Explainer: The Gatso speed camera.

Jan. 18 2002 4:33 PM

Explainer: The Gatso Speed Camera

Readers of this week's Slate UK diarist, Patrick Marnham, will be familiar with the Gatso speed camera, one of several devices used by police forces across Britain to photograph speeding motorists. There are over 3,000 thousands of these cameras dotted along Britain's roads—many more will be erected in the next few years—and various Web sites, such as Ukgatsos.com and Ukspeedcameras.co.uk explain where motorists can expect to find them.

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Gatso cameras are designed and constructed by Gatsometer BV, a Dutch company founded in 1958 by a former rally driver named Maurice Gatsonides, who even won the Monte Carlo rally in 1953. Gastonides also built a line of sports cars. Thwarted in that endeavour, the now retired driver believed he could find a good use for a gadget he invented in his racing days. To improve his speed on difficult rally circuits, Gatsonides developed an electronic stopwatch that started running when a car crossed a wire laid across a road and then stopped when the car went over a second wire. A box of electronics connected to both wires then instantly calculated Gatsonides's speed between the two wires. This was very helpful to him when he was trying to increase his speed on circuits with tricky bends.

The first Gatso speed detector was therefore developed with idea of helping drivers to go faster, not slower. But after the collapse of his car-building aspirations, Gatsonides saw the commercial potential of his invention. It could be sold to police forces to help them enforce speed limits. If two wires were laid across a street and connected to a specially-designed speedometer, then a policeman would be able to tell if a passing car was breaking the speed limit or not. Holland, where the Greek-born Gatsonides now resided, was the first country to give the Gatso device a trial in the late 1950s. One measure of its success was the fury it generated among Dutch motorists, many of whom firmly believed they had not been speeding when caught by Gatsonides's invention.

Today's Gatso speed detectors are not so different from Gatsonides's first device. Radar and laser technology have replaced the wiring, and although Gatsometer BV builds several hand-held devices, policemen have mostly been replaced by fixed cameras that photograph the number plates of offending vehicles. But the principle remains the same: to detect the speeding driver. So, too, is the reaction of those drivers caught by the cameras every year (one million in Britain in 2000). Knowing that they are the invention of a former racing driver would do little to soothe their wounded feelings.