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Variable Speed Cameras Explained

Variable speed cameras appear and are used on many motorways in the UK, including the M1, M25 and M62. Unlike other fixed cameras and average speed cameras, variable speed cameras don't tend to enforce the road speed limit 24/7, but are used when the motorway's national speed limit, normally 70mph, is temporarily lowered e.g. 60mph or 50mph. These temporary speed limits are set and changed automatically at the press of a button by operators at a control room.

Speed cameras are sited on overhead gantries above each lane of moving traffic, meaning gantries can have up to four or five individual speed cameras targeting each lane of the motorway.

Cameras used at these locations are often the popular Gatso ones, when a vehicle travels in excess of the posted 'variable' or 'temporarily' speed limit the camera is triggered and photographic evidence of the speeding offence is recorded.

On variable speed cameras a motorist comments:

I have just received a NIP for a exceed of a variable speed limit on the M1 on 8/2/18 at 4.41am.

I was doing 58mph when the matrix was saying 50mph, yet the two sets of matrix before were flashing 60mph and the next one after 60mph and the next one the National speed limit! There was no congestion, no road works, no debris and no reported accident.

Variable speed limits

By their very name variable speed cameras are used when a variable or lower speed limit is enforced on a motorway, e.g. 40mph, 50mph or 60mph speed limit. Motorway speed limits are lowered when traffic congestion increases at peak times or when there is an accident in the road ahead. This is to help ensure the motorway continues to move as free flowing as possible and ensure safety of motorists along the section or sections of motorway where the temporarily or variable speed limit applies.

Points and Penalties

The absolute minimum penalty for being caught speeding on the UK's roads increased 66.7% in July 2013 from £60 to £100 fine. A minimum of 3 penalty points will also be added to your licence.

However, depending on the road speed limit and your actual recorded speed in the speeding offence a court summons may be generated in place of the Notice of Intended Prosecution (NIP) through the post with the code SP10, SP20, SP30, SP40 or SP50. For more information click here.

Where are variable speed camera used?

Variable speed cameras are used on a growing number of motorways in the UK and are sometimes also used on sections of so-called 'Smart Motorways'. During peak times the hard shoulder on a Smart Motorway is also used as an additional lane to increase the capacity of the motorway. When a motorway's speed limit is temporarily lowered, variable speed cameras are is activated to enforce the speed limit.

Pictured below Smart Motorway - with congestion and use of the hard shoulder for motorists.

Variable or temporary speed limit speed cameras should not be confused with average speed check cameras, the difference being average speed cameras such as SPECS and VECTOR cameras enforce the road speed limit 24/7. Variable speed cameras in comparison tend to only be used when the normal or national speed limit has been lowered.

Variable speed cameras to operate 24/7?

In general variable speed cameras are only used when a motorway speed limit is temporarily reduced. However, this may change in the near future as the Bedfordshire commissioner, Olly Martins, has said he is "actively looking" at ways to generate more money for Bedfordshires Police force's budget. One measure he has suggested is to turn the M1 variable speed cameras permanently on.

According to the BBC News website published November 2015: He told the committee that unless the force's grant funding was "realigned to the reality of the county's policing challenges" he would have to use his powers to permanently turn on the cameras between junctions 10 and 13, one of the busiest stretches of the motorway. Read the full story here.

Variable speed camera locations

What is your view and experiences with variable speed cameras in the UK? Tell us and read more variable speed camera comments. Alternatively, if you have a question relating to variable speed cameras, please see our variable speed camera Q&A page.

Want to know where the UK's variable speed cameras are as you drive? Here at SpeedCamerasUK.com we have a UK database of speed camera locations. This database also includes SpeedCurb, Truvelo, New Truvelo, SPECS, Peek, Traffic Light speed cameras and more. Read more about the speed camera types.

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Last updated: 11th September 2023