The W.A. police union president, George Tilbury, has made some rather sensational comments regarding the use of speed cameras in Western Australia that wholly contradict the official police and government line that the cameras are there to save lives.
As a society, we’ve said it for years: “speed cameras are revenue raisers and contribute little in terms of road safety”.
The WA state government and the police repeatedly sell us the line that speed cameras not only save lives, but also reduces the financial burden that road trauma places upon our society. This is a tune repeated by every state and territory government across the nation.
However, I firmly believe that the failure of speed cameras goes much further than failing to curb the road toll. The impression that the use of speed cameras leaves on the public is not only counter-productive in terms of reducing overall crime rates but also costly. Speed cameras make criminals out of decent, every day, law abiding citizens. In doing so the cameras erode public confidence and trust in the police and the authorities generally which in turn negatively affects community harmony and unity. This causes a greater portion of the community to disregard and ignore parts of the criminal law. In some cases it will lead to some people having a complete disregard for the law and deciding for themselves what is appropriate behaviour and what isn’t which is something that I encounter all to often as a criminal lawyer.
A society where a significant proportion of the populous disregard the rules and regulations that are designed to maintain peace and order is not a pleasant place to live. There is a word for such an environment: Anarchy. You only need to look at many 3rd world countries to realise the effects of this. But not only are these societies unpleasant and unsafe places to live: they are also expensive places to live.
We live in a state that is becoming increasingly regulated in terms of it criminal law and regulation generally. Governments from both sides of politics have a constant urgent to demonstrate to the electorate that they are “tough on crime” and are increasingly having ‘knee jerk’ reactions to public furore over isolated or overinflated events.
A child gets locked in a car on a hot day means we suddenly need a new law about leaving children in cars.
A few rowdy parties means we need new laws about out-of-control parties and an expensive, tax payer funded, police “party bus” that seldom sees any use.
Another state introduces a pointless law to stop ‘bikies’ having a beer at the pub means we have to do the same or risk being branded “soft” on crime.
The list goes on and on.
The more laws like this that you have, the more you have to spend on courts, judges, magistrates, police, prisons etc. to enforce those laws. This isn’t such a problem when those laws are observed and respected. If everyone observes and obeys the law the cost of enforcement is nil. But as we all know, such a utopia is yet to exist. Even the often cited and lauded example of Singapore has criminals and has to spend a portion of its revenue enforcing its criminal laws.
But when half of society doesn’t care about the rules, you have to spend obscene amounts of money on enforcement. And this is starting to become a real problem in Western Australia, particularly as government revenue dries up and the resources of the police are becoming increasingly stretched. And it’s not because our laws our soft and Singapore’s aren’t. Nor is it because our judges and magistrates are soft. In any event, neither of those propositions are true for reasons I’m not going to discuss in this article.
Western Australia is in the midst of budget crises that is impacting upon each and every agency that is in anyway reliant on government funding. The WA police are having to decide how to best direct their resources. This means that the police do not respond in a timely manner (or at all in some cases) to a great many complaints by the public. And what is the point in having laws if they aren’t going to be enforced? And what effect does this have on public confidence? So whilst a new law requiring motorists to give cyclists 1 meter of space whilst overtaking might seem a good idea: what is the point when the police say they are too busy responding burglaries to respond to complaints alleging breaches of the new 1-meter law?
Most prosecuting agencies, be it in this state or elsewhere in Australia, including the police, the state DPP, the fisheries department and council rangers have at the core of their internal governance a publicly available prosecution policy that forms the basis of deciding which cases are appropriate to pursue and those that should not be prosecuted. Common to all of these agencies, local, state and federal, is a public interest test. Part of the public interest test is consideration of the effect that a particular prosecution will have on community harmony and public confidence in the administration of justice as well as whether the prosecution would be perceived as counter-productive, for example, by bringing the law into disrepute.
Let’s look at prostitution as an example. Whilst all forms of prostitution are illegal in Western Australia, prostitution in brothels is very rarely prosecuted for public interest reasons.
Which brings me back to speed cameras. No-one buys the ‘saving lives’ fallacy, not even the police or the government itself. From the government’s perspective and on paper at least, the public loss of confidence in the police and government might appear to be a price worth paying for the revenue the cameras raise. Revenue that can be used to help plug a budget hole or fund road safety initiatives. However, this reasoning is based on the premise that speed cameras generate a positive net revenue for the government. It is a premise that no-one seems to question and one that I believe is almost certainly flawed. It is a flawed premise because the overall revenue that the cameras produce is, in all likelihood, offset by the increased costs of enforcing the criminal that flows from a loss of confidence in and compliance by ordinary, everyday citizens.
There will always be a minority in any society who will not conform to the laws that create an ordered, organise society. Order is only maintained by spending taxpayer’s money enforcing those laws. However, when if that minority grows and becomes a majority, the cost of maintaining peace and order grows to a point where it becomes prohibitive and peace where peace and order begin to break down. We are beginning to see gaps in the enforcement of certain criminal statutes in Western Australia as police respond to an explosion in crimes such as burglary and assaults. Whilst there are certainly other factors at play (such as an increase in methamphetamine use), the erosion of public confidence in the law is a concerning development for which speed cameras are largely to blame.