August 8, 2020

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Bottom line of amber lights is city revenue

Opinion

There’s no doubt the use of flashing amber lights in school zones would prompt more motorists to slow during school hours. However, it would also cause a sharp decline in photo radar tickets, robbing the city of millions a year in fine revenue. Which begs the question: is that the real reason the city is dragging its feet on installing amber lights in school zones?

It’s entirely possible, although the city would never admit it. Winnipeg’s photo radar scheme has always been more about generating revenue than improving road safety. If photo radar were about safety, the city would deploy cameras in high-crash zones and measure collisions and injuries to determine the effectiveness of the program. They do neither. Instead, they deploy photo radar vehicles where they can make the most money, including on major thoroughfares during non-school hours and on holidays, without any evidence the cameras are making streets safer.

A few years after launching the program in 2002, the city added more photo radar vehicles to the fleet than originally planned (for no other reason than to generate revenue). When the number of photo radar tickets began to fall about seven years ago, the city introduced new laser technology to more effectively nab motorists. It had nothing to do with reducing collisions or injuries, which is supposed to be the goal of the program. They couldn’t possibly know if they were reducing crashes because they’ve never collected the data.

(The city collects collision data for intersection safety cameras, but they’ve never collected it for photo radar).

 

And who could forget the photo radar construction zone disaster of 2008 when the city used confusing "when workers present" signs in construction areas to siphon millions from unsuspecting motorists?

With that kind of record on photo radar, it’s not a stretch to think the city may be holding off on amber lights in school zones to protect its revenue streams.

Reduced-speed school zones are, for the most part, clearly marked (although there have been examples of some that aren’t). Motorists should be able to see and obey them. But for whatever reason, they don’t always notice the time or days when the reduced speeds are in effect. Maybe they’re not paying as close attention as they should. Whatever the case, using amber lights to clarify when and where speed limits fall to 30 km/h would be a useful and practical solution. It would make streets around schools safer for kids.

It’s such a no-brainer, electrician Chuck Lewis – general manager of Expert Electric – has been trying to donate amber lights to the city since 2017. City officials have said they may be interested in taking Lewis up on his offer. But they’ve repeatedly delayed implementation without offering a clear explanation. Lewis finally installed a small solar-powered unit on his own last week on Bedson Street to pressure city hall. He took it down within 24 hours. But he made his point.

This isn’t rocket science. The use of flashing amber lights at intersections is hardly new technology. The city should have installed them years ago.

The city has made a small fortune from photo radar in school zones since the reduced speeds were introduced in September, 2014. That year, the number of photo radar tickets issued jumped to 93,116, up from 74,897 in 2013. In the first full year of reduced speeds in school zones in 2015, the number of photo radar tickets soared to 108,968. More than half of those (56,297) were issued in school zones with reduced speeds.

With that kind of record on photo radar, it’s not a stretch to think the city may be holding off on amber lights in school zones to protect its revenue streams.

That has fallen somewhat (there were 41,784 tickets issued in reduced-speed school zones in 2018) as motorists adjusted their driving habits. If amber lights were installed, those numbers would almost certainly fall further. The city would stand to lose a lot of money.

City officials have always claimed photo radar is about improving road safety, not about generating money. But the longer they drag their feet on installing flashing ambers in school zones, the more it reinforces the argument that the latter is true, not the former.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

Read full biography

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