Do you know why I've pulled you over?

· Essay

Suppose you and I lived in a place with guns. Suppose our state had a rule prohibiting the flailing of your gun around and blindly discharging it into the air. If you break the rule, you lose your gun. So far, so fair; if we didn’t have that rule, you might well have someone’s eye out. Now suppose that this rule was enforced like so: police sometimes handed out warnings instead of taking your gun outright; police wouldn’t take all of your guns, just the one that you were waving around; police would take your gun regardless of where you were flailing around - crowded malls and empty farmland are identical; police would confiscate your gun regardless of whether it was a small pistol with the safety on or whether it was a fully-automatic rifle with the trigger taped down; and, if you ventured over to our neighbouring state, your gun would only be confiscated if you were flailing around particularly wildly - a gentle, miserly flail is perfectly acceptable over the border.

Suppose that, on top of all the rest, it was very, very difficult to live without a gun. In fact, having a gun was practically mandatory to have a job, a social life, and shop for groceries. If you didn’t have a gun, you would have to rely on a very unreliable public gun being available. If you did have a gun, and you found yourself idly tracing a figure 8 with it, you could be screwed. Meanwhile, you know a guy who knows a guy who waved his gun just out of the view of a gun-flail-control camera and got off scot-free.

Speeding fines don’t work. They punish people unequally and they’re enforced discretionally. That inconsistency violates the foundations of our justice system. They are a shoddy, stopgap solution that stands in the way of truly safer and better transport.

Before considering their inefficacy as a deterrent, it should be noted that speeding fines are an woeful punishment. Fines violate the most fundamental principle of our justice system; a system that administers fair, graduated, and proportionate punishments to crimes (Australia, n.d., 21). Speeding fines are disproportionate. They undoubtedly scale (or have the potential to scale) proportionately with the severity of the offence committed. That much is certain. Their disproportionality and inconsistency lies in their confiscation of a fundamentally and inescapably stratified resource. Money is not evenly distributed; any punishment that confiscates a constant amount of money will never affect two offenders alike. Some offenders will walk off subjectively unpunished. Others will eventually face prison; the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice report, tragically notes that every third woman imprisoned in Western Australia is there because of fine defaulting (Australian Law Reform Commission 2018, 387). The demerit point system, devised to alleviate this inequitable punishment, adds further misery. Demerit points do more than just vary across jurisdictions. Some offences do not even incur demerit points in certain states. Consider, on top of this, the mechanism by which demerit points are incurred according to the state an offender holds their licence in (which raises further concerns of equality and geography) and it becomes laughably apparent that speeding fines exist on a separate planet to the rest of the Australian justice system. Your author recently experienced this disproportionality in his favour (for which he thanks whichever deity happened to be merciful that day). Had my licence been held anywhere except the ACT, a speeding and my-P-plates-flew-off offence I committed in NSW would have imposed enough demerit points on me to warrant a licence suspension. My good fortune to have the means and finance to live in the ACT saved my hide. The driver in front of me doing the exact same thing probably wasn’t so lucky, according to their NSW plates.

Speeding is a crime of risk. Speeding alone poses no harm. What it does is increase the probability of secondary incidents that are themselves harmful. Speeding lowers your reaction time, demands more from the mechanics of your vehicle, and may prompt other drivers to act erratically to save themselves; each of these opens you up to catastrophe. But risk is not a palpable thing. It’s not even a constant thing. Risk is heterogeneous and varies from place to place, person to person, and situation to situation. The risk I incur from speeding today is worse than the risk you will incur tomorrow at 4:13pm, which is itself worse than the risk I will incur at 2:27am three days from now. Speeding by 10km/h on an empty highway in broad daylight on a sunny day with a new car is not as risky as speeding by 10km/h in city traffic in a downpour with bald tyres, but speeding fines don’t draw any distinction between the two. In some way, that’s for the best; accounting for vehicular, mechanical factors in the risk incurred by speeding would more harshly punish those without the means to service, maintain, or upgrade their vehicle. But without that consideration, there are still variations in driver skill and road conditions that are completely neglected when a speeding fine is imposed. Worse still, there are situations where speeding is the safer option and a speeding fine will still be enforced. As a motorcycle rider, I’ve faced the enraging choice to take a speeding fine from a nearby camera in order to escape the space where a truck was about to merge into me; either that or slam on the brakes to make room for the truck, but also invite a distracted car to collide with you from behind. Speeding cameras, snapshot-based as they are, do not capture the context of a speeding offence. As well as ignoring the relative risk discussed, that contextual ignorance also has the nasty side effect of excluding the possibility of challenging a fine unless you happen to be in possession of a dashcam. Even if you had footage, you’d still be wary of stepping foot in a courtroom because of the fact that you can face a criminal charge if your case goes awry.

