The Wiki Man

Chris Huhne and the £500,000 speed camera

16 February 2013

I don’t want to defend Chris Huhne, I really don’t. Apart from anything else, I have always thought the country would be better off if all Oxford PPE graduates were simply imprisoned immediately, instead of the present inefficient system where we wait for them to commit a crime first. This would save us from being ruled by people who wanted to be politicians at the age of 17.

But no newspaper has yet pointed out that the speed camera which caught Chris Huhne was not just any old speed camera. From what I have found online it seems to have been the long-notorious ‘Site 050’ camera at the M11 at Chigwell, just beyond the point where the speed limit on the motorway drops from 70mph to 50.

The camera was installed in 2000. In 2003, the year of Huhne’s offence, it generated more revenue than any other speed camera in the country. Along with the MEP, it caught 9,638 other drivers that year, netting over £500,000 in fines. Despite this, figures showed that accidents at the spot had risen since its introduction. For accidents to rise after the installation of a speed camera is unusual. Nearly always accidents are shown to have fallen after a camera is introduced, and this fact is often used to trumpet their effectiveness. But the claim may rest on statistical sleight of hand. After a spate of accidents, a camera is installed and sure enough the accident rate falls. But you would expect the accident rate to fall independently — because of a phenomenon called ‘regression to the mean’. This makes evaluating the true effectiveness of cameras rather difficult.

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There are also countless psychological experiments which suggest naive interventions such as speed cameras and seatbelts may simply lead to greater risk-taking elsewhere. Consider Wilde’s Theory of Homeostatic Risk, which suggests overall risk levels in motoring are unaffected by narrow interventions, since people may instinctively compensate for driving more slowly in one place by driving faster elsewhere. Similarly, people wearing seatbelts are known to respond unconsciously to their heightened sense of security by driving a little more aggressively, making innocent pedestrians and cyclists pay the price for their increased safety.

Huhne was driving at 69mph at 11:23p.m. in a newish car on what the photograph shows to have been an almost empty motorway. To have slowed from 80mph to 50mph in the space of a few hundred yards would have been hazardous to any drivers behind (one widely acknowledged problem with speed cameras is the erratic and unexpected braking they cause). To receive a driving ban for decelerating normally seems to me completely unreasonable.

It has always seemed odd to me that the civil liberties groups who complain endlessly about CCTV have been so reticent about speed cameras (unlike their counterparts in the United States, where the American Civil Liberties Union has actively campaigned against them). I am unsure about CCTV myself, but at least film footage requires human interpretation: the idea that fines and driving bans can be issued by a machine is a much more dangerous line to cross.

I am sure what Mr Huhne should have done was to challenge the legal basis for the camera. But have you ever tried to contest a speed camera fine? I did once, when I had accelerated on the A2 to avoid being hit by a swerving drunk. After a month lost in a bureaucratic nightmare of court summonses and unacknowledged letters, I took the points and the £60 fine.

If you offload penalty points onto your wife’s driving licence you are certainly perverting the course of something. But justice it isn’t.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments

    Thank goodness for someone with more sense than 99% of the people
    involved in the speed camera scam.

    During the Vietnam War US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara sent an urgent order to the USAF – “Measure what is important, not what is easy to measure”.

    Here, when radar made speed measurement easy, computers streamlined the penalty regime and S172 1988 RTA denied to drivers the right to silence (available to those suspected of any crime in the statute book except “modest” (but
    not serious) motoring offences) the authorities have done the opposite.

    In the 12 years I have been fighting speed cameras, starting with my ECHR
    case (Google), supported incidentally by Liberty, I have come across more gross incompetence, more wishful thinking and quasi-religious belief masquerading as analysis, more systematic, cynical and all-pervasive misrepresentation of the evidence than in my 40 years in electronics. And not just low-level idiots busily publishing wildly exaggerated claims of camera benefits to help keep their jobs in
    Partnerships, but from the top down, with successive Ministers, other politicians, local authority “experts” who know little and understand less, Not to mention data and analysis the DfT clearly fabricated to pretend tnat cameras are 12% more cost effective than vehicle activated signs when they are 50 TIMES LESS cost effective – and the blatant lies the DfT, the then Minister and Transcom told when at first they flatly denied that the numbers were misleading before admitting they were – and then doing nothing about it. Not forgetting Acpo, whose members as I understand it, stil receive no training whatever in understanding even basic statistics.

