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Speed Cameras Explained: know your rights and how to avoid getting caught

Speed cameras – tips and facts so you don’t get caught

First things first. These tips are UK specific, so you if you live in a different territory, the regulations, road signs and penalties will almost certainly be different, though we have a tips section at the end that may contain useful information for drivers everywhere.

Second, you should forget any idea that speed limits and penalties are in any way dependent on the circumstances. In today's word, the vast majority of prosecutions are carried out by speed cameras and automated processes that have absolutely no idea what the circumstances are or whether your driving was in any way directly dangerous. You will almost certainly not be stopped by a human person with any discretionary powers.

Do you know your speed limits?

It turns out that not everyone does. And while you might hope that different speed limit zones are marked clearly, that's not always the case. Many roads have big gaps between speed limit signs, so you may not remember the last one you saw, or even whether you saw one at all.

So here's the first handy rule of thumb: in built-up areas with regular street lighting, assume the speed limit is 30mph unless you see a sign telling you different. Some roads with streetlamps are 40mph, but make sure you see a sign that says so before making any assumptions.

And be aware that some urban roads are 20mph, either at specific times or permanently. Temporary 20mph limits typically apply near schools at specific times of day and are indicated with flashing lights.

Permanent 20mph limits won't have the flashing lights but will usually have plenty of signage and probably repeater signs pained on the road surface, speed bumps and perhaps other traffic calming measures.

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The National Speed Limit

Outside of town, some roads have speed limit signs, but there are many stretches of road subject to nothing more than the generic National Speed Limit, so if you're at all unclear about what that is, then you could be in trouble straight away – not least because it varies according to the type of vehicle you're driving:

  • Single-carriageway roads: 60mph – 50mph if you're towing a trailer, driving a motorhome or caravan weighing more than 3.05 tons, a bus, coach or minibus or goods vehicle (40mph for goods vehicles over 7.5 tons in Scotland)
  • Dual-carriageways: 70mph – 60mph if you're towing a trailer, driving a motorhome or caravan over 3.05 tons, a bus, coach, minibus or goods vehicle (50mph for goods vehicles over 7.5 tons in Scotland)
  • Motorways: 70mph – 60mph if you're towing a trailer, driving a bus, coach or minibus more than 12m long, an articulated goods vehicle up to 7.5 tons or towing a trailer or any goods vehicle over 7.5 tons

Just keep in mind that these speed limits apply only in the absence of any other local limits. Many rural single-carriageway roads without street lighting actually have local speed limits of 30, 40 or 50mph, and many dual carriageways are limited to 40, 50 or 60mph. 

Average speed limits

These days, temporary speed limits can bite you just as hard as permanent limits, and there are two particular instances: average speed limits for road works and Active Traffic Management on motorways.

Average speed limits are typically used on motorways to protect road workers carrying out routine maintenance on long stretches of motorway. Cameras use number plate recognition to identify vehicles passing through and time and distance calculations to work out their average speed.

But did you know that it's not just one measurement across the whole distance? In fact, average speed zones are typically split up into sections, each of which can carry a speeding offence. You can accumulate points very quickly in an average speed zone!

Active Traffic Management

Active Traffic Management systems, again found on motorways, are designed to reduce congestion and increase safety in busy sections of motorways. They carry temporary speed limit signs on gantries suspended above the road and these also have speed cameras to identify drivers exceeding these speeds.

Be aware (be very aware) that cameras do not switch off at quiet times just because any temporary limits have been suspended. They will work in just the same way as static roadside cameras, and you will be prosecuted for exceeding the national motorway speed limit even on an empty road with no temporary speed limits in force.

There are still a few 'advisory' speed limit signs around, such as those suggesting maximum speeds on hazardous bends, or motorway signs warning of congestion ahead and suggesting a maximum safe speed as you approach it, but the majority of speed limit signs on our roads now are mandatory and are likely to be enforced.

So what happens if you're caught speeding?

That depends on how fast you were going relative to the speed limit and whether you have a previous speeding record. These are the current guidelines at the time of writing.

If you are up to 10% over the limit, there is no definite penalty. No official body will ever tell you you're allowed any leeway, so we're treating the gap between the speed limit and the trigger for a National Speed Awareness course notice (see below) as a grey area.

Anywhere from 10% +2mph to 10% + 9mph over the limit is likely to mean 3 points on your licence or, if you haven't been on one for the past three years, the option of attending a National Speed Awareness course instead. In miles per hour, that means:

  • 30mph limit: between 35 and 42mph
  • 40mph limit: between 46 and 53mph
  • 50mph limit: between 57 and 64mph
  • 60mph limit: between 68 and 75mph
  • 70mph limit: between 79 and 86mph

At higher speeds than these, we're not going to offer any advice. You're on your own!

So how do you avoid getting fined for speeding?

Tip no. 1: Learn to look for speed limit signs and to keep them in your head as you drive. Typically there are larger 'gate' signs indicating a change in the speed limit and occasional smaller 'repeater' signs after that.

Tip no. 2: If there are street lights along the side of the road, assume it's a 30mph limit unless you see signs saying otherwise.

Tip no. 3: Speed bumps and traffic calming measures are a giveaway. It could be a 30mph limit, but in built-up areas it might be 20mph.

Tip no. 4: It's easy to unintentionally accumulate speed in a 30mph limit. Speed awareness coaches will sometimes suggest driving in third gear so that the revs remind you of your speed, which seems a bit mad, but it makes sense to pick a lower gear to apply some engine braking when travelling downhill. 

Tip no. 5: If your car has a speed controller, use it! This will let you drive at any speed up to the limit you set, and it's perfect for extended 50mph motorway limits, for example, where your attention might wander away from the speedometer.

Tip no. 6: Use your satnav! You might need to upgrade it or get a new one, but a modern satnav won't just tell you where the fixed speed cameras are, it will also tell you the current speed limit.

Tip no. 7: Use your smartphone. Apple Maps will now tell you the current speed limit in the top left corner of the map display, and it's sooo useful. Neither this nor a satnav will know about temporary limits, but it's still a massive step forward.

Tip no. 8: Set up your phone for hands-free operation. That way, you can warn people if you're going to be late and take away a lot of the pressure to make up time lost to road works and congestion. 

Sorry to end with the most tedious and patronising tip of all, but it's true. If you start your journey sooner, you won't be so stressed, and you won't feel so rushed if you hit some unexpected roadworks or congestion - and you won't feel the need to take chances with speed limits.