Speeding fines are blind; blind to context and relative risk, and to an offender’s circumstance. They are in direct contradiction of the principle governing our (and most) justice systems and do not exact a proportionate punishment for their corresponding offence. But maybe these are harsh means to a utilitarian end. Maybe the punishments are a last resort and deterrence is the name of the game. The justice system seems to have only just learned the rules of that game, though, and they’re not scoring very well.

Any deterrence worth employing must rely upon an actual threat. The mere idea of a stick to complement the carrot isn’t enough. In another display of inequality, the enforcement of speeding fines fails as miserably as their proportionality. It is trivial to spend most of your driving day speeding without any risk of apprehension or detection. Canberra has 34 speed cameras, including mobile camera vans. Canberra covers an area of 814 square kilometres. Even with a very, very generous supposition that a single speed camera can cover a full square kilometre of traffic flawlessly, that leaves 780 square kilometres camera free, or just over 95% of the region (Access Canberra, n.d.). The much more draconian Greater Sydney region is actually worse off, with about 97% of its area uncovered (using 313 cameras) (NSW Centre for Road Safety, n.d.). But even if that coverage were greater, things would be no different. Speeding cameras are signposted with ample warning in most jurisdictions. Even if you miss the sign, the cameras typically don’t have legs. You might get caught by a particular camera once if you’re not paying attention, but you’re unlikely to get nabbed again once you know where the camera is. Mobile speed cameras fare a bit better at this, but they’re still heavily signposted in advance. You can even speed in direct view of a police vehicle if you slow down for the few moments you pass directly in front of their radar or LIDAR guns. And, of course, you can speed anywhere there isn’t a camera or a frequent police presence, which covers you for most of Australia’s landmass. It’s here we can first examine speeding fines as a failure of deterrence. Speeding is an environmental crime. It both owes its existence to, and is policed (or not policed) by the particular arrangement of our civilised world. Elementary criminological theory will tell you that an environmental crime is spurred on by an easy situation or victim and the absence of any capable guardians (McLaughlin, Newburn, and Chamard 2013). It should be painfully obvious by now that speeding cameras and an inconsistent-at-best police presence do not constitute capable guardians, nor do they thwart the ease of speeding in most scenarios.

But there are more systemic reasons for the inadequacy of speeding fines. Their failure is owed equally to their mechanism as a punishment as it is to the nature of the crime they punish. How often have you heard, or expressed yourself, the sentiment that speeding fines are mere revenue raisers? Or that the police in this wonderful country must have nothing better to do? In criminology, we speak of criminality as separate from deviance. The criminal status of an act or behaviour can be (and frequently is) distinct from the taboo or illegitimacy of that behaviour in the eyes of a culture or society. Speeding is a behaviour exhibiting this exact divergence, which is why only an effective punishment (rather than a moral argument) can deter it. Fines do not.

We know that speeding is a crime of risk. We also know that risk is influenced by variations in driver skill. We’re aware of that variation. We’re not aware of (or tend to forget) our tendency to stratospherically overestimate our skill and underestimate the risk we pose (Svenson 1981; McCormick, Walkey, and Green 1986). This tragic equation sums to the unfortunate privileging of driving 10km/h above the limit and arriving 8 seconds sooner over the danger of travelling those few kilometers faster. Speeding will never be seen as a criminal or even merely deviant act because of that calculus. On top of that, vehicles are specifically designed to make us feel (and be) safe. There is an atmosphere of serenity in even the fastest cars; the wind is barely audible, your clothes and hair aren’t even the slightest bit ruffled. The detachment also plays an auxiliary role as an instrument of depersonalisation. Not only do you not feel endangered, but you don’t feel as if you’re endangering anyone else (Phillips and Milner 2017); most of the time, you barely even register other cars as having a human being inside them.1 Drivers will forever scoff at the potential danger because I’m just that good, and because they can’t empathise with or even perceive there being any potential victims. No victims or danger means no immorality. A deterrent for speeding can only ever be artificial rather than moral, then. It must be an imposed punishment. But the deterrent we have is perceptibly imperfect. Drivers will forever scoff at the risk of being caught speeding because I know where the cops hide and where the cameras are, and no risk of being caught in a crime that’s otherwise morally permissible means they’re free to speed away.

The other element that forcefully separates the criminality of speeding from its deviance is the lack of any respect for the traffic policing system. The exact reasons why deserve more words than I could possibly devote to them here, but they are many; the the laser-like obsession with speeding at the ignorance or de-privileging of more dangerous offences (poor vehicle condition, mobile phone use, et cetera); more general distrust and displeasure with law enforcement or those in power; or even just the infamous Aussie anti-authoritarianism; there are a lot of credible causes, and the specifics don’t matter. For crimes without a clearly tracable root in deviance or immorality, law enforcement faces an uphill battle in deterrence because their primary strategy of a moral panic is being undermined by a lack of any credence in those trying to spread that panic.