    All of this and a great deal more is fully documented at , has been for 5 years and not one of the proven liars has challenged it – they
    know they lied.

    But then again, the policy and sheer waste of money rolls on regardless because they would sooner save face – and jobs – than save lies.

    One other point, for now – that evaluating the effects of regression to the mean is difficult. Or so it has long been believed, primarily because it is not possible to measure what did not happen because cameras had been installed..

    However, after a bit of lateral thinking when I learned that the DfT hold in database form full details of 6m injury accidents from 1985 to 2009, with each location identified within 10m, I set about analysing what DID happen at 100,000+ sites across the country that would have qualified for a speed camera, but in 98% of cases never received one – and even the 2% only relatively recently.

    Within a week or two I will have the best analysis of RTTM ever available, all the better for not being based on complex and questionable statistical theories, computer models (so easily programmed to produce the desired results) and relatively small amounts of data for a few camera sites, but on what DID happen at 100,000 sites with no cameras.

    With any luck this will prove to be the smoking gun that will blow these incompetent and useless people out of the water, out of their jobs and with any luck into jail for a variety of offences including serious fraud, misconduct in public office and corporate manslaughter.

    • Malcolm Cupis

      I have every sympathy with Chris Huhne and all of the other millions of other people arbitrarily criminalised by the speed camera scam.

      But I have no sympathy with him whatsoever for being prepared to perjure himself and then sacrifice his family in order to evade the consequences. This is truly reprehensible.


        agreed – after 12 years of trying to get any sense out of the DfT, Acpo and innumerable Partnerships I remain baffled that so many still do not understand that while the original issue was a problem, its the cover-up that proves fatal – as with the head of the NHS now facing the sack (no doubt taking yet more of our money as he passes GO – over his cover-up of excess hospital deaths.

        And if I have anything to do with it, soon the Chief Statistician of one part of the UK

  • Ian Terrell

    Not this camera. The camera in question is the start of the A406, which is legally 50 mph. Dropping from 70 mph, the legal maximum (and not 80mph!) to 50 mph to take the junction, and bend, and to filter into heavy traffic, is reasonable. Unreasonable is the blatant disregard of speed limits by most drivers at this point coupled with tailgaiting, undertaking, and random lane changing. This area is like whacky races at the best of times with many drivers bullying those that obey the law or generally driving recklessly. On the other carriageway standard practice is to speed up over 70mph plus, and overtake in the left lane from about a mile or two before the derestricted sign, and while slower traffic from the west A406 is filtering from the right. About time the police mounted a campaign to arrest those responsible and throw away the key.

  • John McEvoy

    I got off a speed camera fine…not saying how!

  • Peter Ward

    I once tried to contest a speed camera fine. I could prove I wasn’t speeding (measurements, plus timing from the video) but I found out at court on the day of the hearing that I FIRST had to prove either the camera was defective or the operator was in error BEFORE I could then move on to demonstrate my innocence. It was an expensive lesson and wasted a year of my time. My plan now, if I ever receive another speeding summons, is to pay up and skip the aggro.

  • Frank Haney

    I used to drive along that section of the M11 most weekdays at the time that camera was installed. Most of the time the traffic crawled at that point but when it didn’t crawl it flowed quite nicely at 70(ish) mph. Then the authorities imposed a 50 mph speed limit and the traffic still flowed OK at 70(ish). So they installed a speed camera.

    I saw the debris of the first accident a little while after that and continued to see the results of accidents at that point until I stopped using the road regularly some two years later. The collisions all appeared to me to have been caused by somebody slowing down more than the person following expected, exactly what happens when one driver sees a camera late and the second driver doesn’t.

    The camera wasn’t activated for about a year after it was installed by the way. The regulars knew it wasn’t active and learnt to ignore it. That’s part, if not most, of the reason for its success. Its financial success, I mean. I doubt if it was ever intended to cut the number of accidents because until it was installed I’d never seen one there.

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