Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Time to bring back photo radar?

with 16 comments

I was on CKNW’s Bill Good show this morning. It was all remarkably positive. Everyone accepted that speed limits are widely ignored, though there was a range of opinion on what could (or should) be done about it. Bill is on record as an opponent of the previous method used for photo radar – the green vans, parked sometimes in places were they were less than prominent, and where revenue collection was going to be better, even if safety was not really an issue. Most people connected the speed and safety issue – so that message seems to have got across. What is needed now is some better understanding of what can be done.

The first point I want to make is the lack of relevant, recent data. Go to the  Traffic Collision Statistics page of the ICBC web site and you will see a series of reports – but none more recent than 2007. Obviously ICBC has statistics more recent than that: for instance this CBC story today looks at the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the the new laws on cell phone use while driving. “Numbers from ICBC show fatal crashes involving distracted driving dropped by about 20 per cent in 2011” – but where are those numbers? I can’t find them. Anymore than I can find any data that looks specifically at this region, rather than the province as a whole. We cannot have a sensible discussion about any issue when the agency responsible keeps all the recent data hidden away, and only produces pr messages devoid of real information. Is speeding increasing? Have the rates stayed the same in recent years as driving declined?

There does not seem to be the same sort of push back against red light cameras as there was against photo radar. Yet the role of “ignoring a traffic control device” in collisions is less than a third of speed.

We also know that police presence does affect compliance. The trouble is that there cannot be a marked police car at every hot spot every time – nor is it always safe to have police officers trying to pull over speeders. As Bill pointed out, there are real problems policing bridges and places like the Stanley Park causeway. That is why I am an advocate of average speed cameras. These use the same technology as traffic surveys – and toll collection – number plate recognition and matching. Cameras are already mounted on the overhead gantries – so the process of determining who gets across the bridge far too quickly is pretty easy to implement. And there can be prominent signs informing drivers that their speed is being measured.

The other issue that got identified is driving too fast for conditions. That is something where “posted speed” is not relevant. If the road is slippery, or visibility is reduced, posted speed is not safe  – and is already illegal. “Driving too fast for conditions” can get you a ticket. There are some places where the speed limit varies by conditions  and such a system would certainly be worth considering for our freeways and bridges.


1. But none of this would have helped on the Port Mann Bridge last week (which is what prompted the discussion in the first place).

2. “Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair wants to take another look at photo radar cameras as a way to trim enforcement costs in an era of frozen police budgets.” CBC

Written by Stephen Rees

January 7, 2013 at 10:05 am

16 Responses

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  1. Take your blinders off.

    For government and ICBC it is all about money. They do not care that people speed (who doesn’t); the money garnered does not go into any kind of rehabiltation or reforming driving habits, it goes into paying down awkward government spending debt obligations.

    Hell, when the RCMP do spot checks around the province for assorted potential offences, they are off duty cops working ‘overtime’ which is paid exclusively by ICBC.

    Do you really think for a nanosecond that ICBC is doing this out of an altruistic desire to save lives?

    Come on! Welcome to BC.

    ron wilton

    January 8, 2013 at 7:59 am

  2. I re-read my piece and tried to find any indication that I might espouse the view you ascribe to me. It isn’t there because I did not write that – or say it on CKNW.

    The reason that death gets mentioned at all when talking about road safety is that is the way to get the attention of readers. A dry economist’s review of the cost benefit analysis of speed limit enforcement would get quite a different response. There are many more collisions than get reported in the statistical series I refer to – and the ones that do get reported this way are the ones where the police attend and then submit a report form. This skews the results significantly towards the more severe outcomes – and hence those that involve higher speeds.

    If we treated road collisions (they are not “accidents”) the way we treat those on any other mode, the response would be much more effective. We treat the carnage on the road as inevitable and somehow constant. Compare that to what happens after a train or plane crash, or the loss of a ship at sea. Also, note that it is only the rare events that make the news – not the everyday ones.

    Yes, you are quite right. The present government treats all public services as simply a way to make money. Not only that, they are also incredibly bad at that. Take, for example, PavCo or BC Hydro. Or even BC Ferries – where their recent record is far worse than the previous NDP administration. But you could not tell that from the mainstream media, where “fast ferries” are still short hand for left wing incompetence, while the “Coastal” class ferries cost more and mostly sit idle.

    But if you were listening to CKNW you would have heard me laughing at one listener’s suggestion (sent to Bill by email) that government should be honest and admit that speed enforcement is simply a different way to tax drivers. He might even be right, but the idea that this government could be honest is indeed hilarious.

