Todd Dube and the founders of WiseUp Winnipeg have exposed the technical shortcomings of red-light cameras and inefficacy of photo radar. As the City of Winnipeg moves to introduce the DragonCam laser-based photo equipment, it is timely to address the direction of traffic regulation enforcement policy.
Safety is the justification for traffic regulation policy. If all vehicles were driven autonomously, like the driverless cars being developed by Google, they would be programmed to follow traffic regulations without exception. The need for traffic police rests solely on the basis that car and truck drivers cannot be relied upon to obey the rules strictly.
When red light cameras were introduced, the private company selling this equipment convinced the decision-makers that red light cameras would improve safety, be self-funding and contribute funds to the police service based on the fines they collected.
As it turned out, drivers adjusted their behaviour, and fine revenue failed to yield the promised bonanza, but a poisonous seed was planted. The rationale of public safety became confused with the goal of generating funds to support policing efforts.
Both taxes and fines raise revenue, but these are very different policy instruments. A tax is an explicit means of raising funds necessary for government services. Taxes may be directed to discourage behaviour, like smoking tobacco, but they are applied to otherwise legal and approved activities.
Fines are different than taxes. A fine is applied to illegal activity, with the intent of changing individual behaviour. The value of the fine is set at a level that discourages undesirable conduct and is proportional to the crime. In no instance is the level of fines constructed with an eye to a cost-benefit of enforcement. The benefit to society is the improved conduct of the individual. The cost is the machinery of the justice system that enforces law in a democratic country.
If governments start to depend on fine collection as a source of revenue, like taxes, an undesirable conflict of interest and a distortion of priorities arise. An example is the practice of operating speed traps in Winnipeg.
A speed trap is different than ordinary traffic enforcement because, at such locations, the police can issue fines to all drivers, regardless of their normal driving behaviour. A prima facie case can be made that the police cannot operate a speed trap where adequate signage and visible clues exist because otherwise drivers with clean records would not be stopped. These drivers have clean records because they observe and obey traffic signs.
The recent hearings of the Motor Transport Board (MTB) that is considering changes of speed limits in Winnipeg are instructive. The majority of the locations the MTB has flagged for review are sites of well-known speed traps -- like Grant at Wilton, Dugald at Plessis and Pembina Highway south of St. Norbert. In each case, an abrupt change in the speed zone does not fit the visible cues and the signage is inadequate. At the hearing that dealt with Dugald and Plessis case, Coun. Russ Wyatt acknowledged that the posted speed signs were illegal and had been corrected only after complaints had caused the city to investigate.
Speed zone signage on Dugald is still inadequate. No signs are present in the median of this four-lane divided arterial road. A driver in the left lane could easily miss the traffic sign if a truck were driving beside them in the right-hand lane. According to WiseUp Winnipeg, all other cities in Western Canada post speed signs on both sides of the road.
Some people may take the stance that fines collected at speed traps replace taxes that they would otherwise have to pay. The economics are unclear. The costs of a team of police, patrol cars, enforcement equipment and the courts must be weighed against the fines collected.
Do speed traps increase public safety? It is hard to argue that good drivers will become better drivers if the only reason they are ticketed is because of sudden speed limit change without obvious cause, improper engineering or misleading visual signals. If safety is the goal, then a much less expensive solution would be to invest in better signage to inform drivers of speed zone changes.
Opportunity costs must be considered, too. Police operating speed traps are not interdicting aggressive drivers who pass in the right-hand lane, cut people off and speed to gain a few car-lengths. Aggressive driving behaviour is really dangerous and leads to fender-benders and cyclist injuries. If fine collection becomes the goal, aggressive driving gets less attention, while otherwise safe and responsible drivers get ambushed by police with radar guns at their favourite speed trap locations.
The activities of WiseUp Winnipeg and the hearings of the MTB point to serious flaws in the current traffic enforcement policy. It is time to end the egregious practice of operating speed traps and invest in adequate signage.
Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management, University of Manitoba.