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Eye on photo enforcement

Should Morinville ban it? A Gazette analysis suggests no

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Mar 26, 2014 01:46 pm

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  • EYE ON SPEEDING – Peace officer William Norton demonstrates the use of a laser-based speed monitor in downtown Morinville. Above him, the town's radar-based speed display sign detects a car going 46 kilometres an hour in a 50 zone.
    EYE ON SPEEDING – Peace officer William Norton demonstrates the use of a laser-based speed monitor in downtown Morinville. Above him, the town's radar-based speed display sign detects a car going 46 kilometres an hour in a 50 zone.
    KEVIN MA/St. Albert Gazette
  • RADAR BY THE NUMBERS – Town corporate operations manager David Schaefer explains the use of photo radar in Morinville at an open house on the 2014 budget held Feb. 17 at the Community Cultural Centre. Photo radar has been used to enforce speeding in school zones for several years.
    RADAR BY THE NUMBERS – Town corporate operations manager David Schaefer explains the use of photo radar in Morinville at an open house on the 2014 budget held Feb. 17 at the Community Cultural Centre. Photo radar has been used to enforce speeding in school zones for several years.

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Should Morinville ban photo enforcement?

That’s ostensibly the question town residents will answer this April 14 when they vote on a proposed ban on photo radar and red light cameras.

Even though the law would actually only ban those two specific technologies due to the way it’s worded (rather than all forms of photo enforcement), town council has signalled that it will use the vote to guide the future of the town’s traffic safety program.

The law has sparked a broad debate about photo enforcement, or the use of laser or radar-linked cameras (manned and unmanned) to enforce speed limits.

Critics say the town’s program is a cash cow and that its photo enforcement contractor (Independent Traffic Services) is operating unethically. (Multiple audits by the Alberta solicitor general have found that ITS meets or exceeds all provincial guidelines for photo enforcement.)

Research suggests that photo enforcement makes towns safer and that removing it creates more danger on the roads. But using it in Morinville is an edge case: it makes the town safer speed-wise, but it was already pretty safe to begin with.

What’s so bad about speeding?

Morinville’s corporate operations manager David Schaefer has been running photo enforcement programs in Devon and Morinville for about 11 years.

“Speeding in Morinville in itself is not an issue,” Schaefer says.

About 85 per cent of residents travel at or below the speed limit in most areas, although there are definite hot spots for speeding.

What is an issue is the volume of speeders, he says. Data from the town’s speed monitoring signs suggest that 10 to 21 per cent of drivers in town on 100 Avenue (about 88,000 to 98,000 speeders a year) exceed the speed limit. Some of them whip through town at 155 kilometres per hour – three times the limit.

Speed makes death or injury exponentially more likely in any collision, says RCMP Sgt. Chris Narbonne, chair of the Capital Region Intersection Safety Partnership (CRISP).

“At 50 km/h, if you’re going to be hitting a pedestrian, the rate for survival is about 45 per cent,” he says, citing information from Manitoba Public Insurance.

That drops to about 10 per cent at 60 and to almost zero over 60.

Speeding also affects your quality of life, Narbonne says – if it’s too dangerous to play in the street, your life suffers.

Does it work?

Multiple international studies have found that photo enforcement produces measurable reductions in speeding and collisions.

One of the most comprehensive of these is a 2011 meta-analysis by the Cochrane Collaboration of some 35 studies on speed cameras. The study found a one to 15 per cent drop in average speeds, a 14 to 65 per cent drop in speeding and an eight to 49 per cent reduction in crashes at sites where photo enforcement was deployed.

“The consistency of reported reductions in speed and crash outcomes across all studies show that speed cameras are a worthwhile intervention for road traffic injuries and deaths,” it concludes.

Morinville has seen a 58 per cent reduction in speeding violations since the start of photo enforcement in 2009 despite an increase in traffic volume and no change to the amount of enforcement done, Schaefer says. This suggests that motorists are speeding less.

The City of Edmonton has found that putting photo enforcement at a site greatly boosts compliance with the speed limit, says Scott McDonald of the city’s office of traffic safety. About 84 per cent of Edmonton’s motorists get no more than two photo enforcement tickets, suggesting they learn not to speed once penalized.

Is it a cash cow?

Photo enforcement adds about $300,000 to Morinville’s coffers each year, the town reports. About five per cent of that is used for traffic safety initiatives such as better crosswalks, while the rest is used to pay off the Community Cultural Centre.

