Editorial: Photo radar reform overdue

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Alberta Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney acknowledged Wednesday the cash cow in the room — that photo radar is too often misused as a money-maker for some municipalities instead of for its intended purpose, as a tool for traffic safety.

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Any Alberta driver who fails to brake quickly enough when a highway approaches a city or town or when cruising past a deserted construction zone — and gets a hefty ticket in the mail a few days later — could have told her that. In fact, she says many of them did.

At a news conference, Sawhney said she has heard those complaints from Albertans that photo radar is being used primarily to trap motorists in speed transition zones to boost the bottom lines of municipalities. And she’s doing something about it with a freeze on any new photo radar and new rules to be phased in next year to ensure the devices are used for safety and not as a golden goose for local government — and provincial — coffers.

“Albertans can be confident these new rules will put a stop to photo radar fishing holes or speed traps,” Sawhney said. “This is about making sure photo radar will be used to improve traffic safety.”

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Beginning in April, the 26 municipalities across the province that use photo radar will be barred from automatically ticketing drivers for multiple violations within a five-minute time period, and photo radar units will be prohibited in transition zones like freeway on-ramps or off-ramps and residential roads with less than 50 km/h speed limits unless they are school, playground or construction zones. Photo radar in school zones will be restricted to only when classes are in session.

On top of that, all photo-radar operators must make their vehicles more visible and municipalities and police will also need to advertise new photo radar sites online and through social media. They will be obligated to provide data on collisions and safety to justify why they need to run photo radar at certain sites.

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Photo radar was introduced to Alberta in 1987 so rules aimed at deterring municipalities from lining their budgets with speed traps are long overdue although some places like Edmonton have already adopted many of the practices now being mandated.

Credit goes to the UCP government for resisting the temptation to ban photo radar outright, which would likely have been a popular move with the electorate, although the province’s 40-per-cent cut of total ticket revenues — $203 million in 2019-20 — probably had something to do with that decision.

A third-party, two-year review commissioned by the former NDP government shows photo radar does have the potential to make roads safer. Over 10 years, it was responsible for 1.4 per cent of Alberta’s 29-per-cent drop in collision rates.

As we noted then, how many more crashes and fatalities could have been averted had public safety clearly been the primary goal of photo radar and not revenue generation?

Local editorials are the consensus opinion of the Journal’s editorial board, comprising Colin McGarrigle, Dave Breakenridge, Sarah Bugden and Bill Mah.

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