    Stephen Rees

    January 8, 2013 at 10:11 am

  3. I definitely agree that far too many people drive too fast under poor conditions. I got a ride last Sunday to a gym downtown and on the way back, in the dark and the pouring rain, it was heart -stopping.
    I compared photos of the Port Mann bridge with photos of the Millau bridge and the difference is obvious.
    The Port Mann bridge as cables that slant obliquely from a center post to the outside of the bridge so snow and ice has to fall down on the lanes. obviously heating cables–if they have them–don’t work well enough.

    On the Millau bridge the cables are all in the central axis of the bridge. They don’t cross over the traffic lanes.
    I chose the Millau bridge because I know the area well. The road and the bridge are on a plateau at 500-600 METRES above sea level.
    The whole plateau—there are some higher elevations–has always been a tough desolated area and in winter it snows- a lot. It is quite obvious when one looks at old houses that have thick stone walls, small windows and roofs covered with heavy stone slabs to resist fierce winds…

    They do close the bridge occasionally in winter as snow storms and the winds makes driving on the freeway too dangerous, especially for drivers used to city drivers.

    Red frog

    January 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm

  4. OOPS! ..”especially for drivers used to city drivers..” ..should read … used to city driving… .

    Red frog

    January 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm

  5. The Port Mann Bridge does not heat the support cables. The design relies on a coating – that is what did not work.

    It is instructive that the Minister made the bridge builder responsible for the damage caused by the ice bombs – but accepted no liability for Main Road’s later failure to salt the bridge deck. They had relied on a brine application which they expected to last for 48 hours. The ice bombs were a novelty – but the sliding around due to lack of salt is all too common, and not just on bridges, so there was plenty precedent to rely on in that case.

    Stephen Rees

    January 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm

  6. The Zakim Bridge in Boston is another cabled-stayed bridge in a wintery climate where the cables cross the roadway (not sure what they do for snow build-up):

    The Incheon Bridge in Korea uses a “robot” to run up and down the cables to remove snow and ice:

    In each of the two recent missteps, the contractors were held responsible: (1) for [potentially] failing to meet specifications in bridge design, and (2) for failing to meet standards in roadway maintenance. Presumably, sufficient insurance and/or indemnities are in place to cover lawsuits and damages arising from these incidents.


    January 8, 2013 at 2:27 pm

  7. The media that I have seen on the Port Mann incidents noted that while the people impacted by the ice bombs got their insurance deductibles covered (and a toll free passage) that was not the case for the unsalted roadway victims. If you have a source that says different, please provide it.

    Stephen Rees

    January 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

  8. PS the only other bridge in the Lower Mainland with cables that cross above the deck is the SkyBridge (SkyTrain bridge) – not sure if they have ever had any problems with ice build-up.


    January 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

  9. I’m just referring to contractual arrangements between MoTI and its contractors.

    Insurance or a contractual indemnity in place between BC MoTI and Main Road would, presumably, provide claims coverage for and/or indemnify MoTI from third party claims (i.e. from drivers) arising from Main Road’s negligence. i.e. in the event of a class action suit by drivers against MoTI and Main Road, Main Road would cover MoTI’s legal costs and any damages awarded against MoTI due to Main Road’s actions. The drivers’ remedy would be in a class action award of damages.

    As for the covering of deductibles, etc. for the ice bombs, in the absence of a determination of actual liability and an award of damages, that’s really a political/equitable courtesy extended by MoTI to the drivers (with MoTI not knowing whether it can, in turn, recover those costs from its contractor). If the contractor is eventually found to be at fault, MoTI may be able to claim back from the contractor the costs of covering drivers’ deductibles (although it is arguable that such costs were not necessarily incurred).


    January 8, 2013 at 2:46 pm

  10. Also note, that sometimes consulting contracts will contain limits on a contractor’s liability, particularly if the risk assumed by the contractor is far greater than the amounts paid under the contract (i.e. liability limited to the full price of the contract). This gap may also be filled by insurance coverage.


    January 8, 2013 at 2:59 pm

  11. My understanding is that speed as a contributing factor originates with the cop having to pick a reason for the accident. I’ve seen it critiqued on the GIGO basis for that reason. Your first point? “The first point I want to make is the lack of relevant, recent data. ”

    I have to agree with Mr. Wilton – seems like a money grab to me. There are a lot of other things we could do to reduce traffic accidents without increasing coercion and surveillance.

    (It’s worth pointing out that Mr. Wilton was attacking ICBC and the government, not you. Not only did you not espouse the view that you thought he ascribed to you, he didn’t even ascribe the view to you).

    BTW, time to consider moving to isn’t worth what they charge you.

