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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 July 2007, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Life in the fast lane
Speedometer

Speeding drivers are increasingly being given the chance to pay their dues by joining awareness classes. After 20 years of driving without a blemish on her licence, Alison Trowsdale found herself back in the learner seat, among an unlikely collection of law breakers.

Trying to squeeze in the weekly shop at Tesco before having to do the school run is how this middle-aged mother got caught speeding.

It's hardly the most dramatic of circumstances and, as breaking the law goes, it's not going to place me at the top of any police force's most-wanted list.

Speed camera
UK has most speed cameras in Europe
But I accept even if the speedometer just nudges over the speed limit, you are in the wrong. I was told I'd been clocked doing 39mph on a suburban road with a 30mph limit, so it was a fair cop.

The first I knew of my crime was when a letter dropped onto my doormat inviting me to attend an "urban workshop" - as Thames Valley Police refer to their courses.

I did break the law, but I'm not the kind of teenage speed freak who revs over the speed bumps at 50mph in a built-up area or cuts up unsuspecting motorists on the inside lane of the motorway.

I know this is no excuse. At 35mph you are twice as likely to kill a child you hit as you are at 30mph, according to road safety charity Brake. It's a stark statistic.

'Criminalising all drivers'

However, it still comes as a shock after driving for more than 20 years without a single point on my licence and only one very minor bump to my name.

But I am among a new, unsuspecting class of law breakers who are finding themselves in trouble with the police - often for the first time.

Speeding is now the most common offence on the UK's roads, according to government figures. In recent years it has made up more than one third of all driving offences dealt with by police in England and Wales.

SPEED AND IMPACT
Speedometer
At 40mph 85% of people hit by vehicles die
At 30mph 20% of people hit by vehicles die
At 20mph 5% of people hit by vehicles die
SOURCE: DfT
Part of the reason for this could be that the UK is the speed-camera capital of Europe, according to recent figures given to MPs. Numbers have risen from 1,935 in 2000 to just over 5,500 this year.

Most police authorities now offer speed awareness courses as an alternative to points on your licence. They are restricted to drivers who have exceeded the limit to a small degree.

Critics of the cameras, including MPs, say they are criminalising all drivers.

When I arrived at the Bicester training centre for my course, I have to admit I am faced with the most unlikely group of law breakers you can imagine.

The majority are slightly shocked middle-aged people like me. At a guess at least six are pensioners, only one man is in a hoodie - but he's far too old to qualify for a hug from David Cameron.

Indignant

I find out I am one of 45,000 drivers to have attended driving courses in the Thames Valley region of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. If my group is anything to go by, most of those won't have fitted the stereotypical profile of your usual offender.

I was lucky to be offered the course, until April this year - when the scheme was extended - you were eligible only if you were driving up to five miles over the limit.

It costs 74, but a speeding fine is 60 and points on my licence could result in increased car insurance. I think this is what persuades most to sign up for the "urban workshops".

For most of us it is the first time our driving abilities have been questioned since passing our driving test at 17
Not everyone is relieved like me to just avoid getting points. Some of my fellow "offenders" are very indignant about finding themselves on the course. They don't consider themselves law breakers, even though the speed cameras have them down as such.

But we are not here to be judged or treated like hardened criminals, we're told by our sharp-suited instructor Mark. He's not a police officer, which makes the course seem less formal.

Firstly our driving ability is put to the test using an interactive computer session. Considering some older participants haven't even used a computer mouse before, I'm not sure how much the programme reflects their driving skills.

Distracted

Designed by Professor Frank McKenna, a leading expert in driver behaviour, the programme is all about getting drivers to reassess their own habits and understand that speed is to blame for 28% of the 3,172 deaths on British roads last year.

For most of us it is the first time our driving abilities have been questioned since passing our driving test at 17.

It judges how readily you recognise potential hazards on the road, what sort of distance you would leave behind the car in front and also asks what time of day you normally drive, how tired you are, whether other drivers make you cross.

Cars
Speed was blamed for 28% of UK road deaths last year
It highlights my "slight tendency" to get distracted. I'm quite pleased with that considering the kind of distractions my daughters regularly create in the back of the car. But apparently lack of attention is the most common reason for driving too fast.

Mark tells us speed isn't "a bad thing", it just needs to be appropriate to the road. Asked what the speed limits are on all types of roads, most of us knew the obvious ones but few of us knew all of them. The same goes for different stopping distances. It was quite a wake-up call.

