25 Years of Speed Cameras in Britain

If you wish to start a controversial motoring-related debate at many a social gathering, just mentioned two words – ‘speed camera’. The arguments about cameras usage look set to continue for many years to come. They seem to have been part of our lives for generations, so it comes as quite a surprise to learn that their first use in the UK was as recently as 25 years ago.

The 28th of January 1896 saw the issue of Britain's first speed ticket when one Walter Arnold was caught exceeding the 2-mph speed limit at Petts Wood in Kent by some 6 mph. During the early days of the 20th century, errant motorists on the Brighton Road were often caught by ‘speed traps’ which consisted of police officers employing hand signals and a stopwatch over a measured stretch of road. When the Automobile Association was formed in 1905 its patrolmen would alert members to the presence of such traps until the 1910 court case Betts v Stevens ruled that this was illegal. Thereafter, if an AA employee failed to salute – ‘stop and ask the reason why…’.

In 1958, the great driver and engineer Maurice Gatsonides – the winner of the 1953 Monte Carlo Rally – formed a company to manufacture his Gatsometre camera which, ironically, had its origins in increasing rather than reducing speed. In order to improve his performance on circuits, Gatsonides devised a system of two wires laid across the tarmac that was connected to a stopwatch. This would commence operating when his car passed over the first and cease when it passed over the second.

The racer believed that his invention would remove ‘the human factor in measuring time and distance’ and the same principle could be applied to ‘Gatso’ cameras which could be used by police forces for speed detection. By 1966 Gatsonides had devised the first ‘Red Light Camera’ and in 1988, Nottingham City Council became a pioneer in the use of these devices. A major junction was the site of a triple fatality and so a Gatsometer unit was activated by loop detectors situated just beyond the stop line. July of that year saw the first motorists in the UK to be successfully prosecuted via such photographic evidence and three years later the Road Traffic Act 1991 authorised the use of ‘automatic speed devices for the detection of such motoring offences.

And so, the 22nd May 1992 saw Sergeant Peter Reynolds press the ‘on’ switch to Britain's first speed camera. The Gatso was located on The Avenue stretch of the A316 to the south-west of Twickenham bridge – and in the first 22 days of operation, it recorded 22,939 drivers exceeding 65mph. At that time the camera was painted grey – it would not be until 2001 that they were legally obliged to be painted yellow for greater visibility – and the Daily Telegraph observed that ‘Trials on the M40 had shown just how frequently drivers broke the limit, when cameras capable of taking 400 snapshots on each roll of film had used up their quota in 40 minutes’.

Today, the Royal Society for the Prevention Accidents argues that they ‘have become an important and cost-effective method for reducing road casualties’ while earlier this year certain newspapers proclaimed a camera on the northbound A1 at Great Ponton as the most lucrative in the UK. The debates would appear set to continue indefinitely and we have certainly come a long way since the days of Mr. Arnold.