Speed Cameras: The Free-Market Perspective

Richard Wellings

A free market in transport would mean ending the state control and ownership of roads. Decisions regarding the deployment of speed cameras would be the responsibility of private road owners. These individuals would have to consider customer preferences for both speed and safety. Thus private road owners would probably focus on the wants of motorists rather than the demands of the road safety lobby. Since slower roads could mean a reduction in profits, as drivers switched to alternative routes, it seems likely that private road owners would avoid arbitrary reductions in the speed limit.

Nevertheless, it is also apparent that there would be strong incentives for road owners to prevent accidents, given the possibility of severe disruption to the flow of traffic (and therefore reduced profits) as well as the possibility of expensive compensation claims (depending on the legal and insurance arrangements in place). Thus under certain conditions it seems likely that road owners would seek to enforce a speed limit and could well choose to deploy speed cameras. However, the owners would have to take into account the fact that speed cameras are unpopular with motorists and therefore would deter a certain proportion from using routes equipped with them. Furthermore, it is likely that private road owners would seek to use variable speed limits in order to enable the most efficient use of capacity (for example, lower limits on motorways at more congested times), although it is conceivable that speed cameras could be made that could be adjusted remotely to adapt to varying limits. Another consideration for owners would be the effect that cameras may have on driving habits. For example, it has been hypothesised that cameras are detrimental to the road safety psychology of motorists since they no longer focus on the safe speed for the road conditions and instead divert some of their concentration to avoiding exceeding the limit (see www.safespeed.org.uk).

Then there is the question of enforcement. What authority would private road owners have to enforce speed limits and indeed, safe driving habits in general? It is possible that owners would set up a scheme whereby penalty points were awarded for dangerous driving and that once a total was reached, drivers would be banned from using either one particular road or many roads (a mutual scheme would be possible involving a large number of road owners). Enforcement would clearly require some sort of vehicle and driver identification method. One possibility is that some kind of Motorist's Society could be formed. Members would agree to register their vehicle with the society and display an identification number on their vehicle according to certain pre-determined standards. They might also agree to purchase some kind of third-party liability insurance and take a driving test to demonstrate their proficiency. If they so desired, road owners could restrict access to their infrastructure to members of the society in order to exclude unidentifiable, uninsured or untrained drivers. Of course, there could be a number of competing motorists' societies (or possibly private companies), like there are competing exam boards in education, and road owners would be able to choose which societies to accept.

Important conclusions can therefore be drawn from the examination of the speed enforcement question from a free-market perspective, including the realisation that there is no necessary role for government in the provision of speed limits or to ensure that motorists are registered, insured and trained. Moreover, as road owners would have to compete with one another for customers (and with other transport modes such as rail, air and pipeline), they would have a strong incentive not to introduce measures that were unpopular with drivers. While the deployment of speed cameras could not be ruled out, it seems likely that the market discipline of a private system would at least ensure that their use was based on a truthful assessment of their road safety impact.