By Trevor Busch
While the province recently implemented changes to how photo radar is utilized by municipalities to prevent abuse as a ‘cash cow’, town officials are confident Taber’s deployment has always been about reduced speeds and safety rather than the ring of the cash register.
Announced earlier this year, new guidelines will force municipalities to disclose locations and the reason for utilizing those sites. Starting March 1, 2020, municipalities will also be required to submit reports to the provincial government proving photo radar is making roads safer.
The review was launched in May 2017 by Alberta Transportation, and had the support of all opposition parties in the legislature. Photo radar has been in operation in Taber since 2011, one of twenty-seven Alberta municipalities that have photo radar programs.
Mayor Andrew Prokop disputed the idea that photo radar is abused by municipalities, and instead employed the simplest of arguments — don’t speed and you’ll never have to worry about photo radar.
“You’ve heard that interpretation by a number of people province-wide — or Canada-wide for that matter — that ‘cash cow’ analogy. It’s not completely fair, bottom line there on what photo radar is all about. It’s back to the old story. If you’re not speeding, you’ve got nothing to worry about. The truth of the matter is, whether it’s photo radar set up, or the policeman sitting in the police vehicle doing radar himself — if you’re not speeding there is no issue, end of story. I’ve got my share of photo radar tickets over the years in several different locations, here as well. I’ve never been happy with it either, but it’s kind of like ‘well, yes, that was me, and I’m 10 over.’ Nobody likes it, but it’s an awareness thing. It’s a deterrent just knowing that’s out there somewhere.”
Established in 2014, the original provincial guidelines ordered photo radar to be deployed in locations where drivers consistently ignore traffic laws, or areas where there have been higher numbers of traffic collisions or pedestrian incidents. While designed to be flexible, the overarching principles laid down in the guidelines were intended to target public safety, rather than municipal revenue generation.
With the new changes, municipal traffic safety plans will have to associate photo radar locations with safety, and will be audited by the provincial government.
“I think the changes are good, if there are areas and departments within the province that are abusing some of those philosophies, and some of those rules historically, then it’s good to be able to get them cleared up and get them more compliant,” said Ken Holst, chair of the Taber Municipal Police Commission. “I think that is what the shift in rules is really accomplishing.”
The province will prohibit the use of photo radar in speed transition zones starting June 1, and the new guidelines will now define what a transition zone is. The size of zones vary according to how much a vehicle needs to slow down. For example, a change in speed of 30 km/hr, requires a transition zone of 200 metres, 100 metres on either side of a sign.
“Really this means no changes for us, our philosophies have been what they’ve always been, and these changes have really come into line with what we’ve been doing, and so it means no changes for us,” continued Holst. “We’re adamant as a commission that it’s used properly, and used in accordance with what our goals are — we always have, and will continue to do that. It feels good, the fact that the changes that they thought were necessary were in line to what we were already doing.”
The locations of photo radar cameras will also have to be posted online and updated monthly starting June 1. The changes come following the release of the two-year review on whether municipalities are using photo radar for safety or as a ‘cash cow.’
“Do we get dollars from it? Absolutely we do,” said Prokop. “That goes into the municipality’s coffers and budgets. But it’s nothing new. It’s the same as a policeman writing a ticket violation on the roadside, it’s the same thing — we get that money back, that comes back to the town, and the municipality uses it. It’s really not a lot of difference that way.”
Due to a lack of traffic data, the third-party review reached no conclusions over allegations that photo radar is being used to generate revenue for municipalities, but it did find that it has only a marginal contribution to traffic safety, reducing collisions rates by only 1.4 per cent (up to 5.3 per cent in the proportion of fatal collisions). And while most collisions occur at intersections, photo radar is much less prolific at these locations, but is instead often utilized on roads where drivers are likely to speed.
“Automatic traffic enforcement (ATE) has been demonstrated to be a means of improving traffic safety,” said Chief Graham Abela of the Taber Police Service. “TPS does not operate ATE in Taber, however we do control, through our traffic safety plan, where ATE may be located. We have been previously audited by the province’s ATE committee and passed in every category. We are already complaint with the majority of the changes suggested by the new report just released. We of course will implement the new requirements, such as transition zones, in our operations moving forward.”