But speeding is dangerous. Even indirectly, speed kills. And so does mobile phone use, and poorly-maintained vehicles, and unskilled and distracted drivers. The fatal costs each of these exact upon us as citizens, friends, and family members is too tragic to ignore. We take issue with the speeding fine system because it is representative of a transit system that can be so much better for us in efficiency and safety.

Justice reinvestment is a utilitarian justice approach that works even higher up the chain than deterrence (Allison 2016). Projects dedicated to, for example, fostering bonds between communities, eliminating or reducing substance abuse, or promoting mental health achieve a reduction in crime by stepping in before even deterrence is needed. They reduce the criminogenic factors in a particular place or people such that citizens never experience any compulsion or prompt to commit particular crimes. Justice reinvestment can work for the transit system, too.

By now, these words should be natural: speeding is a crime of risk. It is only dangerous insofar as other circumstances are. In particular, a few stand above the rest: high-density traffic, driver skill, awareness, and distraction, and vehicle condition. Reinvestment in the transit system could systematically reduce or eliminate the presence of these entirely and simultaneously eliminate the tedium and inefficiency of the transit system that prompts speeding (and mobile phone use, et cetera) in the first place. The simplest way to decrease the number of vehicles on the road, ensure a higher level of driver skill and awareness, and enforce more rigorous and stringent vehicle requirements is to improve the availability of public transport. Public transport should be available both in time and space; that doesn’t mean magic school buses, but simply a better bus or rail timetable. Enhancing public transport to the point of near-total accessibility eliminates much of the need for private transport. Because of that reduction, the barrier to entry for driving can be made much higher and less permissive. Without needing to permit everyone to get a licence simply so they can get to work or school and keep society ticking, licensing (and policing) can become much more stringent, and be made much more efficient because of that; drivers can be expected to learn more rules and guidelines (including some rudimentary traffic engineering) because driving will be made an essential skill, and it will be a livelihood unto itself, rather than a mere mechanism for a livelihood as it is now. Fewer vehicles on the road also facilitates more comprehensive inspections and enforcement of vehicle condition, simply because it will take far less manpower. Even roads will benefit from fewer cars degrading them.

More ambitious approaches exist, too. Bicycle and scooter hire programs (like the ACT has already brilliantly adopted) and better urban layouts can reduce vehicular transport needs entirely.

These are obviously long-term solutions, but they are solutions that immediately benefit even half-finished. One bus route more is at least one car with fewer trips to make. While a better transit system is built, a more short-term solution is needed to at least reduce the disproportionality of the speeding fine system. The Pathways to Justice report mentioned earlier makes the sound recommendation to eliminate prison for fine defaulters (Australian Law Reform Commission 2018, 389). That’s the worst of the speeding fine system gone, but even more equitable punishment can come from adopting a day-fine system like Finland, where fine fees are calculated according to daily disposable income (Pinsker 2015). We can also reduce the context-blindness of speed cameras by giving people a chance to make their case in court without the fear of a criminal conviction if they’re found guilty. At most, the original fine should be applied. There should be no punishment for “wasting the system’s time” because that isn’t how a fair justice system should think. Each of these would also serve to instil more confidence and credibility in the justice system, perhaps even enabling speeding fines to work better as a deterrent.

The paths forward are many. If we truly want to step towards zero road fatalities, we must embark on one of those paths immediately. We owe it to our citizens and to all those we’ve lost to fix this.

Further reading


Access Canberra. n.d. ACT Road Safety Camera Program.”
Allison, Fiona. 2016. “What Is Justice Reinvestment?”
Australia, Judicial Conference of. n.d. “Judge for Yourself: A Guide to Sentencing in Australia.”
Australian Law Reform Commission. 2018. “Pathways to Justice: Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.” Australian Law Reform Commission.
McCormick, Iain A., Frank H. Walkey, and Dianne E. Green. 1986. “Comparative Perceptions of Driver Ability— a Confirmation and Expansion.” Accident Analysis & Prevention 18 (3): 205–8.
McLaughlin, Eugene, Tim Newburn, and Sharon Chamard. 2013. “Routine Activities.” In The SAGE Handbook of Criminological Theory. SAGE.
NSW Centre for Road Safety. n.d. “Current Locations.”
Phillips, Whitney, and Ryan M. Milner. 2017. “Identity Play.” In The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online. Polity.
Pinsker, Joe. 2015. “Finland, Home of the $103,000 Speeding Ticket.” The Atlantic.
Svenson, Ola. 1981. “Are We All Less Risky and More Skillful Than Our Fellow Drivers?” Acta Psychologica 47 (2): 143–48.

  1. Except when they cut you off. Then you’re very aware of the no-good, terrible human↩︎