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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 25/09/2005)


Now I have learned at first hand the dogma that lies behind the speed camera

Last April I joined the 11 million motorists who, in the past decade or so, have been caught by a speed camera. On a road with eight changes of speed limit in three miles, I was picked up by a camera sited just past where a 40mph limit changes to 30.

As an alternative to three points on my licence, I opted to attend Avon and Somerset's three-hour "Speed Camera Workshop", necessitating an 80-mile round trip to Taunton. Appropriately this is just a mile or two from where, in 2000, a police car carrying Jack Straw, then home secretary, was clocked at 103mph on the M5.

Those who recently attended this course with me had come from as far away as Nottingham and Lincolnshire. It was all conducted on cosy first name terms, by "Ian" and "Bill". The aim, it became clear, was gradually to shepherd us round from feeling we had been unlucky to be caught, via demonstrations of how anti-social it is to speed and how effective cameras are in reducing accidents, to a profound sense of guilt.

We must learn to see that breaking the speed limit is as socially unacceptable as drink driving (not really any different, as it was put, than "going out to hit someone over the head with a baseball bat"). And we must learn to love the camera as Big Brother, there to save us from ourselves.

All this was supported by a barrage of statistics. The only trouble, as anyone would know who is familiar with the admirable website on speed cameras run by Paul Smith (www.safespeed.org.uk), was that every single figure given to us was hopelessly wrong. (I do not blame the instructors.)

Trotted out first, of course, was the familiar claim that a third of all accidents are caused by speeding. Yet a study by Avon and Somerset police themselves shows that in reality "excessive speed" is the main factor in only 10 per cent of accidents. Of these, less than a third involve exceeding the limit.

Figures were cited to show the financial cost of accidents: 17,550 for each "slight collision", 174,530 for a "serious collision", 1,492,910 for each "fatal collision". But these statistics, including huge sums for "distress", are entirely bogus, originally cooked up by the Department for Transport for a quite different purpose.

As for the claim that speed cameras have reduced accidents, the truth is that serious accident figures have been continuously dropping since 1966, making Britain's roads the safest in Europe. But that rate of decline has markedly slowed since 1994, coinciding with the period when cameras have moved to the forefront of official efforts to promote safety.

A high point of our "Janet and John"-style lecture was a video showing a small child being killed by a car driving down a busy street at 35mph, as if to show us what breaking the limit leads to. The average speed at which pedestrians are hit in 30 and 40mph limits is in fact 11mph. Of accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians, only 1.5 per cent of victims die.

Most striking was the way that "speed" was defined only in terms of breaking the law by exceeding a limit. What we were sharply steered off was any discussion of how "excessive speed" might more realistically be defined as driving at a speed inappropriate to the conditions.

When we were each asked to describe how we were caught, it was clear from the replies that no one appeared to have been driving in a way which endangered themselves or anyone else. All had been driving at a speed which seemed appropriate. But even to think such thoughts is heresy.

We are all guilty. We must learn to love Big Brother.

China moves in on EU defence

Despite his grandiose rhetoric last summer, it may now be as obvious to his EU colleagues as it was predictable at the time that Tony Blair plans to do as little as possible with his six months as the EU's President.

Not so the man due to succeed him next January, Finland's prime minister Matti Vanhanen, who is highly alarmed at the EU's drive to establish its own "defence identity", independent of Nato and the US. Finland will use its presidency, he says, to rebuild "political and defence bridges between Europe and the United States", which he fears are crumbling.

Mr Vanhanen might have been further alarmed last week by the news that a Chinese state company has been set up to play a key role in operating Galileo, the EU's navigational satellite system, in which China already has a 20 per cent share. This is significant because the Galileo project, planned as a rival to the US GPS system, is at the very heart of the EU's defence identity.

Just as worrying to Washington is that the EU, after the recent Beijing summit, has now formed a "strategic partnership" with China, America's most obvious potential enemy. When General Lance Lord of the US Air Force Space Command last week announced plans to "to deploy an electronic warfare unit capable of jamming enemy satellites", it was obvious which satellite system he had in mind.

It is all very well for his EU colleagues to accuse Mr Blair of doing nothing as President, but it was he who signed the deal in Beijing last month which could range Britain and the EU on the side of their new "strategic partner" in any future war. Britain's presidency may turn out to have made a rather more significant contribution to history than we will one day care to remember.

Downs is dangerous

Listeners to the BBC's You and Yours on Thursday might have been surprised to hear an interview with Georgina Downs, a pesticides campaigner, from the venue where the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution had just launched its report on the dangers to health of toxic chemicals sprayed on fields. Twice, after noises off, Miss Downs was forced to stop, with strangled cries that the Royal Commission was demanding that she get off the telephone.

That this report appeared at all was a tribute to the pressure Miss Downs, a 32-year-old former singer, has brought on ministers, for four years, on behalf of all those who, like herself and her family, have suffered severe health problems after exposure to spraying of nearby farmland. So forcefully did she pursue her campaign, as frequently reported in this column, that last summer Alun Michael, the minister for rural affairs, agreed to ask the commission to investigate.

Although its report does make nominal concessions to her case - as in admitting it is "not implausible" that there might be a connection between ill-health and exposure to toxic chemicals - the fact is that Miss Downs has run into that familiar brick wall which successive governments have built round pesticides, ever since ministers learned in 1992 that the health of thousands of farmers had been ruined by the use of organo-phosphorus sheep dips.

The trouble is that, since all pesticides are licensed by the Government itself as safe to use, the Government cannot afford to admit that it is responsible for a massive public health disaster.

The licensing agencies, such as the Pesticides Safety Directorate, are happy to emphasise how dangerous these products are to those who use them, insisting on every kind of safety precaution. But when something goes wrong, as with all those hapless victims represented by Miss Downs, officialdom moves into implacable denial mode. To admit otherwise would make it liable for the fact that its regime has failed.

The most vital thing of all, as borne out yet again by the Royal Commission report, is to ensure that no serious study is ever made of the connection between pesticide exposure and damage to health. Report after report can thus come out dismissing all evidence of damage as "anecdotal", while making sure that no one is ever allowed to put it to proper scientific test.

For what she has achieved with her campaign, Miss Downs is a heroine of our time. But like other campaigners before her, such as the redoubtable Countess of Mar, she has run into one of the most ruthless conspiracies of silence in modern government.

Assemble a gravy train

At the Lib Dem conference, Peter Arnold, the leader of Newcastle city council, lashed out at the unelected North-East Assembly as "boring, invisible, a waste of time and money". Unsurprisingly, irate voices in the North-East were soon asking why Mr Arnold still allows such a pointless body to operate rent-free from his council's Guildhall, when such prestigious premises could be leased out for up to 200,000 a year.

There is a curious echo here of what is going on in the South-East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) under its new "chair", Cllr Keith Mitchell, the leader of Oxfordshire county council. Mr Mitchell is doubtless as well rewarded as his predecessor, who had an allowance of 11,150 a year from SEERA (and 20,000 plus 35,219 expenses from Surrey county council).

In March Cllr Mitchell and his Oxfordshire colleagues were among the council nominees to SEERA who voted by a two-thirds majority for their assembly to be scrapped. Cleverly, however, the rules allowed the local government officials who also sit on the assembly to overrule them. So Cllr Mitchell can continue to enjoy the rewards of the post he voted to abolish.