Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Red light? Green light?

City, province stuck at confusion corner over controversial cameras

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Glenn Penner stands up in traffic court and makes his pitch as to why he shouldn't pay a $216 speeding ticket, mailed to him after a photo-radar camera clocked him going 63 km/h in the 50 km/h zone near Grant Park High School.

Penner's pitch is novel. The structural engineer tells court that according to city records and the Highway Traffic Act's definition, that stretch of Grant Avenue is not a school zone.

The school is adjacent to a vacant park, not Grant, he tells magistrate Helen Karr.

Penner sounds pretty convincing.

"The Highway Traffic Act does not say near. It says adjoining or adjacent," he says at the end of his trial on Thursday.

Karr shuffles and re-reads the maps and documents Penner has submitted, pauses for a minute or so, and then makes up her mind.

She tells Penner as long as there are signs saying it's a school zone and the speed limit is posted, it's a school zone. Period.

How long do you need to pay your fine, Mr. Penner?

So goes another trial in traffic court, held in the sterile pallor of 373 Broadway.

Most ticket cases aren't as original as Penner's. Most defendants aren't so prepared.

Lately, it seems the number of cases has risen, although there are no statistics to prove it. The recent controversy over tickets issued by photo radar on Grant Avenue and the attention WiseUp Winnipeg is getting in its protest against the cameras and amber-light times has spurred some drivers to square off with officials.

Photo radar, the story that keeps on giving, also has politicians at city hall and the legislature taking note, mostly because the contract for photo radar expires at the end of the year. Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz has said the city is reviewing what it should do: keep all cameras, ditch some or get rid of all of them.

It didn't have to be this way, former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray says.

-- -- --

Photo radar was first brought in as a stone to kill three birds.

First, under former city police chief David Cassels in the late 1990s, the police traffic unit was disbanded so the roughly 40 officers could be used for his community policing initiatives. It meant more police working closer to the people, but it also meant fewer officers doing regular traffic enforcement. Cassels left in 1999.

Under new chief Jack Ewatski, police started looking at photo radar to plug the hole in traffic enforcement. When it was first proposed by police, photo radar would have zero impact on the civic or police budget. It would not make money. It would not be a line item in the city's operating budget. It would only serve as a way to hold speeders and red-light runners accountable in the absence of officers holding laser guns.

Murray, now minister of training, colleges and universities in the Ontario government, said the second point was to use photo-enforcement technology to reduce civic and police spending. Revenue from photo radar tickets would pay for the program: the cameras and the people to operate them, process the film and so on. Taxpayers would not spend a dime on it.

"Policing costs are very expensive, and when I was mayor we were trying to reduce taxes and get what was a very large municipal debt under control," said Murray, who served as mayor from 1998 to 2004.

"We were looking at areas in which technology could be used in a way to get higher productivity and get savings. By having cameras doing the work that police officers were doing, they'd be liberated to deal with violent crime, break-ins, purse-snatchings and all kinds of other things that you don't want to have technology doing, you need police officers to do."

The third element was safety.

Murray said a decade ago, more people -- including pedestrians -- were killed each year in traffic collisions than in homicides. Police and the city wanted to reduce that number by not only getting people to slow down, but to reduce serious right-angle crashes at intersections caused by drivers running red lights.

Cameras could do that.

But then the province -- the newly minted NDP government under former premier Gary Doer -- got involved.

-- -- --

As first proposed, the city wanted total control of the photo-enforcement program, Murray said. The city wanted to write the rules on how and where it was to be used -- not the province.

"The original proposal to the province was that the province give to the city what's the city's and the province keep what's the province's," Murray said.

"What we said is that this should be an area of municipal regulation, setting traffic-control standards. We got turned down."

Police wanted the ability to have wider authority where to set up mobile photo radar. They wanted to use it on busy, higher-speed streets such as Bishop Grandin to nail speeders instead of using a cop on the side of the road -- not exactly the safest place to be. It was also thought that with the cameras nailing speeders, it would reduce the potential for dangerous high-speed pursuits. And again, it made economic sense, allowing the force to use officers where they were needed most.

