Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Red Light Cameras, Photo Radar, and the City

Talk about a love-hate relationship!

I find this topic evokes a lot of strong emotions. Some people love 'em and want to see the city crawling with patrols, some people hate 'em and want to see them banned altogether.

Nothing ruins your day more than coming home, opening your mail, and finding a big, hefty fine smacking you in the face (with a nice little photo that says "Ha! Argue with this!")

Been there, done that. More often than I care to admit. Cally and I often joke that we spent more money on photo radar tickets during our university years than we did on tuition (you're welcome City of Lethbridge).

Then Rory, why would you support these no-good, money-grabbin', worthless pieces get the picture. We've all heard it.

Well here's why:

When the contract for red light cameras expired early in 2014, I was determined to never allow them in the city ever again. Same with photo radar. I thought they were all a money grab, ineffective at changing driver behaviour, punished too many "good" drivers, etc. I'm sure you could add a few reasons of your own.

Then I was confronted with a harsh reality from our Enforcement department: Collision stats. In 2014 we had 640 collisions that resulted in serious injuries plus 4 that involved fatalities. This was more than double the provincial average. It wasn't a one year blip either. Over the past four years, traffic collisions in the city had increased by 102% while they had decreased by 18% provincially over the same time.

It became obvious that something had to be done. But what?

Enforcement embarked on creating a strategic plan that including a wide range of measures including education, engineering changes, better coordination with the RCMP, and you guessed it...stricter enforcement including photo radar, red light, and speed-on-green cameras.

I didn't like it.

I needed to prove how ineffective these contraptions were. 

So I read. And read. And read some more. And wasn't too please with what I found.

On red light/speed on green cameras, study after study confirms the effectiveness of these devices as a means to change driver behaviour. These studies look at collision rates at intersections where there has been no enforcement and then at areas where there is enforcement. And the conclusions are similar no matter the city, province, or country.

All these studies find that with once a red light/speed-on-green camera is installed and people start getting ticketed, drivers become much more cautious when approaching intersections and will stop sooner. Because of this red light/speed-on-green cameras actually lead to a slight increase in rear end collisions. However, this is overshadowed by a massive decrease in serious injury collisions (anywhere from 30 - 45%) as there are much fewer people speeding through reds causing T-bone collisions. 

With mobile photo radar, the results are not as conclusive, but generally studies show that photo radar can be an effective tool IF used in combination with other tools used to affect driver behaviour. There needs to be holistic approach that includes education, engineering solutions, and enforcement. My read of the literature is that relying on photo radar alone will generally not lead to slowing driving speeds and preventing collisions, but if used in combination with other methods, it can help reinforce the message and over time change driver behaviour.

Studies can be found at bottom of post.

Confronted with this knowledge, I begrudgingly begin to change my mind on allowing these devices. The fact of the matter is that in urban areas, the chance of getting in a collision doubles every 5 km/h someone goes over the speed limit. Too many lives have needlessly been lost or severely impacted in our city and with this being the case, I came to believe that we should use all available tools to make our streets safer.

I eventually supported Enforcement's holistic, integrated plan to address the high collision rate. These included:

For education we do things like run ads reminding people of school zones, putting "how fast are you going" signs up, and supporting education programs like Safety City.

For engineering we are constantly looking at ways to improve road configurations, intersection visibility, and crossings. This past budget we specifically put money in for intersection improvements with safety being a motivating factor. We also regularly review speed limits and increase and decrease them where warranted based on a variety of factors. We recently did this a few months ago (see here, Report 1.7, Appendix A)

For enforcement, we have a mixture of RCMP and Peace Officer patrols and automated systems (red light, speed-on-green, and photo radar) that work in sync to target high collision/high risk areas.

But come on Rory, we all know this is just a money grab.

If online comment sections are to be believed, you would think that City Council sits hunched over, finger-tips twitching, brooding over how we can extort more money out of our unsuspecting residents. 

Not quite the case. It's about safety. That's why administration came up with a plan that identified the worst roads and intersections for collisions and we're focusing on those. You can see the list here. Only 4 intersections have the cameras installed. If this was really a tax grab, we could install cameras on every set of traffic lights and set up permanent photo radar machines on every street (as some cities do) and literally have tens of millions of dollars rolling in. Also, if it was about money, why would we let the program lapse for almost 2 years? Wouldn't be the smartest financial decision.

So is the program perfect?

No program ever is.

