Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Anatomy of government bungling

Speeders get a break because city and province messed up

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When the provincial government finally agreed to allow the City of Winnipeg to use photo radar, it bent over backwards to ensure that if there were a backlash, it would pass the Manitoba Legislature and land on the front steps of City Hall.

Then-mayor Glen Murray wanted photo radar, both as a tool to curb speeders and red-light runners, and a new source of revenue. Perhaps it was the road safety, perhaps it was the prospect that new revenue would dull the city's insatiable appetite for additional funding. Or, perhaps they just wanted to make Murray go away. Whatever the reason, Premier Gary Doer relented, and in 2001 introduced enabling legislation that made photo radar a reality.

That decision hadn't haunted Doer until February, when law student Jodi Koffman found a loophole in the law and convinced a justice of the peace to toss out a bunch of photo-radar speeding tickets. That decision has left photo radar hanging around the province's neck like a millstone.

The province was always reluctant to allow the city to use photo radar, despite the fact police argue it discourages speeding and frees front-line cops from the drudgery of speed traps.

However, photo radar is politically volatile. While most drivers realize it is nothing more than a stupidity tax, a vocal minority find it an affront to civil liberties and that makes the pseudo-populist government nervous.

(Consider that in 2001, a Vancouver man spent more than $120,000 of his own money to fight, unsuccessfully, a $117 photo-radar ticket. No government wants to battle zealots.)

How then could Doer grant the city's request and still avoid the political blowback? It was at this stage the province made a tragic mistake.

The province put restrictions on the use of photo radar to reinforce the idea this was about road safety -- not a cash grab. So, provincial authors limited the use of mobile photo-radar units to roads fronting schools, playgrounds and in construction zones.

The problem is, there really is no good reason to limit mobile photo radar to specific areas when stationary photo radar can be placed at any intersection, anywhere in the city.

The restrictions were a cynical attempt by the province to link photo radar with a motherhood issue like the safety of children. If safety really were the issue, the province would not have restricted the use of photo radar.

It appears Doer wanted to give the city a new source of revenue, but did not want to endorse photo radar. The result of this too-cute approach opened the door for a political nightmare.

Law student Koffman had agreed to represent a group of drivers ticketed for speeding through dormant construction zones. Koffman studied the enabling act and found out that mobile photo radar was limited to construction sites "where workers are present."

The spirit of the law may have been to lower speeds in construction zones, regardless of whether they were active or not. Unfortunately, that's not what provincial lawmakers wrote.

Koffman argued that if the law required workers to be present, charging speeders when construction sites were empty was illegal. Remarkably, the justice agreed. In trying to restrict the use of photo radar, the province created a loophole and Koffman and her clients drove right through.

But it gets worse. Manitoba Justice wanted to appeal the decision but before it could get to court, the city pulled the rug out from everyone.

Provincial regulations require construction zones to be marked clearly at the start and the end, so drivers know exactly when they can resume normal speeds. The city failed to mark the end of the zone, an error that, once revealed, would undermine their case.

The province stayed 870 charges and is faced with the prospect of reviewing tens of thousands of other tickets issued to drivers at construction zones. And that's a crime, because while speeding through an unmanned construction zone may not be a threat to workers, it's still a threat to drivers.

Justice Minister Dave Chomiak has attempted to shift attention for this debacle to the city with a suggestion that a precipitous rise in the number of construction-zone photo-radar tickets -- which increased to more than 60,000 in 2008 from about 3,000 in 2007 -- was suspicious.

More tickets means more money, but it also means there are more Winnipeggers willing to risk a ticket and their lives for the luxury of speeding.

Unfortunately, many of those Manitobans who ignored the speed limit will get a break. All because the city had a brain cramp, and the province was just a little too clever for its own good.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2009 A5

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