It doesn’t make much sense to dispute a speed camera fine of a few hundred dollars when a lawyer, such as Sydney’s Dennis Miralis, charges $1650 to appear in court to defend you. To lose would be to multiply the expense. And, anyway, why challenge technological evidence considered almost indisputable? The camera never lies, does it? Last year, in a public relations disaster, a fixed camera on Melbourne’s western ring road was proved to be inaccurate, costing the Bracks government at least $13m in repaid fines, and perhaps tens of millions more in lost revenue. The unlikely crusader was Vanessa Bridges, a student in a Datsun 120Y that could barely outrun a mangy dog.
Now, in NSW, a different flaw has been revealed in the unpopular technology. The crusader in this instance is Miralis, whose defence of little people against the previously indefensible has been likened to Tiriel Mora’s lawyer in The Castle. Some have called it a technicality. But Miralis describes his magistrate’s court victory last week as a precedent that questions the validity of all fixed speed camera fines in NSW. Miralis got off a driver (who also won $3300 in costs) because the police could not prove that the details of the photo of the driver’s apparently speeding car had not been tampered with.
Miralis researched the algorithm code, such as time of day, place and speed, used to authenticate camera images after getting off another driver last November. In that instance, Miralis showed that necessary symbols of the algorithm, as required by law, were missing. He then discovered that researchers from a Chinese university had figured out how to break the security code, known as MD5, and theoretically alter the logged details. Miralis found MD5 was little used overseas any more. It was the basis for his successful defence on August 9.
Despite eight weeks’ leave from the magistrate, the Roads and Traffic Authority failed to produce an expert witness to testify to MD5’s safeguards. The next morning, Miralis had 400 calls in two hours from drivers nabbed by speed cameras. He expects to be interviewing prospective clients most of this week. “People are very angry about it,” he says. “Some have paid fines because they haven’t been able to pay for a defence.”
Miralis says the RTA (and its equivalents in other states) have relied on drivers’ natural reluctance to contest fines. The NSW government has admitted little, but like all state governments, it has much to fear from the verdict. As with poker machines, the governments rely on growing revenues from speeding drivers. In Victoria, speed cameras were collecting up to $176m a year before last year’s fiasco. Given that state’s stricter enforcement of limits, and escalating fine scales, many wonder whether road safety has been pipped by revenue-raising as the higher priority. Similar objections were raised last year in South Australia, when plans to install cameras in wheelie bins were released.
Yet Ian Johnston, of Monash University’s Accident Research Centre, believes the speed camera’s place in road safety is assured. He argues that the reduced road toll in Victoria, where fixed cameras are unmarked, reflects their safety credentials. The introduction of more secret cameras three years ago saw the number of fines in Victoria rise to 90,000 a year. Numbers are now back to about 50,000, he says. During the same period, the road toll has dropped 30%. “The theory is that you have to create uncertainty in the mind of the driver,” he says. “Drivers have to have a high chance of getting caught.”
Perhaps in NSW, given Miralis’ research, drivers may now also have a high chance of getting off.Bulletin, 17 August 2005