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News Room

When Are Speed Cameras Illegal?

Jason Snyman
2019-08-02
South African motorists want to know - can the practice of disguising speed cameras, or hiding them entirely, be considered ethical, or even legal? Here's everything you need to know.

Speeding, reckless driving and driving under the influence are, beyond question, a serious problem on South African roads - resulting in thousands of fatal accidents each and every year. The problem has become so dire that many South Africans have gotten firmly on board with the looming demerit system, and reclassification of offences so as to exact harsher punishments on wrong-doers. 

Stricter rules, devastating consequences, better policing. This is to stop people from breaking the law and killing the innocents around them, so it all sounds good and well and fair, right? 

Speed cameras are believed to act as a pretty good deterrent (though understandable how they would, there is little evidence to support this), but, as is the problem with the demerit system, the way the system is utilized and run is of some concern. 

By now, most South African motorists know all about speed cameras hidden behind bushes. We've seen the green mambas, the grey utility box cameras and even cameras making use of military-style camouflage. Motorists all across the country have been asking themselves if the practice of hiding speed cameras, or disguising them as something else, is ethical – or even legal. 

Are traffic officers allowed to disguise speed traps and just leave them there? What does the law have to say about it?  

Well, it's still a little muddled. We know that their deployment on our public roads is subject to approval from the Director of Public Prosecutions. Without this approval, any speed camera operation deployment would be entirely illegal. 

The problem that we're facing, however, is that these things are very rarely checked. Could it be that local traffic authorities are doing whatever they want, wherever they want, just to rake the money in?

Of course, it gets a lot murkier than that. Let's take a look.

Are Unmanned Speed Cameras Legal?

 According to the MD of LawForAll, Jackie Nagtegaal:  

The hidden cameras are, in fact, legal, and no warning sign is required. Unless it’s for average speed prosecutions, it is well within the rights of traffic authorities to use these disguised devices to enforce the law.

Now that that's out of the way, we can get to the topic of a much larger (and perhaps even more serious) debate. Hidden cameras may be legal, but are they actually doing the job? If not, what are the problems?

Last year, the Justice Project SA referred to speed cameras as 'weapons of mass prosecution', and claimed that they're making a killing for the traffic authorities off of unsuspecting motorists. This is easy to believe, and since 2012/13, they've been popping up absolutely everywhere.  

Justice Project SA's Howard Dembovsky has said:  

We often receive queries regarding unmanned, radar-based mobile speed camera deployments since this behaviour was, prior to December 2012, unlawful.

The 2006 TCSP guidelines prescribed that any non-permanent speed measuring equipment had to be operated by a qualified traffic officer. After the JPSA took issue with the deployment of these unmanned pop-up speed cameras, the RTMC quickly amended the TCSP guidelines to suit the very operations the JPSA had complained to the Director of Public Prosecutions about.  

So, as a result, the amended 2012 version legalised these operations – provided that the speed cameras be guarded by a traffic officer.

To many South African motorists, none of the above will come as much of a surprise. 

The problem isn't that these speedsters are being fined - or even that they're being fined by hidden cameras (because, let's face it, they shouldn't be speeding in anyway) - but that these cameras are left to do the jobs that actual officers should be doing. 

Popular opinion is that the road traffic law enforcement in our country is happy to rake in the money, with precious little time or effort allocated to ensuring actual road safety. 

How else would anyone explain the tactic of hiding speed cameras away and taking happy snaps of people who don’t seem to get that the speed limit applies to them, and posting them “pay as you go” fines, instead of stopping them and taking them to task straight away?

What About Private Estates?

Overturning an old ruling which, essentially, protected reckless drivers, a recent Supreme Court of Appeal ruling has found that private estates may now, in fact, fine motorists for violating the speed limits within the estate. 

Most private residential estates are managed by homeowner's associations, and the roads within them are deemed privately owned roads, and as such, are subject to rules that these associations have laid out. This includes, but is not limited to, speed limits which are usually set far lower than the normal speed limits you would encounter on public roads. The reasoning behind this is, of course, to facilitate calmer traffic in a residential area. 

Previously, problems arose when a number of motorists (either living in these estates, or visiting somebody else), broke the speed limit, were issued with fines, and then flat out refused to pay them. The reason these motorists often gave for the dismissal of the fines was that the estate had no legal authority to govern drivers. 

Thanks to the new court ruling, however, there is no longer any doubt about it - estates may issue speeding fines as they see fit, and stand to make an absolute killing off of it.  

It cannot be said that by ordaining a lower speed limit within a gated estate than that prescribed by national legislation goes beyond promoting, advancing and protecting the interests of residents, or is unreasonable, especially given the presence of children and wildlife,” the judge stated. “I fail to see why it is objectionable.

According to JPSA's Dembovsky, however, these private estates generally don't comply with any government guidelines, and are free to use speed measuring equipment which has no SABS approval. Adding to that, he said that homeowners’ associations also generally start fining drivers at just 1km/h over the speed limit, not 11km/h (as is the case with formal prosecutions).

Again, we have to ask: can these speed cameras actually be considered road safety tools, or are they just devices to generate revenue?

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