By Trevor Busch
Varying degrees of public outcry have prompted the provincial government to launch a review of photo radar in Alberta to determine if is actually an effective road safety tool or just a municipal tax grab.
Announced earlier this month, a review is currently underway in Alberta Transportation, and the idea had the support of all four opposition parties in the legislature. Photo radar has been in operation in Taber since 2011.
“In terms of the radar, we’ve maintained for some time now that enforcement should be for decreasing speed in areas that can cause problems,” said Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter.
“So what we’re trying to do — and the government seems to be very interested in this — is this just another tax grab, or is this actually a reduction in harm to Albertans?”
Municipalities in Alberta with populations that meet or exceed 5,000 residents can operate photo radar through their local police service or the RCMP.
In November 2016, the Taber Municipal Police Commission (TMPC) approved a transfer of $125,000 in fine revenue to the town to assist in balancing the 2017 municipal budget.
“I think it’s still a safety tool,” said TMPC chair Ken Holst. “Definitely there’s communities out there that use it as a revenue generating system, and that’s all that they look at — it does generate revenue. However, hopefully most communities are looking at it as safety first. In Taber, we’re pretty happy we’re seeing a decline in the number of photo radar tickets that we’re having, especially in the school zone areas, which is showing it’s making it safer for our children, which is great news.”
In a split 4-3 vote in November 2013, present town council decided photo radar revenues would remain under the administration of the police service rather than be folded into the general municipal budget to support town projects.
At that time, out of a police budget of just over $2 million, annual photo radar revenues represented an estimated $200,000 to $300,000.
Currently in Alberta, 73 per cent of fine revenue collected from a photo radar ticket goes to municipalities, with 27 per cent earmarked for the province, with the remaining 15 per cent as a surcharge which is allocated to a victims of crime fund.
“Bottom line, I believe it is set up for that purpose, to try to hit those higher risk areas, such as playground zones for example, high traffic areas, other places in the municipality,” said Mayor Andrew Prokop. “You hear different stories about people that dislike photo radar — I don’t know that you’re ever going to have people who overall like the idea. I don’t know that I can say that it’s abused necessarily, but I think they’re reasonably responsible, and that’s what the review is for.”
Established in 2014, provincial guidelines indicate photo radar is to be deployed in locations where drivers consistently ignore traffic laws, or areas where there have been higher number of traffic collisions or pedestrian incidents.
“You can figure this stuff out, based on where the photo radars are being set up, where the actual speeding is happening,” said Hunter. “If its happening in playground zones and school zones, then obviously that’s a good place to set it up. If its happening in areas where there’s a transition from one speed to another and people don’t really recognize it, then we’d say that’s something we maybe need to take a look at.”
While designed to be flexible, the overarching principles laid down in the guidelines are intended to target public safety rather than municipal revenue generation.
“We do a regular review of how our photo radar is set up, how many days a week we’re doing it, its locations, all of those types of things,” continued Holst. “We keep a pretty close eye on that, and we know other communities in the area are having it every day of the week and have it set up a lot more than we do, and we don’t want to do that. We don’t want to get into that area of it being perceived more as a cash cow, or it actually going into that territory in people’s minds. Six days a month is all we’re doing right now, which is a lot less than other communities. We’re trying to restrict it to those sensitive areas as far as speed, and to do it fairly.”
Transportation Minister Brian Mason has indicated the review will be looking at where municipalities are deploying photo radar, and how much revenue individual municipalities are actually taking in — information that will later be released when the government completes the review this fall.
“I think it’s never a bad thing to look at things and have regular audits,” said Holst. “But again, I’m hoping that most communities are looking at it as a safety tool. It will be interesting to see what their findings are for sure.”
Mayor Prokop was coy in suggesting that many citizens may never be entirely supportive of photo radar for obvious reasons.
“I’ve talked to some people that have brought it up. As I said, I don’t think overall most of the public are probably favourable to the idea. The reason it was started is I think followed for the most part. This review will be interesting to see what the findings are.”
TMPC chair Holst was more blunt in his assessment of the situation, pointing out that individuals that don’t want to receive a dreaded letter in the mail should simply slow down in sensitive areas.
“We do hear a little bit — I wouldn’t say a lot — people are upset when sometimes they may get one or two tickets even in the course of the same day, going through the same area. So we do have some feedback, but it’s relatively minimal. And again — if you don’t want these tickets, then simply don’t speed through these areas, or at all.”
MLA Hunter was adamant that the will of the people be followed with regard to determining if photo radar is being abused by municipalities in Alberta.
“We hear enough from people that I would say there’s an outcry to find out if this is being done in a proper way. Remember, we’re representing the people here, so if the people are saying we need to look and see if this is a tax grab versus an actual quantifiable, measurable safety issue — then we need to do it.”