    Rob Chipman

    January 8, 2013 at 6:54 pm

  12. There can be be several factors involved in any collision. There are also different ways to note speed. Many academics have had fun in critiquing what a police officer writes in an accident report, but then they weren’t there at the time, trying to do a number of things at once.

    You are conflating two issues. Do we want better enforcement of existing law, or do we want to reduce the risk of collisions?

    One of the benefits of better speed limit enforcement is a reduction in collision severities. This often shows up as a lower number of police reports – fewer “reportable” collisions. Since collision severities rise geometrically with speed, attacking the worst speeders can save lives. If you combine tickets from photo radar with penalty points on licenses, eventually you stop the worst offenders from driving. I would guess that the previous photo radar system in BC was not in existence long enough for that to emerge.

    Since Mr Wilton said that I should take my blinders off, I felt under attack. It is not at all clear that what followed was the thoughtful, nuanced critique you appear to have seen. costs me nothing. Switching to would require me to pay for a number of services that come included in .com . I have considered it – I even ran a poll on it once. I am staying put, and I do not intend to ask people for money just to read this stuff.

    Stephen Rees

    January 8, 2013 at 7:59 pm

  13. Speed is obviously a contributing factor to crashes and the main factor in the severity of crashes. To say otherwise is denying the laws of physics. The higher the speed, the greater the kinetic energy and the greater the damage in a collision. Speed also increases stopping distances thus increasing the likelihood of a collision.

    For pedestrians and cyclists, it has been proven fatality rates increase dramatically when motor vehicle speeds are greater than 30kph.

    Where even the police get confused is they equate speed with speeding. So if a collision occurs and the driver is not going a huge amount over the speed limit, they will say that speed was not a factor even though if the driver was going slower, the collision may not have happened or at least been less severe.

    Given the risk of speed and the challenges for the police to enforce it without putting themselves and the public at risk by stopping vehicles, photo radar is definitely worth looking at. There should, however, be tracking to make sure that is reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities in the locations where it is used.


    January 9, 2013 at 4:00 pm

  14. Variable speed limit signs with photo radar definitely could have helped on the Port Mann. There were accounts of people driving way too fast for the conditions on the bridge. It was foggy too.


    January 9, 2013 at 4:03 pm

  15. So what if it’s a cash grab? Since moving to Alberta where photo radar is legal and used by municipalities as a welcome revenue source, I’ve noticed a lot less speeding out here. You never know really where the photo radar is or how sensitive it is set. Often times it is combined with a red light camera with the same camera checking speed when the light is green. The end result is that people are a whole lot more respectful of speed limits out here. If you do get caught, its an $89 ticket. It won’t break the bank but you wouldn’t want to get them all that often.

    Realistically the Police cannot be everywhere at all times….but photo radar can. People also seem to accept that getting a photo radar ticket is much better than being ticketed by an actual Police officer where the fine is 2-3 times as high with points attached to your license that directly affects your insurance rating.

    Further more, municipalities actually make money from it. Municipal revenue is tough to come by where ever you go. What better way to promote safety and decrease the burden on the general taxpayer? Sure, there are scofflaws who don’t care and rack up mounds of tickets. Real Police patrols are still out there and will catch up with them eventually. Idiots will be everywhere….but the attitude that its acceptable for everyone to go 20k+ over the limit just does not exist out here as it does in Vancouver. It’s an expensive attitude to have out here and that’s why people don’t have it.

    At any rate, how much different is it from taxing the heck out of cigarettes?


    January 9, 2013 at 9:44 pm

  16. An interesting idea from

    Canmore to use photo radar ‘lottery’ to reward good drivers

    Canmore is putting a new twist on one of the town’s biggest irritants: photo radar.

    Instead of a costly ticket, law-abiding drivers “caught” on camera obeying speed limits will have a chance to win a $250 gift certificate redeemable at local businesses.

    Town council approved the program as part of a wider plan to promote safety in the mountain community.

    Coun. Sean Krausert first suggested the idea after learning of a similar reward system in Europe. “Positive reinforcement strikes me as an effective and creative way to approach photo radar,” he said.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the only municipality in Alberta — if not North America — that is doing this sort of thing.”

    Photo radar was introduced in Canmore in 2007 amid controversy after residents raised concerns about speeding in the town. Officials have since wrestled with how to spend fines collected from lead-footed motorists.

    The money sits in a $400,000 reserve and is used to pay for additional RCMP officers. Beginning next year, an additional $12,000 will be used to reward four lucky drivers each month with $250 winnings that can be spent on everything from spa treatments to fine dining within the town.

    Funds from the reserve will also go toward traffic calming measures and the installation of pedestrian signals for the visually impaired.


    January 9, 2013 at 11:33 pm

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