Safety cameras linked to crashes

The safety camera on the corner of O'Briens Rd and the Princes Hwy, Figtree.
The safety camera on the corner of O'Briens Rd and the Princes Hwy, Figtree.

It was about this time last year when shiny new "safety cameras" were switched on at five busy intersections across Wollongong.

They would, government policy boffins declared, improve road safety by busting lead-foots and red-light runners and in turn, reduce the number and severity of crashes.

But one year on, the cameras have presided over a less than desirable outcome - a whopping increase in car accidents.

At one Windang intersection, average annual crashes skyrocketed more than 200 per cent, while they jumped more than 100 per cent at another in Figtree.


The results, unveiled in an audit this week, are especially puzzling because elsewhere in NSW, other newly installed safety cameras have led to big reductions in collision rates.

Road safety experts are divided on whether the cameras instil so much fear in drivers that their skills behind the wheel suffer.

"Some people, it's fair to say, are very conservative in how they travel through a camera site and can drop to 20 or 30km an hour," said Dr Stuart Newstead, an associate director of the Monash University Accident Research Centre.

"There's a possibility those sort of massive variances in travel speed could be detrimental."

Tony Ianni, a driving instructor and owner of Ace Driver Ed, believes some motorists "panic" in camera zones.

"They can put people under pressure," he said.

"Also, you often don't realise how much time you spend looking at what speed you're doing rather than at what's on the road."

Another theory is the cameras have not reached their full deterrent potential because they are still in "warning-mode", meaning drivers caught speeding are let off with a warning letter.

The five cameras have hauled in $949,570 in red-light fines in less than a year.

A Transport for NSW spokeswoman said it was "very unlikely" cameras were to blame for the crash spike.

"It is important to understand that it is too early to make recommendations about individual locations because they have not been operating for very long and it is still too early to identify a reliable crash trend," she said.

"They will be closely monitored and reviewed again in 12 months as it can take a number of months for drivers to become compliant following [installation] and for the road safety benefits to be realised."

Another 109 intersections across NSW will be equipped with safety cameras and bigger, better warning signage by the end of 2014.

The Government also plans to retain fixed speed cameras, which despite complaints by aggrieved drivers, demonstrably help save lives.

Researchers have found the combined presence of seven fixed cameras in the Illawarra has saved the community $20.5 million in accident-related costs.

During the five years before their installation about a decade ago, the total number of crashes recorded in the 500m either side of fixed cameras in the Illawarra was 254.

During the last five years, there were 178 crashes.

In human terms, the number of people killed or injured dropped from 184 to 106 during the same periods.

One camera where there has been little safety benefit since its 2002 installation, on Memorial Dr at Corrimal, is under review and could be removed.

Any change to speed cameras was always politically dangerous, NRMA director Michael Tynan said.

"It's a fact of life that there are going to be speed cameras," he said.

"This Government has deactivated a lot of useless cameras but if speed cameras are working, as we see they are in most cases, I don't think you could blame them for trying to bring down the road toll by introducing more where they may be needed."

Dr Newstead said evidence had proved cameras were an effective policy response to dangerous driving.

"They are actually a very cost-effective enforcement tool," he said.

"There's actually a good argument for having many more but that is a question that will always generate a lot of public and political debate."

Of the five safety cameras installed in the Illawarra last year, just one - trained on the intersection of the Princes Hwy and Five Islands Rd at Unanderra, has led to a reduction in the annual average number of crashes.

The others targeting the intersections of Windang Rd and Boronia Ave in Windang, Princes Hwy and O'Briens Rd in Figtree, Corrimal and Burelli streets in Wollongong and Gladstone Ave and Crown St in Wollongong have seen car accidents grow between 30 and 220 per cent.

However, the number of people detected speeding or running red lights through the intersections is steadily falling, suggesting the cameras are having some impact on behaviour.

About 177 people die each year in speed-related crashes in NSW.