One of my pet peeves is when you find photo radar set up at "fishing holes". There are a number of streets that have had very few collisions but are easy pickings on the ticket front. When I see these, I send my concerns over to Bylaw. Sometimes I get a response giving some justification (usually residents in the area were concerned with high volume of speeders, sometimes it is a high collision area that you wouldn't suspect.) Sometimes there's no good rationale and management can talk to officers or contractors and steer them back to the areas they should be targeting.  I encourage you to give Bylaw and/or Council a shout with your concerns so that we're aware of what's happening.

One of the sad realities is that there are people who choose to consistently speed excessively and flaunt traffic laws egregiously. Photo radar/red light cameras are usually not effective in changing the behaviour of these individuals which is why we need to continue to have traditional officers who are able to catch and bring the full weight of the law to bear (fines, suspension, jail).

So there's where I stand...for now. So far the stats have shown that through a combination of tools, we've been able to curb the number of collisions.  Council will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the program and make changes where needed. I welcome any feedback you have on this topic.


Selection of Studies
Alberta Transportation
City of Winnipeg
City of Medicine Hat
Texas Transportation Institute

Blogs/Articles of Interest
City of Edmonton
Global on Red Light Cameras
Article on US Red Light Cameras


  1. Rory, you are funny. It's never, ever, been anything but about the money. Most of the enforcement happens in fishing holes. 84 ave going toward the bridge, you take your foot off the brake and your vehicle speeds up due to gravity 5-10 kph, so that's one of the favourite spots, then aim right at the bridge, the apex of the natural speed increase, because its all about the money. Last winter, one of the radar contractors spent most of the winter targeting that same location, parked illegally on the sidewalk with a white truck, trying to blend into the snow pile. Why, because its all about the money, the more tickets those clowns issue, the more money their company makes. And no, I haven't received a ticket there, but its my neighbourhood, so I see how often they are there. The road is divided, there are no exits near the bridge, as safe as can be, but it's all about the money. I could point out twenty more fishing holes, but there is no point, no one involved in city management cares.

    The most effective tool for lowering speeds in school zones is a fixed speed measuring device connected to a display that flashes your speed if you are above the limit. It's highly visible, provides immediate feedback to a driver (as opposed to a ticket in the mail three weeks later which doesn't change any behaviour, (can cite hundreds of studies for this, but no one cares)), and it gets drivers to slow down right now. Does the city have any even one of these? No. Why? Because its all about the money. They don't generate any revenue, they only cost money to install. Those devices would be highly effective in a spot such as GP Christian School because no one expects a school to be in the middle of an industrial area. But you will always find a radar contractor there because its a fishing hole.

    The fixed camera on 132 ave doesn't catch southbound traffic coming into a lower speed zone, where it's a safety issue, its pointed north, where the speed zone increases from 60 to 80, trying to catch people speeding up a little too soon. Not a safety issue, it's all about the money.

    The program lapsed because the city did a terrible job on due diligence on the company providing the service. They should have discovered that the company's business plan was to extort money from municipalities after the equipment was installed. It took the city two years to do anything about it, not because the city didn't want money, only because of its own incompetence.

    I was in court last month fighting a bogus ticket (which I won) when I had occasion to be absolutely embarrassed to say I was a resident of Grande Prairie. The basics of the case is that a lady with a valid handicap placard parked in a handicap space, the dog inside of her vehicle knocked the placard onto the floor, along comes a bylaw officer and issues a ticket. She explained this to the city, was ignored, and off to court it goes. The City's incompetent lawyer (as evidenced in the transcripts) admitted during the course the case that yes, she did have a valid placard, it did get knocked down, but would he withdraw the case? No, he persisted and persisted, insisting that even though she tried her best, it was her fault the placard fell down and she should pay the fine of in excess of $300. It was an absolutely disgusting, shameful display. It's all about the money.

    There are bylaw officers that come to my street every single day, relentlessly chalking tires to try and catch someone who has the audacity to park on their own street for 3 days in a row. They could be out looking for the orange jeep that drives around every single day stealing bottles (sad that social media is better at keeping track of thieves than the people being paid to do it), but that isn't as lucrative as the $310 ticket for parking on your own street. It's all about the money.

    I was born in Grande Prairie. It used to be a nice community. Sadly, not anymore.

  2. I recently received 2 photo radar tickets on two different days from the same office and in both cases was clocked at exactly 77 in a 60 zone.

    I thought it was a little strange of a nunber to coincidentally be going at two different times so posted my tickets on local facebook page and discovered that five other people had been clocked at 77 in a 60 zone by the same officer and about 20 others who were clocked at exactly 17 km over in varrying zones.

    My point is.
    What are the rules with calibration and how often is it done.

    It's car to coincidental that so many people are receiving tickets for the same speed in the same zones