Richard Tay is the chair of road safety management at Australia’s La Trobe University and has done extensive research on speed enforcement.

“Cameras do raise revenue, and that cannot be disputed,” Tay says, but many studies show they also reduce collision rates.

If photo enforcement is purely about money, tickets should have no effect on injury crashes, Tay says. His research on Edmonton’s photo enforcement program suggests that every 1,000 tickets issued prevents about 5.7 injury crashes – a statistically significant result that suggests tickets do more than just make money.

The cash that photo enforcement produces is also outweighed by the cost of the collisions it prevents, McDonald says. CRISP reports that the capital region loses about $181,335 per fatal collision and $39,524 per injury collision.

What would a ban do?

Evidence suggests that ditching photo enforcement might lead to more speeding in Morinville.

Strathcona County ditched photo enforcement in 2011 and has hired five peace officers to do manual enforcement instead. Notably, it still has red light cameras.

“The removal of photo radar over one year has had no significant impact on our rate of collisions,” Narbonne says.

He has, however, seen an uptick in average speeds and a big jump in quality-of-life complaints from residents – complaints he used to address with photo enforcement.

Strathcona has also seen a big drop in ticket revenue.

Because it takes a lot more time to pull drivers over than it does to take a photo radar picture, the ticket output of five police officers is less than 10 per cent of the output of the county’s automated enforcement program, Narbonne says.

In its first year without automated enforcement, the county experienced a drop of $600,000 in ticket revenue, he estimates.

American studies suggest that removing photo enforcement from an area generally results in more speeding and collisions, Tay says.

A 2008 study by Arizona State University found that speeding jumped 10.5 times after they turned off a speed camera on a Scottsdale, Ariz., highway, for example. A 2012 study by Old Dominion University in Virginia Beach found that red-light running more than quadrupled when they shut off their red light cameras.

Strathcona County now spends about $425,000 a year for its five new peace officers, Narbonne says (initial hiring cost was $900,000).

Morinville would need at least two new police or peace officers to provide the same number of hours of enforcement it currently gets from ITS, Schaefer says. Two police officer would cost $299,000 a year, while two peace officers would cost about $227,500 (plus about $77,500 in year one for a patrol car). Equipping and training either group with laser-based photo equipment would cost an additional $22,000 or so.

Although it doesn’t pay ITS any tax money, Schaefer says the company does get a share of ticket revenue (roughly $200,000 a year) as payment for its services – significantly less than what Morinville would spend hiring its own staff. ITS got much less than $200,000 last year due to a drop in the number of tickets issued. This money comes from people who choose to speed, he notes.

The case for reform

Does Morinville actually need photo enforcement?

Tay and Narbonne emphasize that photo enforcement should only be used if speed is a problem in a community. If speed isn’t a major factor in your collisions, you probably don’t need photo enforcement.

Before you bring in photo enforcement or a big traffic unit, do an analysis first, Narbonne says.

“If you come back and you show that 85 per cent of your vehicles are below the speed limit, does automated enforcement make a difference?”

Probably not, he says – automated enforcement is better than nothing, but manned enforcement would be a better way to get at that last 15 per cent. Instead, he suggests the issue might be the public’s perception of speeding – something better addressed through education.

Photo enforcement can help if residents are concerned about speeding affecting their quality of life, Narbonne continues. If you have speed problems only at specific intersections, drop a manned unit or a red light camera there instead, he suggests.

Given that its average speeds are well below the speed limit, Morinville might not need photo enforcement right now.

But since photo enforcement is in fact reducing speeds and making money for the town, it probably doesn’t hurt to have it. And given rising traffic volumes, it makes little sense to ban it in any form – the town might need it in the near future.

Morinville has high peak speeds and high public concern about speeding, the town’s most recent traffic and pedestrian safety review suggests. Photo enforcement plus an enhanced speed education campaign could help address these issues.

The cash cow issue is always there with photo enforcement, Tay says. The best way to address it is with transparency.

It would cost more than a contractor, but Morinville could do its photo enforcement in-house if it wanted to fully publicize its costs. The town could also do a better job of publicizing the reasons behind its photo enforcement locations – perhaps by putting them up on its website.

Morinville could also put more than five per cent of its photo enforcement cash towards traffic safety. That money could be used for traffic safety education campaigns, traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps or roundabouts, or even two new peace officers for manned enforcement.

Every community needs safe streets. If Morinville wants them, it should build on the benefits of photo enforcement rather than get rid of them.


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