IN AN ideal world, we wouldn’t need speed cameras.

Anyone who qualifies to drive a motor vehicle would be trained so rigorously that they would inherently understand that, when it comes to the roads, rules are not meant to be broken.

The authorities, too, would understand that modern vehicles are safer than ever before - for drivers, passengers and pedestrians - and that they can be driven safely at higher limits than, in many cases, are currently allowed.

To ensure such changes do not contribute to more accidents, our road systems and networks would be completely modernised; cars would be better separated from bicycles and pedestrians, heavy goods and passenger transport vehicles would have their own networks away from individual modes of transport.

All vehicles would be powered by non-polluting forms of energy and those forms of energy would not require the mass use of other non-sustainable resources to create them.

In an ideal world.

Back here on Earth, vast numbers of the population seem completely unable to comprehend that speed limits were created for a reason and that they don’t have a moral or legal right to flout them just because they think they’re a better driver than everyone else.

Or that speed limits are just another way of the powers-that-be exercising unreasonable control over the masses.

Or that speed cameras are just designed to make money from offenders.

Or that most of them aren’t switched on so they don’t need to worry about it anyway.

Oh, wait: maybe there is something in that last one after all….

Figures released last week by 36 of the 45 police forces in the UK, following a Freedom of Information request, showed that four of them have no fixed speed cameras at all and 13 forces have fewer than half of their cameras actively catching speeding drivers. Nine other forces refused to disclose the information or failed to respond.

All the forces and speed camera partnerships that responded said they deployed regular mobile speed cameras across their areas and that they regularly reviewed which of their fixed cameras were turned on.

West Yorkshire was one of the forces which had just a quarter or less of its fixed cameras switched on and North Yorkshire said none of its fixed cameras were active.

Some forces, such as Northamptonshire, turned off all their cameras years ago but kept the yellow boxes in place as a deterrent. How that would work if everyone in the county knew they were turned off is unclear.

West Midlands Police, which also turned off its cameras, now uses average speed cameras in eight locations, with more than 500 speeding tickets per month being clocked up at one Birmingham hotspot.

The AA believes the reduction in camera use is all down to budget pressures on forces. Its president, Edmund King, said: “Many of the empty yellow cases are due to cuts in road safety grants and the fact that digital cameras, although more effective, are very expensive.

"It is also reflective of the fact that proceeds from cameras are no longer allowed to be ring-fenced to be reinvested into yet more cameras as now all the money goes to the Treasury."

Whatever the reason, the revelations have alarmed some road safety groups and campaigners who fear that they will encourage more drivers to play “Russian roulette” with the yellow boxes, risking a fine and points on their licence against the odds that there is now far less chance of being caught.

Some have called for all fixed cameras to be switched on and others have called for them all to be switched off, arguing that increasing the numbers of traffic police on the roads would be more effective.

And the RAC claimed that most people back the use of speed cameras but that the location and effectiveness of the yellow boxes should be under constant scrutiny.

The fact we need to take such measures at all is mind-boggling to many. The vast majority of the population is law-abiding and tends to drive within the legal limits. For those drivers, the yellow box is simply a reminder to keep doing what they’re doing.

Sadly, these are the people who are most likely to end up on Speed Awareness courses, the alternative offered to those travelling at only slightly above the speed limit to avoid paying a fixed penalty and getting licence points.

It’s an ill-thought-out policy because, generally, such drivers are far less likely to cause accidents than those driving well above the limit who, although paying heftier fines, are more likely to deliberately flout the law. They, surely, are the ones who should be given compulsory driver training to make them understand the potentially lethal consequences of their actions?

But they will only be caught if the mechanism to do so is available, be that traffic patrols, fixed or mobile speed cameras or average speed cameras on bigger roads.

And, of course, none of this caters for those who speed between cameras, regardless of the fact that the speed limit outside the camera’s range is exactly the same as the one within it.

There will come a day, surely, when our dwindling energy resources and over-crowded roads force us to create technology which automatically limits the speed of vehicles to the safe limit for the area in which they are travelling.

Until then, we need to put all our focus on catching the most serious and arrogant repeat offenders if we’re really going to make our roads safer with the resource we have available to us.

Which means that, like it or not - and until something better comes along - speed cameras in their current form still have a real part to play in that process.

We just need to find a better way to target them at the real criminals who are making our roads more dangerous every day.