Speed cameras in the UK: how do they work, how are drivers caught and what are the thresholds?
Speed cameras are one of the most ‘contentious’ points of motoring for a great many drivers, says the RAC.
And there is no ‘shortage’ of eyes on our roads and motorways, adds the breakdown organisation.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents states that inappropriate speed is a factor in 11% of injuries, 15% of serious injuries and 24% of the deaths which happen on our roads. While more than 300 people will be killed – and more than 2,500 seriously injured – every year in the UK because of vehicles travelling too fast.
But how much do you know about the UK’s different cameras, how they catch speeding drivers, and what those speed limits and thresholds really are?
We try and answer some of those questions below:
FIXED SPEED CAMERAS
The first speed camera to be installed in the UK was called the Gatso – and it quickly became the most commonly used camera on our roads.
The rear-facing cameras in the early 90s started life grey in colour, but a change to the law meant they were later painted bright yellow.
Alongside the Gatso is the more advanced Truvelo, which instead uses a forward-facing camera and so can also snap who exactly is at the wheel. This means motorists can’t avoid saying who was driving when the speeding offence was committed.
Speed camera thresholds
All fixed speed cameras will have a trigger point for catching people – albeit it’s not made clear exactly what that threshold is.
However the law itself is clear - and you are immediately liable for a speeding prosecution once you exceed the speed limit. So if you’re doing 31mph in a 30mph zone you are risking a fine and points on your licence if caught.
Caught by a camera?
When your car is caught by a camera, within 14 days you’ll be sent a notice of prosecution and a Section 172 notice which requires you to tell the police more about who was driving the car. It is after you've sent back the Section 172 notice back that you’ll either receive a fixed penalty notice or a letter telling you to go to court.
If you get a FPN and choose to plead guilty the fine is £100 and three points on your licence. You may be given the option of attending a speed awareness course if it is deemed to be appropriate for your offence and you've not attended one in the past three years.
Mobile cameras are perhaps one of the most common cameras motorists will pass by. These can be positioned on roads and residential streets as well as near or over motorways.
Different camera types...
The cameras can be inside marked vans, in marked or unmarked police cars, or be manually operated – such as handheld lasar or radar guns.
One of the most distinctive mobile cameras is that in a clearly marked van or police car. Drivers here are detected either by a camera with a radar - or a laser gun - combined with speed monitoring technology.
Some cameras are operated by police forces and others by Safety Camera Partnership teams, which involve officers, alongside highways staff and local authorities.
While cameras will often target areas where there are known problems with speeding – or where there has been a history of road accidents in previous years– there are no set locations where the cameras are used and in reality can crop up anywhere.
On a straight road, says the RAC, the typical range for a mobile camera is around one mile.
Is the leeway really ‘10% plus 2’?
If you’re caught by a mobile camera you will most likely receive information through the post but sometimes a little further up the road another police officer will be waiting who will pull over a speeding driver, explain they’ve been picked up by the camera they just passed and prosecute on the spot.
If you’re stopped by the police you may get a verbal warning, be given or sent a fixed penalty notice or be warned you’re likely to go to court and that a letter will follow with more details.
Sometimes drivers who think they have been detected believe that there is a ‘10% plus 2’ leeway before they will be punished.
It is worth noting that this stems from National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) recommendations to help police officers in using 'discretion'. It remains a recommendation rather than the law.
While many Speed Camera Partnerships and police forces may adopt this as a guide, it is well worth bearing in mind this guidance may also be dependent on the officer or team at work and it can also be up to them as to whether they fine an offender or not if caught. It still remains the case that once you breach the speed limit, you’re automatically in the wrong.
Highways Agency digital enforcement cameras/ variable speed cameras
The latest camera technology for catching speeding drivers on motorways is called the HADECS 3. These cameras are replacing the bright yellow Gatso cameras that once were a more common sight on motorways and came with the indicative line markings on the carriageway.
Used on smart motorways to enforce changing speed limits that are reacting to traffic levels or an unfolding incident – these cameras are also often called variable speed cameras.
The cameras are mounted on poles and are usually painted grey. Only the camera units themselves will sometimes have yellow markings.
And while they are normally at the side of the motorway they can cover up to five lanes with a radar system ‘effective’ in all weathers.
The HADECS 3 is able to adapt in real time to changing speed limits on the overhead gantries and being fully digital, it means that speeding fines can be processed in record time.
SPECS cameras / average speed cameras
SPECS – or average speed cameras – were first introduced in 1999.
While they are well used among motorway roadworks – again they can be adopted on many stretches of road.
A 2021 Freedom of Information request from the RAC to National Highways (and Transport Scotland) revealed at the time that 307 miles of major roads in England and Scotland were covered by permanent average speed cameras. This was a small increase on the 285 miles recorded in 2018.
Equipped with ANPR and infrared technology the cameras work in all conditions and weathers, 24 hours a day, explains the RAC. It means drivers should not buy into the myth that under the cover of darkness they can’t be successfully tracked.
Often painted bright yellow the cameras are positioned at two locations some distance apart, and they calculate your average road speed as you pass between the two points.
Many believe SPECS cameras to be the more successful at managing speed limits on our roads - as rather than capturing a specific speed at a set location – drivers have to maintain the correct speed over a much longer distance to avoid being caught.