But most importantly, by having photo enforcement under the city's control, it eliminates the need for the city to go begging to the province to get regulatory change -- such as what's happening now. "So it ended up being a convoluted kind of contract in which the province, rather than a permissive model, they got very prescriptive. They said, 'you can put it here, but you can't put it there. You can't do this and you can do that.' "

The province was gun-shy about allowing photo radar to go full-bore because of the political ramifications. Photo radar was yanked in British Columbia in 2001 because of public pressure, and the NDP, heading into a re-election campaign in the spring of 2003, didn't need the headache.

So it decided to enact legislation to restrict where police could use the cameras to areas where people couldn't argue against it: school zones, construction zones and near playgrounds.

Police have since asked the province to ease those restrictions to give them more discretion, but the province has refused.

-- -- --

Then it became about the money. In the spring before the cameras were turned on in January 2003, the bean-counters calculated photo radar would earn $57 million over the next five years. Murray wanted that cash to go back into policing. The province would also take a cut, although at the time it did not publicly define where its share would go.

The thinking was, until Winnipeggers figured out where or how to avoid being tagged by the cameras, money would roll in.

Police argued against it being a budget line, but to no avail. Again, for police the cameras were more about safety than cash. For politicians, it was found money.

In 2003, the province said it was raising traffic fines and adding a $30 surcharge to provincial offences, including tickets. The increased revenue would help pay for court costs associated with photo-radar tickets and pay for increased police positions funded by the province.

In the years since, the province has changed the way it calculates traffic fines. Speeders are now charged a base fine of $7.70 for every kilometre an hour they travel above the posted limit.

It works this way: If you're going 10 km over the speed limit, the base fine is $77. On top of that is a $34.65 charge to the province to cover court administration costs. There is also a victim services surcharge of $16, which increases with higher speed violations. There is also a justice services surcharge of $50 for a total fine of $177.50

So, under the formula of who gets what, the city collects $77 and the province collects $100.50.

On a sliding scale, the province collects more money from tickets between 10 and 17 kilometres over the speed limit. Anything over that, the city collects more.

Police will tell you the vast majority of speeding offences are between 10 and 17 kilometres over the speed limit.

-- -- --

The contract the city has with Affiliated Computer Services Inc., the company that operates the cameras for the city, expires at the end of the year.

For police to have any hope of renegotiating a new contract, wording in the provincial regulations that allow photo enforcement has to be changed.

Winnipeg is the last city in the galaxy to use wet film in its cameras. That will soon be obsolete technology. For police to begin to renegotiate a new contract, the regulations have to be changed to allow for digital equipment.

The police made their initial request to change the wording in April 2008. So far, the province has sat on it.

Ironically, when police first proposed photo enforcement, they thought the cameras would put themselves out of business in seven or eight years.

Police thought the number of speeding and red-light offences would be reduced to the point where, because of changing behaviour, it would no longer be economically feasible to keep them operating. The cost would be greater than the fines collected.

Murray says otherwise.

He says photo radar was envisioned as a permanent solution to free up police officers.

"It was part of modernizing the City of Winnipeg to save money," he says. "When I left office in 2004, I was quite satisfied it was saving lives."

Last year, 11 people were killed in collisions on city streets. In 2002, there were 20 deaths. That's not a scientific measure by any standard; the numbers go up and down each year.

However, dangerous right-angle collisions at intersections are down since the cameras hit the street, according to a report last year by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. At the same time, the report found less serious rear-end collisions are up. Overall, the report says intersection cameras are an effective safety measure, but the effectiveness of mobile photo radar remains unknown because of limitations of the data.

"If it continues to liberate police officers to do other work that only police officers can do, and can't be substituted by technology, then I think I would keep it," Murray says.

"I would hope that whoever is making these decisions, it would be based on evidence and not personal opinion."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2012 A6

History

Updated on Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 9:19 AM CST: adds photos

9:33 AM: corrects that The city of Winnipeg's photo radar contract is with Affiliated Computer Services Inc., not Public Sector Solutions.

6:59 PM: Corrects that Murray mayor in 1998, not 1988,

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