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Will photo radar do anything for road safety?

Is the return of photo radar really a pot bellied government plan to fleece drivers?  Will it do anything for road safety?  I say we have a chance to make a dramatic difference, but not with 35 targeted intersections with warning signs. 

I gave a bit of history of photo radar in my last column. In 1996, the then NDP government deployed 30 unmarked photo radar vans in undisclosed locations. It was taking the dreaded “speed trap” to the next level.

A speed trap is when police set up on the safest stretch of road ever, the posted speed limit some 20 kms/h lower than the natural, safe traffic speed that everyone travels at, with an officer hiding behind a tree shooting fish in a barrel.

It feels unfair because everyone is driving that stretch of road at the same speed and only the unlucky fish are tagged with a fine.

But at least with a speed trap, passing motorists can flicker their lights to warn everyone to temporarily drive like grandma.

Sneaky, unmarked photo radar vans eliminated that warning.

In a driving society where everyone speeds, a small number of random speed traps will do next to nothing to change driving behaviour. And it feels grossly unfair for an unlucky few to face fines. No wonder the Liberals were able to make political hay out of the issue, helping them win the next election with the promise to get rid of photo radar.

This latest version of photo radar will be different. Signs will be erected to warn drivers about the 35 red light cameras to be reconfigured as photo radar machines.

No trap there. Only the most absent minded of lead footed drivers, those whose inattentiveness is at a level that they miss the warning signs, will be tagged.

The vast majority of drivers will hit the brakes to reach the posted limit before entering those intersections, just like we do now when oncoming drivers flicker their lights with a speed trap warning.

What road safety goal will be achieved?  The speed of traffic going through 35 of the highest crash volume intersections in British Columbia will be reduced. Even with no reduction in crash volumes, those crashes will occur at lower speeds.

And there will be an added benefit. Those warning signs will at least temporarily focus driver attention to the task at hand.

That’s the real road safety challenge. Inattention causes the vast majority of crashes. If only we could come up with a mechanism that would help drivers maintain constant, focused attention on driving. Not just at 35 intersections.

We could expand this initiative to all 140 intersections equipped with red light cameras, not just the 35 worst ones.

But that’s a drop in a very large bucket, doing nothing to increase overall driver attentiveness.

We could get rid of the warning signs, leaving drivers guessing about which intersections are and are not equipped. But then we get back to the unfairness piece.

What about a mass deployment of this new photo radar technology?

This was not possible the last go-around with police officer equipped vans and the manual processing of actual film and hard copy tickets. Unmanned, automatic photo radar could be deployed and operate at a small fraction of the cost.

Broad enough deployment would remove the unfairness.

Maintaining a speed within 10 kms/h of the posted limit is not difficult. It requires only a periodic glance. That periodic glance refocuses attention from whatever else you’re thinking about to the task of driving.

If your speed is creeping up, it’s an alert that your level of attentiveness needs to increase.

Being tagged with a ticket would no longer feel unfair. Rather, ticketed drivers would be exposed for their rather gross lack of attention.

And the continual increase of crash numbers would reverse.

If revenues went to ICBC, those revenues along with crash reduction would benefit all British Columbia drivers by allowing a corresponding reduction of ICBC insurance premiums.

Or our pork bellied government could go back to skimming those profits.

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  • I am not sure of the point of your note here. Are you saying that photo radar traps do work to improve road safety? Or are you saying they are merely easy coin collectors for the city or other government to use? I think the latter.

    Here in Ottawa, such photo radar traps have been set up across the city. One close to where I live has nabbed thousands of drivers, many of whom live right near the trap location. The trap does have some signs up but it is clear that many people just don’t see them, and drive at the more or less normal 50 kmh rather then the change to 40 kmh right in that specific area. Does this make the road safer? The fact that many of the ‘speeders’ have received several tickets indicates not. Plus the trap itself, does not get the driver to slow down right then because he/she obviously is not aware of the speed being driven nor of being nabbed right then. That only happens when a ticket is received in the mail later on.
    A much more effective method of slowing people down is a flashing sign indicating the driver’s speed right at that moment. That has an immediate effect and likely the driver does slow down if going over the limit. The flashing sign, though, does not get any money for the City while the photo radar trap nets literally $Millions in revenue, some $2.5 Million for the City of Ottawa over the last year for the 8 traps they have around the city. Who are these speeders? Mostly locals who use those roads every day and mostly very safely. The very people who are supposed to be seeing safer roads and the ones paying the fines. Those are the ones these traps are ‘protecting’.
    Bottom line to me: these traps are easy cash grabs, nothing more.

    • Thank you for your interest in my column, and for your comment.

      In my view, a broad application of photo radar has the potential to improve road safety. But not by reducing speeds.

      Generally speaking, lower speeds provide for increased reaction times and reduced injuries / deaths. But for the most part, going 10-20 or more over the speed limit doesn’t cause crashes.

      In fact, I would suggest that those pushing the speed envelope might be among the safest drivers, because they’re likely hyper aware of what’s going on, eyes peeled for police.

      The overwhelming cause of car crashes is inattention.

      Approximately 50% of all collisions are the completely stupid rear-ender….most of them with traffic coming to a stop and an oblivious, absent-minded driver crashing into the back of that stopped traffic.

      If only we could do something that would cause drivers to pay the hell attention.

      Photo radar could just be that “something”.

      All it takes to avoid getting those nasty tickets in the mail is to pay the exquisitely small amount of attention needed to be aware of the speed limit. And to keep within 10 kms of it.

      Like “oh my god!!!” how hard is that? It’s not hard. But it takes attention. It takes constant attention to watch for those speed signs. If you happen to “miss” a speed sign you’re obviously driving dangerously. They’re really, really easy to find. It’s not a “where’s Waldo” situation!

      If we could JUST get drivers to pay enough attention that they could keep track of the speed limit along with their speed, keeping within 10 kms of the speed limit, then we would drastically reduce crashes.

      Again, this doesn’t have to do with speed. It has to do with paying attention.

      Are you picking up what I’m putting down?