cut out for them. In the first 22 days the camera was in operation, an eye watering 22,939 drivers were caught exceeding speeds of 65mph.
The way the Gatso works is incredibly straight forward. It photographs the vehicle from behind as it travels across a series of white lines painted on the road. This allows an accurate speed to be recorded, as it is based on the distance the car travels across the lines in a fixed time frame, usually something around the 0.5 mark.
In fact, this photographic evidence can prove crucial in court when drivers try to appeal speeding fines.
From 1992-2007 it was a requirement that all speed cameras be painted yellow and positioned in such a way that drivers would be able to see them. Then, in April 2007, the law changed and suddenly this ceased to be an obligation. Following 9 years of debates, disputes and dodgily placed cameras, in 2016 this requirement was reinstated, much to the approval of motorists nationwide!
There is no denying the safety benefits speed cameras have had, helping reduce traffic accidents and road deaths. However, there are many who also blame speed cameras for accidents, because often speeding drivers will brake suddenly and without warning to avoid triggering the camera, endangering their fellow motorists in the process.
One example of this is site 050, a southbound camera on the M11 near Chigwell installed at the point where the speed limit drops from 70mph to 50mph. Despite it netting huge numbers of speeding drivers, figures showed accidents had actually risen since its introduction.
And, of course, there is the controversial subject of the revenue.
Earlier this year a single speed camera raked in a staggering £1.5million in fines in just 6 months! By 2007, the estimated annual income from speed cameras was already in excess of £100million. The danger is that in the eyes of the public, it becomes nothing more than a sort of stealth road tax.
As Reynolds puts it, “It’s not the camera that should be demonised, it’s the way people deal with it.”