While officials can site statistics and evidence proving photo radar makes a difference, there continues to be a significant movement of citizens who remain unconvinced of its ongoing value as a deterrent.
“My answer to that is you’re not going to convince everyone on that topic, because it’s been out there that there’s so many opinions that believe this ‘cash cow’ scenario,” said Prokop. “That’s their prerogative, they can view it that way if they like. But it’s been proven with the stats that accidents are down, pedestrian fatalities/injuries are down in targeted areas. I don’t know how you argue against those stats. And it seems to me — I haven’t looked at everybody’s stats — but the police service tells me that’s pretty consistent across the province. Just knowing that it’s out there somewhere makes you think a little more.”
No dark conspiracies about ‘ticket quotas’ or other revenue-generating allegations exist within the ranks of the police service or municipality, contends Holst.
“I’m sure different people have different thoughts, and it would maybe take different answers to convince them otherwise. It’s no different that any of our enforcement techniques, and prevention of crime and prevention of accidents is one of the goals of the Taber Police Service, and I would hope of most police services in Alberta. That’s what we’re doing. Yes, there is revenue from that, but there is revenue from a lot of other aspects of policing as well. It’s just the way the system works. I don’t think our philosophies and what we do would change if all the sudden the province came to us and said ‘we are going to take 100 per cent of these fine monies,’ we still would have those enforcement philosophies.”
According to the report, in 2016-17 Calgary generated $38.1 million from 950 photo radar locations while Edmonton took in $50.8 million from 272 locations.
In November 2016, the police commission approved a transfer of $125,000 in fine revenue to the town to assist in balancing the 2017 municipal budget. Previous to that decision, in a split 4-3 vote in November 2013, council of the day had decided photo radar revenues should 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.
As for annual photo radar revenue generated for the Town of Taber in more recent years, calculations are complex surrounding how the number is actually broken down between various parties.
According to Abela, when a ticket is written by ATE in Taber, $21 from each ticket goes to the contracted service providor, while roughly 42 per cent of the fine revenue is transferred to the province. The remaining fine revenue is then allocated to the Town of Taber by the province as a grant, a portion of which is earmarked by the town to fund the police service’s annual budget. In 2017, this amounted to 17 per cent of the service’s budget coming from $627,500 in total fine revenue.
Abela was careful to note that this calculation for the provincial grant received by the town only applies to fine revenue that has actually been collected from violators, and doesn’t incorporate unpaid or outstanding fine revenues. This creates another layer of complication involved in calculating actual ATE revenues for the town, as a simple equation of numbers of tickets issued versus the revenue received would be misleading.
In terms of ATE tickets issued in Taber, in 2015 there was 5,444 (compared to 1,961 officer-initiated tickets), 4,429 in 2016 (compared to 1,635 officer-initiated tickets), and 3,230 in 2017 (compared to 2,134 officer-initiated tickets). The average speed over the posted limit of violators in each of these years was 18 kph. Fine revenue totals (unaudited) for 2018 have dropped significantly to $485,837.
“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, weather plays a big part in it,” said Holst. “If the roads are icy and slick, it seems people are already driving slower. I know it’s down significantly from what it was in the past. I think two to three years ago it was significantly more than what it currently is right now. Which is good, we’re wanting to see downward trends, especially in our school zones and crosswalk areas and that type of thing.”
While aware that some citizens aren’t always enthusiastic supporters of photo radar enforcement, Abela pointed out that Taber doesn’t utilize ATE on the same scale as some municipalities, including regional neighbours.
“One area we may also strengthen is advertisement of actual locations of ATE deployment in our community, rather than just the dates ATE is present,” said Abela. “The deadlines for these changes is June 2019. A decision has been made to only operate ATE six days per month in Taber, rather than operate every day like other communities.”
Prokop would also highlight this fact, as well as alluding to a less-than-glowing record on the part of other municipalities in Alberta.
“We advertise the days it’s going to be here, I believe it’s six days a month. Now, with the changes, the interpretation is they’re going to have to be a little more specific on the day and exact location. I can tell you — and it’s good to hear for our own police service and municipality — Taber Police Service, through their audit, was found to be completely compliant with all of the rules and regulations attached to how photo radar is to be used. There’s been no abuse whatsoever with the use of photo radar here in the municipality of the Town of Taber. Other municipalities weren’t quite as fortunate.”