Yes, speeding is a "real" crime

Two very personal reasons as to why you shouldn't speed

Some decisions are probably best slept on. It seems fair to say, for instance, that it was a dodgy decision by Richard Brunstrom - the chief constable of North Wales Police - to show graphic images of people killed while speeding, without first asking permission from relatives of the deceased.

Late last month it was reported that Brunstrom and colleagues had shown a gathering of journalists and local authority representatives photographs of a dead motorcyclist - one of his decapitated head lying on a grass verge, another of his torso embedded in a car. The motorcyclist had been travelling at 95mph in a 60mph zone, and details were given of a distinctive T-shirt he had been wearing at the time, also mentioned at his inquest, which made him identifiable to any of the journalists who remembered the case or cared to investigate. (The slogan read: "Hello officer . . . Yes my number plate is legal, Yes my tyres have tread, Now piss off And catch some REAL criminals.")

It was insensitive to use these photos without asking relatives, especially as the dead man was identifiable. Still, beyond the issue of per mis sion, I can completely understand why Brun strom wanted to use such pictures. It is, after all, the police who have to attend these accidents and who regularly see such avoidable horror, close up. To get some idea of just how regularly, you've only to consider the statistics. In 2005 (the last year for which there are comprehensive figures), 3,201 people died on the roads and 271,017 people were injured. Each of us over a lifetime has a one-in-17 chance of being killed or seriously injured in a road crash - perilous odds.

For those who haven't heard of Brunstrom - a controversial figure in many ways - his enthusiasm for speed cameras has made him notorious among the UK's self-appointed road warriors, who have dubbed him the "Mad Mullah of the Traffic Taliban". The attitudes towards him underline the continuing mass hatred of speed cameras, although they have reduced deaths and injuries by 42 per cent on the roads where they've been erected. For years now, the same arguments against the devices have persisted: that they are revenue-builders for the government, tools of a profit-hungry nanny state, a blight on the law-abiding middle classes.

Point out that speeding is a clear breach of law, and that there seems no reason why law-breakers, regardless of class, should escape punishment, and those who argue this case will usually just repeat their contentions. Point out the sheer destruction that speeding causes and, yep, they'll probably continue. Quote the statistics that a pedestrian hit at 20mph has a 95 per cent chance of survival, while one hit at 40mph has just a 10 per cent chance, and they are still likely to defend their right to speed in 30mph zones. We live in a culture where speeding has come to be seen as a right, rather than a crime - whatever the law and common sense dictate.

Back in 1983, my older brother Gleave, then aged eight, went to cross the road at dusk, in a 30mph zone, when a car swept past at 43mph, sending him flying into the gutter. To put that combination of half-light and speed into perspective, the driver didn't realise he'd hit a child; he assumed he'd hit a dog. And when you consider those last statistics I mentioned, you know Gleave never stood a chance. The impact broke his neck and he was dead on arrival at hospital.

A few years later, my younger brother Frazer and I were outside our house one day - at the bottom of a short, steep hill, towards the end of a quiet cul-de-sac - making a snowman. The snowfall was thick and the road icy, and, as I concentrated on the job at hand, Frazer wandered off to collect more snow. At that moment, a car barrelled down at phenomenal speed, lost control on the ice and crashed straight into him. The snow cushioned his fall, and thankfully he was only concussed, but I remember being convinced, in that moment, that Frazer was going to die. Behind the wheel was a boy in his late teens who had apparently been speeding up and down the road all day, trying to impress a girl.

In telling these stories, I always hope that they might have some small impact on those who speed - just as Brunstrom surely hoped to have an impact with those photos. But when it comes to this subject, it seems it is almost impossible to make a dent on people's conscience. Arguments against speed cameras persist, as do the "vigilantes" who lay waste to the devices, and there is still a relentless insistence that those who speed are not "real criminals". I have come to suspect that, for many people, the thrill of speeding derives not just from the excitement of travelling fast, nor even from the idea of risking their own lives, but from the huge potential violence of the act. I find that truly sickening.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning