[Update, Oct. 8, 2014: I was unable to offer a link to Dr. El-Basyouny’s study on Monday but here is a link to an Oct. 7 post by Dr. El-Basyouny that includes links to the study referenced below and two others substantiating the firm link between enforcement and safety. A subsequent post explains how locations are selected for enforcement, as well as a link to the enforcement sites, which have long been publicly disclosed. A comprehensive report on traffic safety, including the role of automated enforcement, is due before Council’s Transportation Committee on November 13th, and the public is welcome to present. Furthermore, Councillors Sohi and Loken submitted an inquiry today – with strong support from all members of Council – that will ensure more of your questions and concerns are addressed in the reports. Here is a post from Cllr. Sohi’s website with the full text of their 15-point inquiry.]
Last year, 23 people died in collisions on our streets. Thousands were injured in an average of 68 collisions per day, which altogether caused millions in damage and worsened congestion on our roads (source).
The good news is that injury and fatality rates are coming down, thanks in part to a suite of integrated traffic safety programs including Automated Photo Enforcement. Back in 2007, there were 7.44 such collisions per 1,000 Edmontonians. Last year that number was 3.89 per 1,000 people (source).
Meanwhile, Edmontonians recently said in the Edmonton Police Service’s Citizen Satisfaction Survey that their top safety concern – ahead of gangs and drug activity – was traffic, specifically speeding and careless driving (see page 7). Given this concern, it’s no surprise to me that Council has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the re-institution of 30km/h speed limits in school zones as one example of action to improve traffic safety.
So why do we set and enforce speed limits? Borrowing from a recent City blog post on the topic: “according to Dr. Karim El-Basyouny, the City of Edmonton’s Research Chair in Urban Traffic Safety at the University of Alberta, the risk of a collision doubles at 5 km/h over the speed limit in a 60 km/h zone. The risk is four times higher at 10 km/h over and 10 times higher at 15 km/h over the speed limit.”
So that’s the need. What are the outcomes? Dr. El-Basyouny found that “on the roads where there was continuous enforcement, severe collisions went down by 32%, speed-related collisions were reduced by 27% and overall collisions were cut by 28%.” [Update: source and context.]
Some people complain that enforcement is mainly on the busy arterial roads and what they’d really like to see is enforcement in their neighbourhoods. A few years back Council also saw the need in neighbourhoods and responded with the Safe Speed Vans which residents can request through their Community League, their Councillor, or even through 311 (see here for more info on this program). These are marked vehicles that provide a visual deterrent and still conduct photo enforcement where people continue to speed.
Given all this context, it’s unfortunate to me — just as we’re making progress — that some voices are calling for an end to photo enforcement.
I’ll admit that the Auditor’s report last month has, without a doubt, clouded the issue. (You can read the Auditor’s full report here and you can watch the Audit Committee meeting where we discussed the matter at length here.) It highlighted significant cost overruns within the program as they transitioned away from a private service provider, and administration has taken responsibility for not keeping Council abreast of these cost overruns. Thankfully, tax dollars were NOT used to cover these overruns, and while the original business case was deeply flawed and the transition costs were vastly underestimated, the city’s photo radar program is now fully transitioned and running efficiently. Council asked point blank questions of Transportation Services administrators as to whether they built a self-funding empire to cover their overruns, and the answer was no.
Nevertheless, there remains a powerful misconception that the City operates this program to earn revenue. In fact, the formula is more complicated than that and the breakdown is as follows (source):
- 15% of the total fine goes to Victims Services
- 16.67% goes to the Alberta Government
- The remaining fine balance goes to the City
The balance that comes to the City does not go into general revenue; it is dedicated first toward covering the cost of automated enforcement, and what’s leftover goes to fund traffic safety education initiatives and to make physical modifications to roadways that improve safety.
The revenues have increased because the technology is getting better, because the city is growing, and because people are still speeding.
There are recurring questions about a so-called ‘buffer’ that people can exceed the speed limit without getting a ticket. There is no buffer. The speed limit is set in law, by Council, who are the City’s duly constituted legislative authority. The disconnect is that the courts will throw out tickets based on the margin of error in the the equipment. The equipment has gotten better, so that margin of enforceability has come down, but practically the enforcement officers use their discretion in not issuing tickets that are too close to call and might get tossed by the courts. Officially, however, nobody at the City can take a position that the speed limit is anything other than the speed limit.
1. a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass.
Having said all of this, I think there is some merit in exploring other ways photo radar revenues can be dealt with, and perhaps capping the amount of photo enforcement revenues that the Transportation Services Department has at its disposal so there is no empire building happening when revenues go up. That raises the question about where to apportion any amounts above that cap, so I’m hoping for some public feedback on an idea I had: we take a portion above that cap and distribute it back to the community to fund things like community league buildings, not-for-profit space, playgrounds, etc. These are questions I’m going to explore in the coming months as part of our budget process and your feedback is welcome.
It can be incredibly frustrating to get a photo radar ticket in the mail, and our first instinct is to blame someone else. But to throw all the evidence out the window because we’re angry with getting a penalty would be shortsighted and, very likely, harmful to our community.
To me, the solution is simple: the most effective and principled way we can put photo radar out of business is to stop speeding.