In 1903, Alfred Dunhill drove into the history books as the first Briton to be nicked for speeding, doing a reckless 22.5mph down the Portsmouth Road. The police have been trying to catch rushing motorists ever since, and being snapped by one of the UK's 6,000 roadside cameras is an occupational hazard for most drivers. Now the Government is really putting the brakes on speedsters, tripling the number of fines to 3.5 million by 2004, laying new speed traps, and using mobile cameras and digital imaging technology.
Speed cameras can have a big impact on road safety, reducing accidents by nearly 50% at black spots. But claims that 'hidden' cameras are used to generate income rather than reduce mishaps have set some motorists against safety campaigners.
Inside the grey box that all drivers recognise (and slow down for) is a radar speed detector linked to a camera and flash-gun. When a passing car exceeds a preset limit, the camera fires, taking a picture stamped with the date, time and speed of travel. The film is developed, the number plate read and a ticket issued to the registered keeper - usually a pounds 60 fine and three penalty points on the licence.
But there are drawbacks. A camera on a busy main road can fire off its entire 600-frame roll of film in a couple of hours, and it needs constant attention. Consequently, many roadside boxes are empty or have no film in, relying on the deterrent effect of the flash alone. And drivers soon learn the location of fixed cameras and do their speeding elsewhere.
Britain's motorways (the safest in Europe) have largely escaped the march of the speed camera, although the Speedcheck SVDD, which measures average speed over a set distance, is used to police motorway roadworks and could be applied elsewhere in future.
The Metropolitan Police is trialling mobile speed traps (at pounds 10,000 a time) to supplement its 635 fixed installations. Dutch speed detection company Gatsometer has developed digital traps that use no film.
They store the images of several thousand offenders on a hard disk, the ultimate goal being to wire these cameras into a computer network. With the DVLA database at the other end of the wire, this set-up could snap a speeding car, identify its owner and send a ticket with no human intervention.
Nirvana for the police (now allowed to keep the revenue from speeding fines), armageddon for the motorist - who is mostly law-abiding and tired of paying up, insist pressure groups. To boost public support, many new cameras will be painted in bright colours to warn of their presence. But if you speed, you'll soon be three times more likely to get caught.