Perception vs Reality: Speed Cameras


According to the police, speed cameras are a safety device that reduces driving fatalities and keeps ‘hoons’ from going too fast.

This claim is based on a few assumptions:

  1. Drivers pay attention to the location of speed cameras.
  2. Drivers go slower because they know about speed cameras in an area.
  3. Drivers go slower becauase they don’t know where all the speed cameras are.

However, human behaviour tells a different story. Speed related collisions account for around 40% of the road toll every year. Speed cameras have been around for 30 years, and the total number of deaths has dropped by 41%. This seems like a successful strategy at first, however considering this is a drop from the very high 3900 deaths in 1985 to a still significant 1193 deaths in 2013.

Better, but by no means a complete solution.

So, what’s the problem?

There are several.

The idea that speed cameras slow people down is a forgivable but incorrect interpretation of the facts. It is not the introduction of the speed cameras themselves that slow people down, but the prevalence of speed camera SIGNS.

Think about it. Which one of these would make you drive slower?

  1. Driving past a deliberately hidden speed camera, which you may not notice at all until you get the fine in the mail, weeks later?
  2. Driving past a large and clear sign indicating that speed cameras are in use in the area.

It may seem strange, but when seeking to influence behaviour, we must consider these subtle differences in thinking patterns.

A system built on negativity

Seeking to reduce the road toll and make people safer is an admirable goal. However, there is more than one way to achieve that goal. The current method is created utilising the Loss Aversion economic theory, which suggests that we place more weight on the avoidance of losses, than the achievement of gains. An economically sound, but also a somewhat narrow-minded approach.

Namely; fines.

For example, for the 2009-2010 period, an estimated $437 million revenue was generated from speed camera fines in New South Wales alone. That amount of money would likely be budgeted for as a part of the revenue raising efforts of the federal government. If a budget is applied to a system of penalties, then it creates an unconscious policy bias toward the generation of said penalties, rather than the ultimate prevention of the negative activity that fines seek to address.

This creates a negative perception around the whole idea of speed cameras, by focusing the public’s attention on a single result (fines) rather than the collective result (reduced road toll).

A marketing solution

The goal should be to reframe not just speed cameras, but the entire approach to road safety, in such a way as to create a positive movement toward speed reduction.

An innovative idea executed by Volkswagen was to use gamification to influence the road safety. They created the Speed Camera Lottery, an idea based on introducing a ‘play’ element to driving under the speed limit. Every driver’s speed was recorded. If they were over the limit, they would receive a fine. However, if they were under the speed limit, they would be sent a lottery ticket, which would put them in the running to win the ‘prize pool’ of money generated by the fines. Over a three day period in a 30km/h school zone, the average speed of roughly 25,000 drivers through the zone went from 32km/h to 25km/h.

It may not seem like much, however by the simple addition of a play element (the possibility to win cash), behaviour was changed for the better.

My hope is to get people (and hopefully policy-makers) to rethink the standard ideas around road safety speed cameras, and perhaps explore more innovative solutions to change behaviour.