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Adam: Photo radar can work – if we don’t let individual councillors run amok

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Cst. Andrew Kirby uses laser radar at a speed trap set up in Edmonton on Thursday Aug. 13, 2015. JOHN LUCAS / EDMONTON JOURNAL

Cst. Andrew Kirby uses laser radar at a speed trap set up in Edmonton on Thursday Aug. 13, 2015. JOHN LUCAS / EDMONTON JOURNAL

I understand why many in Ottawa view the introduction of photo radar as a cash grab. Even though Premier Kathleen Wynne and Mayor Jim Watson say the speed cameras are meant to promote public safety and would be confined to school zones and other “community safety zones,” there is reason to be skeptical. Based on experience elsewhere, people are right to see this as a slippery slope that could end with photo radar on every street corner.

Cities such as Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, which introduced photo radar as public safety measures, have turned the speed cameras into cash machines that ring in millions every year. Edmonton police raked in $34 million in 2014 from speed cameras; Winnipeg netted $11 million last year and Calgary, $21 million. Photo radar is now good business, a means to fatten budgets and cities are loving it.

On one level, I am with those who worry about Ottawa’s impending foray into the murky business of photo radar. But here’s a harsh truth: lots of people speed in school zones – and much as we dislike it, photo radar may be a necessary evil we have to put up with to protect our kids.

The statistics leave no doubt children do need protecting. Between 2010 and 2014, according to Ottawa police, there were 890 collisions within school zones in the capital, resulting in 207 injuries. A 2009 study of police-reported vehicle collisions involving pedestrians under 18 in Toronto found that the “density” of collisions, particularly fatal ones, was highest in school zones. More pertinently, Parachute Canada, a charity dedicated to injury prevention, says child pedestrian incidents is a leading cause of death among children under 14. Parachute says 30 children are killed and 2,400 injured in such incidents in a typical year, leaving little doubt school children are vulnerable on the streets.

According to road safety experts, 45 per cent of motorists do not come to a full stop at intersections in school zones and 37 per cent roll through stop signs. Other studies show that a pedestrian hit by a vehicle travelling at 50 km/hr is eight times more likely to be killed than someone struck at 30 km/hr. And each 1.6 km/hr reduction in average speed results in a five-per-cent reduction in collisions. The long and short of it is that lower speed limits save lives.

Obviously photo radar is not a silver bullet. It is less effective for instance, in dealing with drunk or distracted drivers, who are responsible for most collisions and fatalities on our roads. But because we don’t have solutions for everything doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing. As a society, we do the best we can with the tools we have, and if photo radar can save the life of one child and prevent injury to another, we grab the opportunity.

Where the city’s photo radar experiment raises significant concern is the deployment in so-called “community safety zones,” a term so broad it can be defined to mean anything. These zones include parks and seniors’ homes, and this is where things can really get out of hand. Ottawa has dozens and dozens of parks and seniors’ homes, so potentially, we could end up with the untenable situation of speed cameras literally everywhere. We have to think this through or we may be heading in the wrong direction.

The second problem is the idea of leaving the deployment of speed cameras to individual councillors, which could lead to say, a dozen in one ward, only one next door and zero elsewhere. While cameras may be necessary in school zones, we can’t have a patchwork across the city. We can’t leave the deployment of photo radar to individual councillors. Ottawa, after all, is one city, not a conglomeration of wards. If we are going to have speed cameras, the decision on where they are deployed and how, has to be that of council as a whole. Otherwise, we are asking for trouble.

 Mohammed Adam is an Ottawa writer.    

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