Speed cameras don't often get good press and Mark drew the session to a close by attempting a bit of PR spin. Contrary to popular belief they are placed only at accident black spots and are nothing to do with generating extra revenue, he says. Also, Thames Valley Police has 330 fixed speed cameras, of which only 22 are in action at any one time.

Police figures suggest one in 12 people who attends a speed awareness course is likely to be stopped again for speeding, whereas one in four drivers who collects the points is likely to reoffend.

So did it work for me? Two days later, driving along the same road where I was originally seen speeding, I spot a police officer waiting in a lay-by to catch unwitting motorists. Only this time I'm driving past at 30mph.


Below is a selection of your comments.

If 28% of accidents are caused by speeding what is being done to focus on the other 72%? Fixing the 72% would make a bigger impact, yet all we see is the use of the blunt instrument of speed cameras. The "safety partnership" camera van in my home town parks within a few metres of a pelican crossing used by mothers taking their kids to school, partially obscuring the crossing for oncoming motorists. In fact the zigzag lines in front of the Pelican have been shortened to allow this so that the van is not breaking the law of parking on a Pelican crossing!
Tim Banks, Knutsford

I agree with the above comments. A few 80+ neighbours have been caught and have points on their licence, while the "boy racers" get off scot-free. Incidentally, my husband was offered a place on a local course, but he was in Intensive Care when his due date arrived (some 3 months later). We lost the course money and still had to pay the 60 and he got points on his licence.
Agnes Main, Rowlands Gill, Tyne & Wear

I'd like to see car manufacturers and the highways authorities work together to use technology to help reduce road deaths through speeding. Speed limit signs could be fitted with short range transmitters which cars could pick and inform drivers of the current speed limit. The system could even go as far as automatically limiting a cars top speed in urban areas.
David Waller, Bangor, UK

I think that this is a fabulous idea. I, too, have an unblemished driving record. I like to think that I am a conscientious driver, but I know how very easy it is to slip over the limit by a few miles an hour. If I was caught the idea of points on my license would not be a pleasant thought, and I know I would take this. But more than that, just reading the article makes me think about how I need to be that little bit more aware of my speed on the road. I am going to get there eventually, so it may as well be safely!
David Richardson, Leeds, West Yorkshire

Living in the 'Traffic Light' and 'Speed Camera' capital of Europe, I find cameras can be dangerous in themselves. I agree they are designed to stop the 'loons' and therefore people like the lady in the story should be afforded some consideration. We have 'Specs' on a stretch of the M60 which reduces from 70mph to 50mph, just because of a 'bend' in the road... This I think is taking it too far!!!
ken morton, stockport

I wish I had been offered this choice. Last month I was given three points for speeding on a 30mph limit dual carriageway on my motorbike; a fair cop, I was more than willing to admit. However, two weeks later somebody pulled out in front of me when I was doing over 80mph in a national speed limit; regardless of whose fault it was, if I was sticking to the limit, I would not have crashed. As it is, I have two broken ribs, one fractured hand, and one written off motorbike. I can't help feeling that if the testing process or speeding penalty process focused on education, not punishment, people like me would understand the risk they are putting themselves and others in.
Ian Ferguson, Southampton, UK

Your article mentioned 'speed being appropriate to the road' and this is a problem: Often the speed limits are not appropriate. For example near me is a 3 mile stretch of 30mph limit. Only 1 mile of this is in a village, the rest is open countryside - inappropriate. Another problem area is breaking distances - these haven't been reviewed since the 1960 when most cars had only drum brakes. All experts agree that actual breaking distances are much less these days.
Martin Sweet, Swindon

Motorists in the UK need to wake up to the issue of stopping distances. All too often I'm tailgated on de-restricted roads at 60mph. Its down right dangerous and the "slightly shocked middle-aged people" you refer to need to be told what a danger they are to people like me who try very hard to drive at the correct speed. Being late for the school run or work does not give you the right to endanger other motorists.
Chris, Peterborough

Mark tells us speed isn't "a bad thing", it just needs to be appropriate to the road. 30 miles an hour is to fast outside a school past parked cars in the wet during the day time. In the middle of the night on the same stretch of road but this time dry, no parked vehicles etc 40 mph is almost certainly safe. The police can recognise this, cameras can not. Many of the most dangerous, uninsured drivers are not traced and do not pay the fines...not much of a deterrent for them to see a camera whereas I police car would be.
Michael Spears, St Albans

I've always been amazed that you can pass your driving test at 17 and then never be tested again in your life. I'm the only person I know that has read the Highway Code since I passed my test in 1975! If drivers were tested every 5 years then the NHS bill would be reduced, the police and fire service bill would be reduced and thousands of examiners and teachers would be employed from the charges levied. The bottom line is: the country would be a safer place.
Richard A Clifton, Wakefield

