Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fast fix

Like it or not, experts say technology such as photo radar works

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WINNIPEG - They've launched a public campaign urging drivers to "just slow down," stepped up monitoring and enforcement and rolled out red-light cameras to bust drivers who blow through intersections.

So when police set out this spring to see how fast people drive on Bishop Grandin Boulevard, the results were shocking.

In April, police set up a "speed spy" data recorder to log the speeds of vehicles and within one hour clocked four people driving at speeds at least 50 kilometres per hour above the posted limit of 80 km/h.

It's happening elsewhere, too.

Sgt. Mark Hodgson, in charge of the Winnipeg Police Service central traffic unit, grabs a folder and spreads out several recently documented cases in which officers have caught speeders going 150 km/h or faster on city streets.

"This is right by the Donald (Street) bridge. This one is at Chief Peguis (Trail)," Hodgson said, pointing out one vehicle caught going 160 km/h. "It means we have to do more."

Safety experts say the key to getting drivers to slow down is convincing them and showing them they can be caught. But that's a tricky balance to strike, since police can't be everywhere all the time. Some drivers may be slowing down for photo-enforced intersections and speeding up afterwards, and police say in general, lead-footed drivers are more likely to be risk-takers, drink and drive and drive while suspended.

Hodgson said the goal is to use new technology -- like the speed spy -- to do more targeted enforcement where people are speeding. Police used the data to crack down on Bishop Grandin and reduced the number of people driving above the speed limit from 10 per cent to 5.3 per cent within four weeks, which Hodgson says shows photo radar can quickly change driver behaviour.

The problem is new tools and technology cost money, and North American cities such as Winnipeg may be resistant to speed-slashing measures being piloted in places in Europe, including installing devices in vehicles that alert a driver when they are over the speed limit.

"Nobody in North America would be receptive if we said we're going to put a device in your car that's going to talk to other (road) infrastructure because the first thing somebody would say is 'You're trying to gather information about me,' " Hodgson said.

Photo radar is an important tool in cutting crash rates, according to Alison Smiley, a Toronto-based engineering consultant. Narrowing streets combined with using photo radar has been shown to reduce injury rates by 25 per cent in urban areas and cut fatalities by 50 per cent, Smiley said.

The reason athorities want people to slow down is simple. A pedestrian struck by a car travelling 30 km/h has a five per cent chance of dying, Smiley said. If the car is travelling 60 km/h, the risk of death is 80 per cent, she said.

Most Canadian cities do not use photo radar as much as they could to reduce crash and injury rates, Smiley said.

In Winnipeg, the photo-radar program has boasted some success.

A recent study by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation found there is strong evidence red-light cameras have slashed the number of T-bone crashes from a monthly average of 10 or 11 to about five or six since the devices were installed at 48 intersections. T-bone crashes can be the most severe, since a vehicle's door offers little protection for drivers or passengers.

The study recommends Winnipeg take measures to improve signage in photo-enforced intersections to curb the spike in rear-end crashes. Ward Vanlaar, the foundation's vice-president, said the city needs to reduce the rear-end crash rates and study the efficacy of mobile photo radar with red-light cameras before it considers expanding the program.

But good data and good research are hard to come by.

Right now, Hodgson said, police have limited resources for monitoring and evaluation. Unless police are able to get better data faster, the force will have trouble targeting photo radar because police won't know which areas need it, he said.

"We need better data collection, we need more timely data collection," he said. "Right now we're getting data from 2009 to 2010. It's a year old."

Edmonton has a dedicated office of traffic safety with 18 full-time staff, including analysts, statisticians, and sociologists. They conduct research, interpret data and pinpoint areas where police can target speed-reduction interventions and improve the city's road design to reduce the number of collisions.

Director Gerry Shimko said the office runs a variety of different programs and does things such as speed surveys in communities to measure how fast people are driving and find out whether there is a speeding problem. Recently, they worked to lower the speed limit in six communities to see if collisions were reduced and enlisted the help of community volunteers to encourage motorists to drive the speed limit by monitoring and recording the speeds of passing cars with a portable digital sign. If drivers are over the limit, they get a warning letter in the mail.

Vanlaar said parts of Europe are even further ahead.

His hometown in Belgium has conducted pilot projects using "intelligent speed adaptation" to get drivers to slow down. Vanlaar said the technology sends a warning signal to motorists who are driving too fast, and in some cases, the gas pedal will push back so drivers can't speed up. The most stringent type of technology actually cuts off the gas, so the car automatically slows down.

Vanlaar said the technology was proven effective 10 years ago when he worked at the Belgium Road Safety Institute, though it is still not widely available. This could be due to fears the public may be resistant to the idea or that some manufacturers have not put it to use in their vehicles, he said.

The Netherlands is considered at the forefront of road-safety measures, and the country has moved beyond traditional photo enforcement, Vanlaar said. On highways, devices take a photo of a vehicle's licence plate and time how long it takes it to travel a certain distance, he said. The device calculates the vehicle's average speed over the distance to ensure any time it sped up to pass another vehicle, for example, that increase does not affect the overall result. If the average speed is higher than the posted limit, the driver receives a ticket in the mail.

"If people in Winnipeg think there's too many cameras, they should take a look at the Netherlands and see how many cameras are there," Vanlaar said.

The ideas are based on a safe-systems approach, which assumes drivers will make mistakes and focuses on safer road and vehicle design, speed limits and ways to get motorists to comply with the rules of the road.

Hodgson said Japan is a test site for infrastructure that communicates directly with vehicles. Sensors in the roadway alert drivers if the road is frosty or wet, so they can adjust to conditions accordingly.

"There's always new ideas," Hodgson said. "It's a system where everything talks to everything, so when a car pulls up to a barrier and a pedestrian crosses, it notifies the driver, and if the driver doesn't slow down, the car slows down for you. It's a collision-avoidance system."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2011 A4

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