Mobile speed cameras have been used on Canberra’s roads for two decades — and they are as unpopular as ever.
The latest survey shows 61 per cent of Canberrans believe the technology’s main purpose is to raise revenue (the ACT government has always denied this).
So with two new camera vans soon to be deployed, the ABC sought to prove, one way or another, whether the existing eight vans have been used to maximise the flow of dollars to Treasury.
The good news? The government could make much more money — millions of dollars extra each year — by tweaking slightly where it puts its cameras.
The bad news? It’s not going to do this. Because despite what most Canberrans think, that’s not the government’s goal.
Where should cameras be placed for the money shot?
We looked at three years of deployment data — up until the start of the pandemic.
The mobile cameras were deployed across about 1,000 sites. These spots were chosen because of police or public concerns about speeding, or because of a history of collisions in that area.
Over the three years, each camera recorded an average of just two offences per hour (or fines worth about $880 an hour).
If the government had been trying to raise revenue, it did a terrible job of it.
Cameras were sent regularly to areas where the government knew they made effectively no money.
For example, one of the most frequently used sites was Canberra Avenue, just outside CIT Fyshwick.
On average, deployments there led to just one fine for every 6,275 vehicles that went past — more than 16 hours of monitoring traffic to record a single speeding vehicle.
At the other extreme, the two most financially rewarding places to set up a camera were rarely used.
Those sites were a school zone in Starke Street, Higgins (opposite Cranleigh School) and a 100kph zone on the Majura Parkway (just outside Mount Majura Vineyard).
In fact, there was a very weak correlation between which sites were used and the number of fines issued.
Mobile cameras were just as likely to be on relatively quiet streets with law-abiding motorists as they were to be on heavily trafficked roads with a high incidence of speeding.
So it’s fair to say the “revenue-raising” myth is just that: a myth.
But what if it weren’t? What if the government linked the hours its vans spent at a site with the number of fines issued per hour?
Our analysis suggests the government could have collected an extra $8 million a year if it did this — 70 per cent more — so long as motorists continued to speed.
Why are mobile cameras deployed where they are?
There is no precise formula for where the camera vans are sent.
Chris Seddon, who directs the ACT’s traffic camera program, says safety is the priority but several factors are involved.
“We identify the locations … due to history of speeding, history of accidents, public complaints and information from ACT Policing,” he says.
Yet he acknowledges that most of the public do not believe that.
“But it’s all about … keeping everyone on our road transport network safe, so they can arrive at their destinations, visit their family members, and always arrive home from work.
“If we were to raise revenue, as most people think [we do], we would place these cameras in other locations.”
Some vans are also deployed randomly, so motorists can encounter them “anywhere, anytime”.
And, overall, this approach is working.
A 2018 study of ACT mobile speed cameras, by Monash University’s Accident Research Centre, found a 20 per cent reduction in collision risk in the areas they were deployed.
The centre estimated that saved $61 million in social costs in 2017, such as healthcare expenses and lost productivity.
And it’s likely those savings would be even higher if the government gave greater priority to crash-prone areas — because it doesn’t do a great job of that at present.
The ABC analysed how many collisions had been reported within 250 metres of every camera site in Canberra.
The result? Effectively no association between the time cameras spent at a location and its crash history. There’s definitely room for improvement.
Motorists want more police, not more cameras
The Monash study may have demonstrated the cameras’ effectiveness, but Canberrans remain sceptical.
In fact, more than half of those surveyed said they were at no greater risk of crashing if they drove 10kph faster than the speed limit.
Those least likely to support speed limits were motorcyclists, who are among the most vulnerable road users, and taxi drivers, who use the roads most.
Motoring organisation NRMA says the link between speeding and collisions is beyond doubt, and drivers need to stick to the limit.
But its spokesman Peter Khoury says governments are overly reliant on cameras to solve the problem.
“While cameras can play a part in the overall safety mix, we have to acknowledge and accept that that role is limited,” he says.
Mr Khoury agrees that speed cameras work — “and there’s no doubt that the cameras are much cheaper” — but notes that speeding is a factor in only one in five road deaths.
“That means that four-fifths of the deaths on our roads involve factors other than speeding,” he says.
The NRMA’s wish list includes a greater number of marked police cars patrolling ACT roads and regular road safety campaigns.
“That’s the best way to change behaviour: you’ve got to do your enforcement to make sure that people are doing the right thing, but you also need to consistently remind the public through effective education and advocacy campaigns,” Mr Khoury says.
Nonetheless, more mobile cameras are on the way and will be deployed on ACT roads later this year.
And if you’re particularly upset about that, it’s worth remembering that paying fines is entirely voluntary — you need to speed to get one.