Police are issuing more verbal warnings to motorists they catch edging over the speed limit.

In a swing away from what some ­critics had seen as a target culture ­leading to a boom in fines for drivers, officers are applying more discretion.

Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House signalled the change after his professional watchdog, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS), last month cleared his force of setting targets for individual officers but warned this was not always understood on the front line.

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Sir Stephen said: "We have subtly changed so there are fewer tickets being issued and an awful lot more verbal warnings."

Police Scotland has still to produce figures demonstrating the trend away from fixed-penalty notices towards verbal warnings, but a spokeswoman stressed the tactic was designed to save lives. She said: "This is focused firmly on areas where the public have raised concerns about road safety."

Historically, police are less likely to issue fixed-penalty notices of £100 fines with three penalty points to those they catch speeding below what is known as the "threshold of enforceability". This means they do not routinely fine those doing, for example, under 35mph in a 30mph zone. However, they can and do punish those who they feel are driving irresponsibly at such speeds.

Under the first year of the single force, the number of tickets issued to drivers soared in parts of the country. HMICS found speeding detections tripled in Edinburgh in the first four months of the new national force. There were also jumps in the number of motorists fined in the capital for using a mobile phone behind the wheel or not wearing a seat belt.

However, the crackdown, has not resulted in a substantial drop in ­casualties or accidents.

Sir Stephen was challenged over whether Scotland would meet its targets to cut road deaths at a meeting of the Scottish Police Authority, his main civilian watchdog.

"So far this year we are seeing more people killed on the roads. It would be very easy, as a result of that, to say the enforcement regime isn't working. The problem with that analysis is our enforcement regime this year has been significantly changed from last year, so we're actually issuing a significant number of fewer fixed-penalty notices."

Sir Stephen stressed Police Scotland was not recording how many verbal warnings are handed out "to make sure our officers are doing a fair day's work for a fair day's salary".

Neil Greig of the Institute of Advanced Motorists welcomed the change in tactics. "We have no problem with a greater focus on road safety We have no problem with the police talking to motorists as long as they don't alienate people. I think the new tactic is to redress the balance and make it clear that it is all about safety."