Speed cameras reduce accidents by up to 30 per cent, but it has been a struggle to get them on the roads
By Angelos Anastasiou
Nine years after a short-lived test-run of speed cameras in Cyprus, which proved operationally fraught but highly successful in curbing speeding and other traffic offences, political pressure from the government has finally expedited decisions for their return.
It has been helped by the police reluctantly agreeing to be involved in the process despite what they say are crippling staff shortages, Electromechanical Services (EMS) director Loucas Timotheou told the Sunday Mail.
Speed cameras, introduced in 2007 on a trial basis because the terms of the public tenders required that the preferred bidder needed to prove its technology worked well for at least six months, worked wonders in reducing violations of traffic laws, but also presented with serious operational issues – not least of which was the fact that the system could be tampered with. The operator also reported facing serious problems in the delivery of speeding tickets.
They were thus summarily scrapped, and successive governments have been unable to bring them back, despite their proving highly effective. By 2020, Cyprus needs to have brought its annual road casualties to 30 – from nearly 60 last year. Police estimate that the operation of speed cameras accounts for a reduction in road accidents by up to 30 per cent.
“A serious effort was made to reintroduce a network of cameras, but has variously stumbled on legal grounds – for instance, the law used to require that only policemen could deliver a traffic ticket,” Timotheou said.
“Such things have now been overcome, and the only obstacle now is the financing of the project.”
The EMS is ready to go for the introduction of 110 cameras – 90 fixed and 20 mobile – across Cyprus, but in terms of coming up with the money things are still in the air, although Transport Minister Marios Demetriades said earlier this week that the cameras need to start being introduced in 2017, even if the system is not completed until 2018 or 2019.
According to Timotheou, the police initially refused to accept a role in the running of the cameras, due to staff shortages. It turns out that the operation of two speed cameras in a busy Nicosia road, installed on a trial basis in 2014 and effectively ending speeding incidents in the area covered, proved too traumatic an experience for them.
“Look, with just two cameras working, the whole police force was busy with all the backlogs,” said traffic police chief Yiannakis Charalambous.
“Can you imagine what would happen with 110? There’s just not enough policemen.”
Part of the reason for such short-staffing is all the non-police tasks undertaken by the body, he added, including security personnel deployed in airports, ports, politicians’ security details, and so on.
“In other countries, these things are the remit of the interior ministry – not the police,” Charalambous said.
Still, Timotheou said, the police’s involvement in the operation of cameras was required, if only to take care of the ‘gray areas’ like an undercover police car engaged in a high-speed chase.
Thus, it was eventually agreed that the network of speed cameras will be run by a private operator “under police supervision”.
“This was also necessary as an added assurance of the system’s credibility in the public’s eyes – that the operator won’t spare relatives and friends of the tickets, and so on,” Timotheou said.
According to the draft tenders’ documents prepared by the EMS, the cameras will only record the back of speeding cars, thus tackling the personal data issue raised in previous attempts to introduce the system. The cameras will capture only violations of the speed limit; “no seatbelts, no mobile phone use – just speed”. Tickets issued will be delivered to each vehicle’s registered owner, who will be held accountable for the offence unless they suggest another individual as the driver. However, should the other party denies being the driver at the time of the offence, the bill will go back to the car owner.
On the issue of letting offenders selectively off the hook, however, there appears to be a fairly sizeable window of opportunity for human intervention. According to Timotheou, police data showed that one in five tickets may be undeliverable, and the clause was inserted in the draft agreement to be signed with the operator. This would mean that the firm running the cameras will face no penalty for failing to deliver up to 20 per cent of the tickets issued.
“For example, a foreigner is in Cyprus, drives a car, breaks the speed limit, is caught, and leaves Cyprus,” Charalambous explained.
“Also, there is the issue of possible technological hiccups. For instance, it has been observed that the system may fail to record improper licence plates. If a plate says AAA5, instead of AAA005, the system might not record it – or record it incorrectly.”
But despite any glitches and operational bottlenecks it might present with, introduction of the cameras is a social imperative, according to Timotheou.
“It is a crime that we don’t have them yet,” he said.
“It would be an instant, automatic upgrade on our driving behavior.”
Total cost has been estimated at around €7 million – but double that, if the hardware is included in the tab – which neither the transport nor the justice ministry have space for in their budgets at the moment. But the decision to introduce the cameras has been made, and it is now simply a matter of time.
“The political leadership has been pushing hard for this for quite some time,” Timotheou said, adding that Demetriades has often relayed exasperation coming from as high as the president’s office over delays in the preparation of the required documentation and studies.
“But bureaucracy is what it is,” the EMS chief admitted.