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Speed cameras and hosepipes

In London we're blessed with a couple of free daily papers. The Standard Lite, while not as badly-written, superficial, or knee-jerking as the Metro, still has something of that tendency: today's headline is 1800 are grassed up by the hosepipe 'snoops'. It's a story about people reporting infringements of the hosepipe ban, and it takes an obvious and pretty-much one-sided attitude: the people doing the reporting are 'snoops', 'snitching' and 'looking out for offenders while jogging'. Never mind the possibility that the ban is for everyone's good, and that perhaps everyone needs to bear it in mind.

It's strongly reminiscent of the way the papers treat stories about speed cameras, and I think it's for very similar reasons. There are genuine reasons that people may feel the hosepipe ban is unfair: one side seems utterly plausible to me - why ban private use of hosepipes, but continue to allow swimming pools to be filled and golf courses to be watered? As the Standard itself says, Thames Water used high-pressure jets to wash its head office building - hardly an expression of solidarity. The other side is less plausible, and that's the old one about "why don't the water companies just fix all the leaks in their pipes?". I'd like to see how the journalists would propose to fix absolutely every leak in a water distribution system that reaches across entire counties and reaches into every home. There's no way such a system could be leak-free, and absolutely no way to dramatically cut the amount of leakage before this summer's predicted drought.

As with speed cameras, the overall aim is a noble one, but tiny elements of the scheme's PR seem to poison the public perception irrevocably. Speed cameras save lives, that's an undisputable fact. (I say "undisputable" - I do remember watching an episode of Top Gear where the presenters abused the statistics and tried to make out that speed cameras didn't make much difference.) There are people alive today who wouldn't be if it weren't for the introduction of speed cameras. But the Government never predicted that one tiny aspect would sour the public perception: the fact that the fines raised by speed cameras fed back to the police force who install the cameras, leading to the entirely misplaced belief that they're a money-raising stunt.

How did that happen? That single aspect isn't the cause of the public opposition to speed cameras. One of the most important factors is that people have an emotional involvement with their cars, a simple result of the fact that it's a private space, almost as private as your front room. When driving, people feel at home, they don't feel as if they are out in public (as they do when on a bus), so regulating their behaviour feels like much more of an intrusion. This is a really big problem because cars kill so many people each year, and they kill even more people if allowed to speed (or if the drivers use mobile phones at the same time, for example).

Now, police officers have a personal authority that trumps the privacy factor, and they act immediately rather than over a period of days. They also give the driver an opportunity to justify themselves - "I didn't realise I was speeding, officer" etc - so when someone is caught speeding by a human, there's often no feeling of injustice. But being caught by a faceless camera, and issued a standardised letter some time later, feels less like justice and more alienating. For one, it makes the law more of a faceless bureaucracy, reducing the feeling of having a chance to argue one's point, and removing the authority-figure from the punishment (an important factor in accepting the punishment).

Imagine, for example, a slight change to the system. Imagine that instead of a letter arriving on your doorstep, telling you you were being fined for having broken the speed limit two days ago, an actual police officer came to the door with the notice. "Ello ello ello, did you think you were Ayrton Senna yesterday?" "Sorry officer, I didn't realise I was speeding..." - etc. I'm sure people would accept that much more readily, with less of a feeling of injustice.

The media discussion of such initiatives makes it obvious that public reaction to an initiative is not directly related to the public good it brings. Human factors really need to be carefully considered, and although it's not always obvious in advance, there are some nice clear examples of things to avoid...

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