Getting the hump

Observations on traffic

When Alistair Darling recently announced that money raised from speed camera fines would no longer be used solely to fund more cameras, you would have thought the traffic libertarians would have been pleased. But no, the cash was being ploughed back into general road safety, and that could mean only one thing: more speed humps, those concrete expressions of the nanny state which are almost as hated as the cameras.

Humps have been around since the early 1970s, when they appeared on a few experimental sites and acquired their cuddly nickname, "sleeping policemen". In the 1980s they were installed widely on rat-runs and were even regarded as fitting objects for middle-class activism: Kenneth Clarke, as under-secretary of state for transport, once suggested that local groups might club together to pay for humps in their area.

By the mid-1990s the government was allowing local authorities to put them virtually anywhere and to construct different types, with varying levels of what the Department of Transport quaintly called "discomfort performance". Alongside the classic kerb-to-kerb round-top humps, we now have "thumps" (cheap thermoplastic ones), "sinusoidal" humps (with a shallow gradient), "speed tables" (with a flat top) and "speed cushions" (which allow buses through more easily).

Councils favour humps because they are a cheap way to cut speeds in so-called "home zones", but not everyone is so keen. In 2002 a man campaigning solely on the issue of abolishing humps won an election in a Derby council ward. A year later Barnet Council began flattening its humps, which led to a row with the Greater London Authority. Then an Oxford builder invited a television crew to watch him dig up a road hump outside his house with a JCB because, he claimed, the noise from lorries hitting it was preventing him sleeping. The home secretary of the time, David Blunkett, admitted that he had a "great deal of sympathy" for the man.

There are two main reasons why humps are unpopular. The first is the bathetic judder of the car as you drive over one. Motorists caught by speed cameras can claim the glamour of the outlaw, but nobody would ever brag about driving too fast over a hump, still less about being grounded on one (stories of this happening tend to be urban myths).

The second reason is the hump's reliance on behavioural therapy. A speed camera simply requires you to observe the speed limit. But the hump offers a sliding scale of punishment and reward: reckless drivers get damaged suspensions, naughty ones suffer minor discomfort, saintly ones get a smooth ride. (And the latest innovation is the "smart" hump, the Transcalm, which automatically deflates if the approaching driver is within the speed limit.)

The whole philosophy of "traffic calming" draws on this historical emphasis in British traffic law on persuading drivers to change rather than punishing miscreants. But the ungentle persuasion of the hump has succeeded only in nurturing the modern motorist's persecution complex.

Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University