A fine mess
For months, Age Diary columnist Lawrence Money has reported on motorists successfully challenging speed-camera fines. Are they exceptions or does it point to a bigger problem?
NOT long ago, two middle-aged men were riding motorbikes up the Hume Highway to Winton and passed beneath the VicRoads speed-check gantry at Beveridge. The bikers were in separate lanes but travelling side by side at the same speed, 103 kilometres. One biker, Brian Macdonald, registered 98 on the screen overhead and the other 107.
"There is no way our speeds were nine km/h different," Macdonald says. "My bike is a BMW R1150GS - that's the big hybrid one. It is a bike of high reliability. I've ridden it 70,000 kilometres. These speed checks are a ridiculous joke."
For many years retired Melbourne preacher Charles Winter has harboured the same sentiment about the speed-check gantry on the Princes Freeway out of Geelong.
"I have been travelling along there since the time it was installed," Winter says. "I now do what I suspect very large numbers of regular travellers do: I fall into the least-occupied of the three lanes, I hang back so I don't get a false reading by having another car too close, and see what reading it is going to give me this time. Sometimes it puts me anything between eight and 12 kilometres below what I am doing. Other times it will only be four or six. Most of us regard it as useless and we get a reading just for fun."
With these two speed checks operating, supervised by the Department of Justice, this would seem to offer a whole lot of fun for motorists but the joke soon stops for those who pay the devices serious heed: that is when a fine for speeding, from prosecutions boss Senior Sergeant Ron Ritchie, appears in the mailbox.
It was not until a motorist successfully challenged such a fine on the Princes Freeway, in April this year, claiming she had been misled by the speed-check reading on the Melbourne-bound side, that the odd and unwieldy relationship between speed check and speeding fine came to the surface. This driver, a woman from Toorak, claimed she had been driving along the Princes Freeway from Geelong in her Range Rover when she passed beneath the speed check at 100km/h and was advised that she was actually travelling at 92km/h. "It is a fairly new car," she told The Age, "and I thought the speedo must be under-registering. So I accelerated to 108 on the speedo, figuring this would be put me right on 100, and a bit later I got a fine the mail for doing eight km/h over the limit."
The driver put this argument to the Civic Compliance office and the fine was cancelled. A letter from Senior Sergeant Ritchie declared: "Following a review of the above-mentioned matter, I wish to advise you that no further police action will be taken against you."
However, there was silence from Ritchie over the speed-check link. When approached later by The Age, police denied the cancellation had anything to do with the speed-check apparatus, saying it was merely "advisory". A spokesman said police policy was not to give a specific reason in such cases because this would mean "5 million other motorists" would try the same thing. However ABC TV reporter Lucy Curtain said that on the same day as The Age first reported the matter, she was given a reason for the Range Rover driver's fine cancellation: it had been "an administrative error".
For the State Government, speeding and red-light camera fines are a cash bonanza akin to the payout from the pokies, a marvellous never-ending tidal wave of money that, according to Justice Department documents leaked to The Sunday Age, totalled $200 million in 2005-06. However, with traffic fines, in contrast to pokies, administrators can don a white hat as crusaders for road safety. Indeed, speed cameras were renamed "road-safety cameras" by Government spin doctors some years ago to fit this image.
The Government says "money received from traffic cameras is less than a tenth of the $3 billion cost of road trauma in Victoria each year".
It is a persuasive argument but only valid if the penalties are legitimately imposed. Most motorists cough up when fined, convinced that the technology is incontrovertible and that challenge is pointless. It has taken a few motorists to prove that this is not always the case.
Joan Rowlands is a 76-year-old amateur pilot. On April 11, 2006, she and husband Bob were driving along the Geelong road with cruise control set on 92km/h. They were travelling in lane three and at 3.23pm were being overtaken by a truck in lane two travelling at least 10km/h faster. Some weeks later they received a speeding fine in the mail: according to the speed cameras, they had been travelling at 110km/h. But Rowlands, not a woman to be bowled over by bureaucracy, stood her ground. She was confident she had not been speeding and her husband, a man with a scientific bent, examined the technology of the photographic equipment and found what he believed was a flaw.
Rowlands challenged the fine, saying she would be producing evidence to prove she was right and the case was deferred to allow police to produce an "expert witness" to counter their claims. On the appointed date in August the police announced at Sunshine Court that their "expert witness" would not be appearing. The Rowlands were amazed to be told that this meant they could not produce any of the evidence that they said showed the speed-camera technology was faulty. That evidence, in brief, argued that, in certain cases, there could be a critical flaw between the detector sensors in the road and the cameras that take the photographs as evidence.
"It will only happen if two vehicles cross the sensors within the processing time for the photograph," Bob Rowlands says. "It is probably not a common occurrence."
However infrequently, this flaw resulted in the wrong vehicle being fingered as an offender. Whatever the case, the police did not want to know, says Joan Rowlands. "If either my husband or I mentioned the words 'camera' they became distinctly twitchy."
Is there a critical flaw or flaws in the lucrative speed-camera system? If there is, it seems that neither the police nor the judiciary want to know about it.
Last month Robin Rodgers, a Geelong resident who regularly travels the Geelong road, took his speeding case to Werribee court. He says he was driving with cruise control on 90km/h yet he received a fine for travelling at 108km/h. He obtained the photo from the speed camera and noticed that the speed sensors were clearly visible.
They showed that his car's rear wheels were yet to cross the sensors and that a large milk transport was thundering past him in the adjoining lane. He challenged the fine and went to court.
Says Rodgers: "It was a sham. I got there early and the police prosecutor told me that if I changed my plea to 'guilty' the charge would be dismissed. I felt very uncomfortable about that because I wasn't guilty."
As in the Rowlands case, he was prevented from producing the evidence that he believes showed the cameras were faulty. "I was told I couldn't lead any evidence at all," Rodgers says. "In the end I was let off even though I hadn't said a word."
That struck a chord in another case involving motorist Leon Flinkier who was fined for allegedly speeding in the Domain tunnel. "I challenged," Flinkier says, "and when I arrived early in court the only person there was the prosecutor. He told me that if I changed my plea to guilty, I would be let off."
Flinkier says that, although police had sought an adjournment to gather evidence for their case, he was told he had no power to seek an adjournment himself. "I was told police would bring an an expert and if I lost I would have to pay the expert's costs. But if I pleaded guilty, I would be let off. I pleaded guilty and yes, I was let off. No conviction."
According to one local silk there is a simple explanation: the court system is so clogged it simply could not handle a deluge of cases. "If a lot of motorists challenged their fines at one time, they would have a very good chance of getting off even if they are guilty, because the system can't cope with the load," he says. With a minor speeding infringement worth one or two penalty points, he said, it is just not worth the court's time.
The police say that 4000 motorists contested speeding fines last financial year and only 23 were successful. Total number of speeding fines in the same period were unavailable. However, a week after The Age first submitted a list of questions to the Police ministry about traffic fines, Assistant Commissioner Noel Ashby announced that in future police would take any successful appeal by motorists to the Supreme Court unless their case was supported by technical evidence.
Ashby said he was concerned that drivers had been beating speeding fines on appeal by swearing under oath to magistrates that they had not been speeding. He said this threw doubt on the accuracy of speed cameras and put road safety at risk.