The City of Edmonton recently released the numbers for photo radar tickets issued in 2018, resulting in a decrease of about 80,000 tickets from 2017.
Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason made a welcome, if hypocritical, announcement on photo radar last week.Cities and towns now have one year to open their books. They must prove to citizens and the provincial government that the way they use photo radar is reducing serious injuries and fatal collisions. It can’t be a “cash cow;” it must be focused on safety.If Alberta Transportation doesn’t like what it sees, Mason said, local governments could lose their ability to use photo radar.It’s a serious threat. In 2016-17 alone, photo radar generated $130 million for cities and towns across the province while helping to reduce serious injury and fatal collisions. But it’s about time someone seriously scrutinized if local governments could do better.Now what about provincial highways? There’s a different set of issues on those roads — not addressed by Mason on Thursday.Alberta is still not using automated photo radar on provincial highways, opting instead for RCMP officers and sheriffs, when they have time and the location is safe. But governments shouldn’t avoid criticism by shirking innovation.Is the provincial decision not to use photo radar for saving lives? Show us the data.
Brian Mason (Alberta Minister of Transportation) announced in Edmonton on Thursday February 21, 2019 that the province is taking steps to “humanely put the cash cow down” and end photo radar being used as a revenue-generating tool.
Larry Wong /
In 2016, the last year for which statistics are available, 174 people died on Alberta’s rural roads. Other jurisdictions are pulling ahead of Alberta in technological solutions. Average speed cameras are now common in Europe and Australia. They take a photo of a licence plate at the entrance to a stretch of roadway and at the exit, calculating the average speed and sending a ticket if that exceeds the posted speed. That ensures only persistent speeders are caught, not someone just speeding up to pass. It can’t be avoided with a dash-mounted radar detector.In the United Kingdom, low-end speeders can be sent to a safety course, a move that’s proven more effective than just issuing a fine. In Australia’s New South Wales, the government announced last year that it will be using cameras to catch people using cellphones while driving.In Alberta, the government doesn’t even publish a map showing locations of serious injuries and fatal collisions to show where highway design might impact safety. Staff argue that’s necessary to protect personal privacy.I don’t buy that. In my books, hiding critical information only protects the government responsible.But let’s look at what Mason’s announcement means for Edmonton, which took in $50 million, the most photo radar revenue of any municipality in 2016-17.Mayor Don Iveson was quick to defend the city’s record. Edmonton is “incredibly transparent,” he told reporters. It even pays University of Alberta researcher Karim El-Basyouny to study Edmonton’s techniques, publishes radar locations and other speed data online.The trouble is, El-Basyouny’s research is only accessible in academic literature, and I doubt Iveson looked at the confusing speed data Edmonton now publishes to the open data catalogue.
A photo radar operator monitors traffic on Saskatchewan Drive near 86 Avenue on Wednesday May 17, 2017.
Larry Wong /
Last May, council asked for “regular public reporting on the analysis of traffic speed data collected across the city.” Instead, the city is now dumping all of its raw speed camera data into the open data network. There is no analysis. Anyone who wants to follow speeding trends must first decipher a spreadsheet with 18 columns and 6.56 million rows.That’s obfuscation, not transparency.Edmonton publishes a map with the location of photo radar but nothing around why each location was chosen or the results of enforcement. I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, for three weeks to get location and safety cases for the new red light/speed-on-green cameras it installed and is turning on this year.It’s frustrating because speeding is a serious issue. In Alberta, police found speeding was a factor in collisions that killed 72 people and injured 1,699 in 2016.Photo radar can make streets safer. Even the haphazard system described in the provincial review reduced the severity of collisions by five per cent province wide. With researcher El-Basyouny’s involvement, Edmonton’s effort is likely yielding better than average results. But gone are the days when a government can just say, “Trust us. We studied it,” without sharing the details.The best way to counter the naysayers in Edmonton is by pulling back the curtain. Post El-Basyouny’s research online, or at least give a detailed summary. Require researchers getting city dollars to host an annual public lecture on their findings. Appoint a citizens’ advisory board to dig deeper into the issues, question the Office of Traffic Safety, publicly critique its work and advise council on ways to make city streets even safer.Mason rightly identified transparency is key to a program like this; it builds public acceptance and changes the culture around speeding. By not being transparent, cities put their photo radar program at risk. Already, official Opposition leader Jason Kenney says a UCP government would go “significantly further” to constrain its use.Edmonton doesn’t have to wait for Mason’s deadlines. It could launch a new, more open conversation on street safety firstname.lastname@example.org/estolteEditor’s note: Provincial analysis said photo radar was responsible for 1.4 per cent of the 29 per cent reduction Alberta saw in collision rates over 10 years. That means photo radar reduced collisions overall by 0.4 per cent. The severity of those collisions decreased by five per cent. This article has been updated to reflect that.Related