Monday, May 20, 2024
HomeCulture WarDon’t victimise speeding drivers – treat them like adults

Don’t victimise speeding drivers – treat them like adults


This is a briefing paper for political parties by Adrian Ward, retired Deputy Chief Constable of Grampian Police. He laments the tyranny that today’s roads policing practices visit upon motorists using ‘safety’ as false justification for the proliferation of speed cameras. With encouragement from the Alliance of British Drivers he is initiating a campaign for a return to reasonableness and discretion with more traffic patrols and fewer cameras.

THIS paper argues that the ‘speed kills’ mindset which now pervades local councils detracts from what the true purpose of their road safety systems should be, namely to improve driver behaviour and thereby reduce accidents. If councils are serious about this, their emphasis on speed alone to the exclusion of other lethal factors undermines this purpose, and a rethink using ‘systems thinking’ principles is needed.

Setting speed limits at arbitrary fixed values such as 30 or 40mph takes no account of road conditions and commonly leads to driver frustration. Camera detection of fixed speed limit transgressions results in safe motorists being criminalised by a coercive and punitive system of ‘absolute offences’ against which there is no effective appeal. This contravenes natural justice, undermines respect for the law and breeds resentment in otherwise law-abiding citizens. There has to be a better way!

When central government were responsible for setting speed limits they rightly took account of ‘real world’ variation in driving speeds which most drivers consider safe. This was achieved with reference to the ‘85th percentile speed’ (see below for explanation) which is a far better value at which to trigger consideration of discretionary police action such as formal warnings, fixed penalties or prosecutions. If used today in conjunction with vehicle activated signs to warn drivers that the prosecution threshold is being reached, the purpose of the system can be achieved. Under this approach, existing red circle speed limit signs could then become advisory rather than compulsory since the majority of motorists drive at safe and reasonable speeds anyway. Discretionary enforcement would then take into account the advisory speed limit but crucially include all other relevant factors such as time of day, type and volume of traffic, weather conditions and visibility plus the driver’s own safety record.

Key elements of a comprehensive systems approach should include:

a)    Rethinking driver training and licensing to include a progressive lifelong learning and testing approach which incorporates so-called ‘Mind Driving’ (Stephen Haley);

b)   Establishing a national accident investigation, analysis and prevention branch whose research findings would feed in to the above training system and inform an intelligent and dynamic approach to speed limit setting;

c)     Restoring police traffic patrols to operate on an intelligence-led basis whilst encouraging motorists to submit dashcam footage to help identify rogue drivers;

d)   Restoring discretion to enforcement and prosecution decisions to facilitate the lifelong learning / re-training approach. Ultimately we want better, safer drivers.

Crucially, the new system would engender culture change by placing the onus back on drivers to do the right thing voluntarily, and helping them in this quest rather than punishing them. The majority of drivers would respond positively to this because they already accept their responsibility and want to avoid harm to themselves and others, not to mention damage to their vehicles. Police effort can then be focused on the minority of drivers who remain a menace. Through this proposal, public support for an otherwise draconian system sadly reminiscent of a ‘police state’ can be restored.

Explanation of the ‘85th percentile’:

Statistically the safest road users (lowest crash risk) are those that are travelling at between the 80th & 90th percentile speeds: the ‘pace’ drivers, as they are called

Note this refers to free-travelling speeds, not influenced by e.g., heavy congestion, heavy-handed enforcement operations, adverse weather conditions etc.

So, 80 per cent of the speed distribution is travelling slower than them; but only 10 per cent of vehicles are travelling at higher speeds.

Note that the slowest 30 per cent of drivers have the highest accident risk, and so are the most dangerous road users. 


So the speed limit SHOULD be set smack in the  middle of the ‘pace’, at the 85th percentile speed; at or below which 85 per cent of the speed distribution is travelling.

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Adrian Ward
Adrian Ward
Adrian Ward is a retired Deputy Chief Constable of Grampian Police.

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