Photo radar’s real goal

Are motorists school-zone scofflaws or haplessly feeding a cash cow?


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There has been a lot of talk recently about the city's real goal in setting up photo radar in school zones where speed limits have been cut to 30 kilometres per hour.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/04/2015 (2788 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the city’s real goal in setting up photo radar in school zones where speed limits have been cut to 30 kilometres per hour.

Much of the discussion — about the wisdom of the speed limit; whether injuries are more severe at higher speeds, etc. — has deflected the focus from the heart of the matter: Is this the best way to reduce risk for children around schools?

It’s clear that speed and gravity of injury are connected. End of argument. But is the photo radar program that comes hand-in-glove with the reduced speed limit helping to make the school zones safer?

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files School-zone speed signs on Lakewood Boulevard near École Van Belleghem School.

Photo radar in the 30 km/h zones is driving revenue to the city. From the number of infractions, it appears either Winnipeggers don’t care about the safety of school kids, or conditions in those zones are setting up motorists to get caught in a speed trap.

From what I’ve seen, there’s good evidence the city is creating the structural conditions that lead motorists to drive faster than the limit.

For example, city crews have been recorded on video removing speed limit signs from enforced areas. Also, speed limit signs in enforcement areas are not headlight-reflective, while all the other signs are.

But the most relevant example is that of Carpathia School in River Heights. The school installed speed limit signs that were on both sides of the road and were so effective that in 2005, a radio advertisement featured the principal thanking Winnipeggers for slowing down “ever since the instalment of our new traffic signs.” In 2009, the city sent out a crew to remove half of those signs. Photo radar has been profitable there since, indicating that driver speed has increased.

That’s a shame, and it’s unnecessarily risky, because we know some things about how to keep children, around schools, safe from traffic.

We know the times and locations at which school children are most at risk, and we have seen safety features built upon that information. It is why schools on major streets are designed — with fencing, for example — to control how the students access the streets. That is why we do not reduce the speed to 30 km/h on Pembina, for example.

We put crossing guards at intersections at the times when kids are coming and going. This can help inform photo radar enforcement — we don’t have crossing guards around schools at 9 p.m. because kids are not at risk there while they are at home.

Based on this precedent, photo radar should occur during the times when children are coming and going, the same way we deploy crossing guards. Interestingly, while conducting other research in school zones recently, I noticed photo radar is rarely present during those times.

There is also much evidence suggesting that other methods may be more effective in slowing down traffic. In some places, moveable rubber speed bumps are used during the hours when children are coming and going. In other places, a portable sign is placed on the road between the two lanes. On a residential street this does not cause an obstruction, and it guarantees that drivers are aware they are entering a higher-risk area that carries different legal expectations.

These are relatively cheap solutions. But the city must actually want to implement solutions for the purpose of safety. The high number of infractions being caught by photo radar suggests either Winnipeg is filled with drivers who have no qualms about running over children, or (as I mentioned), structural conditions are encouraging them to drive faster than 30 km/h.


We need an assessment of whether photo radar, as used, is making school zones safer for children, and whether the city is actually deploying the program in a way that seeks that objective. The latter is important to policy-makers because if the city is seeking benefits other than child safety it will make it very difficult to make legal and policy changes if evidence shows photo radar is not the most effective method to achieve safety.

A final option is to change policy to prevent law enforcement agencies from directly benefiting from what critics would argue is a blatant cash grab. For example, funds from photo radar could be specifically earmarked for things unrelated to police resources.

It would not be an easy task to agree upon where the money should go, and it would require oversight. But, it would address the central problem: that law enforcement has an interest in encouraging speeding. It would address suspicion about the program’s real purpose. More importantly, it would improve child safety.

Curt Pankratz is an assistant sociology professor at the University of Winnipeg.

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