Gatso Schmatso

People Culture

It’s one of the most deflating feelings in the motoring world. No, strike that. In the universe. It’s ten in the morning on your local dual carriageway on a sunny Sunday. You’ve crammed the kids into the car for an early get away for lunch at Granny’s, placated by a Grab Bag of ready salted, a packet of opal fruits and a pirate copy of Alvin and the Chipmunks in the mobile DVD. Everything is right in the world. Full of bonhomie and the joy of spring, however, you neglect to notice the gunmetal-and-yellow carbuncle that usually has the three lanes of the arterial route into town crawling at a pace that would make the cast of Last of the Summer Wine lean heavily on the hooter. The first flash is almost imperceptible in the mirror against the glare of the morning sun, but with the second comes the creeping realisation, like oozing blood, that you’ve been Gatsoed. 43 miles per hour on an empty three lane highway and not a hazard in site. Welcome to automotive justice – 21st century style.

Question 2: do you think speed cameras are just a cynical way to raise revenue?

It’s common knowledge these days that one of the most nefarious contributions to modern culture made by the people of the Netherlands is the Gatso: otherwise known as the Static Radar Speed Camera. Sure, the Dutch are good at being strangely liberal, broad-minded and every now and then playing attractive football – but should that get Maurice Gatsonides off the hook? In one of the greatest and most horrible ironies in automotive history, the East-Indies-born Dutchman was a rev head himself – in fact he was his nation’s most accomplished rally driver, having won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1953 – he apparently came up with the idea some time in the fifties of timing himself between two fixed photographic points as a way of perfecting his line and shaving fractions of a second off his lap time. In 1958 he launched the company that would corner the market in Speed Cameras. Cheers Maurice.

Maurice Gatsonides with his other, more admirable, claim to fame

The Gatso is of course however, just the most visible of a raft of controversial surveillance technologies that for the last couple of decades have been changing the nature of the relationship between the humble motorist and the regional powers that be, known these days by the Orwellian moniker ‘The Safety Camera Partnerships’. The Partnerships, which comprise the police, central government, local authorities and various other groups – preside over an arsenal of weapons with which they fight the good fight of road safety. There are Average Speed Cameras, Red Light Cameras and Congestion Zoning Cameras that operate using Optical Character Recognition – as well as the even more ominous sounding Monitron system. Monitron cameras are around three feet higher than our old favourite the Gatso, and have a camera ‘head’ about half its size. These cutting-edge devices send real-time images to digital monitoring centres operated by local traffic police rolling out of Monitron seems set to quicken the pace of conviction as police in monitoring centres can make on-the-spot decisions as to whether to prosecute, rather than the have the process stall in the interminably slow and overworked Crown Prosecution Service system – as well as hot up the already seething debate around the utility and ethics of speed cameras in a more general sense.

The tech of babylon – or civilisation in a yellow box?

The main debate, from their introduction in the early nineties until the system was changed in 2000, was the fact that they could be used as a cynical revenue generation scheme for local authorities. It was suspected by many motorists that for a relatively small investment, local authorities and the police could guarantee a healthy return by snaring hapless speeders with concealed cameras and unreasonable parameters for prosecution. “To describe revenue from safety cameras as a ’tax’ is emotive, but not true,” Neil Greig, research and policy director at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, told The Telegraph recently. “Properly placed fixed safety cameras are just one road safety tool, not a substitute for active road policing or long-term engineering improvements. They should be in addition to cops in cars…”

At the turn of the millennium, new legislation meant that revenues generated by fines imposed by convictions achieved by Speed Cameras goes into a central government fund – (apart from a fixed figure of £110M of it that is). That same legislation also tightened up restrictions on where they can be placed and how visible Speed Cameras have to be. But while the guidelines have been tightened to avoid some of the excesses, the central issue of whether or not they result in greater road safety seems set to grind on and on.

But wether or not we enjoy the constant gaze of the state authorities whilst we’re driving, we cannot help but acknowledge just how dangerous speeding excess, particularly in built-up areas, can really be. Road safety charity Brake have claimed that with every extra mile per hour, the chances of survival for a cyclist or pedestrian who is hit are reduced. It’s obvious that the faster a vehicle goes, the harder it hits and the more damage it causes. At 20mph, according to latest figures, the vast majority (95%) of pedestrians hit by a vehicle will survive. At 40mph, the vast majority (85%) will die. And something out there seems to be working. In the summer of last year, the government announced that road deaths had dropped to their lowest figures since 1926, with 2,943 lives lost. “This is a credit to the people doing the work, including police services, local authorities and car manufacturers. said Robert Gifford, of the parliamentary advisory council for transport safety. But while road deaths are on ths slide, a single road death is unnecessary and violently tragic for all concerned. Just how much of this downward trend is directly attributable to the presence and technological development of surveillance technology is a matter of constant, bitter debate.

Of course, we would never condone vigilantes, but…

Swindon Borough Council’s recent decision to get rid of speed cameras may represent a prescient death-knell for the old fashioned Gatso. Meanwhile More and more local authorities are favouring luminescent ‘driver-friendly’ signs that remind drivers to slow down; recent developments in voluntary speed-limiting technology (which could theoretically be introduced as compulsory) can have obvious energy-saving benefits as well as representing economically valid arguments.

Motorists have to face the facts: speed can and often does kill. But perhaps the changing political environment and increasingly effective technology might just lead to more sensible driving and just prosecutions of drivers who truly fail to pay heed to the fact. Perhaps it won’t be long until that draconian double flash of doom might be a thing of distant memory.

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