The indignant in your story are right, speeding fines, speed cameras and the whole message are the problem - they're wrong. Ask yourself the question, which would you rather have: - an alert driver taking notice of the conditions and driving appropriately, at 40mph, or - a driver travelling at 30mph with their attention distracted by looking out for speed cameras, trying to read the 30 different signs telling them what to do, with screaming kids in the back? For all the simplistic 'speed kills' message what actually kills is someone not being able to pay attention. The alert driver at 40mph is much more likely to avoid hitting the child at all, or to have braked to 20mph than the distracted driver at 30mph. We need to do away with the fault message and the whole "this speed is safe" mentality. Its counterproductive. We need to actively engineer the roads to minimise the distractions, give only the clear messages needed, and to prevent kids getting on the roads in the first place. Speed doesn't kill, bad driving and bad roads kill.
Ian Smith, London, UK

I think you'll find that most people caught speeding are the middle-class, big fast car demographic you found in the urban workshop. Break the speed limit and you are breaking the law, which unsurprisingly makes you a law breaker whether you are a youthful hoodie or swan around in your great big Lexus. And incidentally, I suspect the reason you have a blemish free license is more down to the fact that you just haven't been caught and not that you never speed!
Rachael, London

I attempt to keep within the speed limit at all times, although it is hard to on motorways where the average speed of traffic is far in excess of the limit. I find that Oxfordshire and now Buckinghamshire are increasingly putting up unwarranted lower speed limits that have no relationship to the road and this is encouraging drivers to break the law. The B4009 north of Longwick in Bucks is a prime example of a 50 limit put on a clear, safe road with good visibility and minimal housing and can be (and always was) safe at 60. When I stick to these limits I rarely catch up with traffic but start to build up a 'tail' behind me.
Grahame, Aylesbury

We're all guilty of having done it in the past or present, and some of us have copped for it, however, Motorway traffic is already faster than 70mph, this should in my opinion, be raised to 90mph. Cars are much safer these days, have better brakes and more safety features. the biggest problem lies with so called "Boy Racers" who tear around and cause problems, I myself am a car enthusiast, and if I want to tear around in my old sports car, I pay for a Track Day. get these Boy Racers to start paying fines for sitting in large shopping car parks and causing trouble or better yet, take away their cars and dismantle them!!!
Spencer Guest, Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Far from demonising speeding, cameras have done more to increase the social acceptability of breaking the law. All too oftem I've heard people warning others about where a camera is situated and how 'the stupid camera' snapped them when they drove past. It's all about the camera, not what they were doing at the time. If you are a visually aware driver always looking out for hazards then you should easily spot a speed camera well in advance of it. If you get caught then you were either going so fast that slowing to a reasonable speed was impossible or you simply weren't paying attention enough. I think dsuch drivers should be charged with paying undue care and attention instead.
Lee, Crewe

Of course doing 30mph is less dangerous than doing 40mph. So, let's enforce the 30mph limit. But wait. Doing 20mph is even less dangerous, think of how many children will be saved. So, 20 is plenty. And why not abolish cars altogether: let's just walk, think of how many innocent children we will save. Of course we don't do that, because we know (even if it is not PC to say) that the benefits of driving (personal and to society in general) FAR OUTWEIGH the cost of a few thousand road deaths a year. That's why almost all of us often speed. Me, too. I do about 50mph (like everyone else on that road) on a safe 30mph country road, every day as I drive to work and back. It takes me 30 min instead of 50. That's 40 min each day that I can spend in more productive ways, and I feel also less tired and more efficient at work. Multiply that by millions of other "speeding" drivers over the UK, and you'll understand how much our society benefits from the time gained by "speeding".
Rob Barberis, Guildford

We are told that "speed cameras"are not for revenue raising, if this is correct then why do we not change to the Spanish system which simply puts a red stop light up when approached by a speeding vehicle in a restricted area , the light only changes to green when the vehicle is stationary.This is a far better system but does not generate revenue so here in the U K we do not use them.
john hedley, manchester

I was sent on a driver improvement programme by the Thames Valley force. My driving has, I think, been much safer since. I now adhere to the 30 limits but on my drive from my home to the railway station every morning, the queue of cars behind me lengthens as I move along. Obviously the majority of road users are either oblivious or arrogant towards the rules of the road and until something happens to them, their thoughtless, sometimes selfish actions will go unpunished.
Jason, Bedfordshire





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