Opinion: Photo radar won’t cure excessive speed

Last week saw the publication of the “BC Coroners Service Child Death Review Panel, A Review of Young Driver Deaths, 2004-2013.” The panel’s core objective appears to be a renewed call for photo radar. To reduce public opposition they used the euphemisms of “time and distance” measurement and “speed on green” – the same systems of automated cameras and tickets mailed to owners. This is another rehash of the well-meaning but old school speed kills propaganda buttressed with the same shoddy data, leaps of faith, and the compelling emotional hooks. This proposal does not make either prudent or fiscally sound public policy.

To the panel’s credit, they focus on “excessive speeding” and state: “In BC, RoadSafetyBC has identified excessive speed (driving greater than 40 km/hr over the speed limit) as one of the top high risk driving behaviours to target.” However, to say that photo radar addresses excessive speeding and saves lives is a stretch to put it politely. During the previous failed attempt at Photo Radar in BC only 2-4% of tickets issued annually were for excessive speeds. Photo radar does not deter those engaged in excessive speeding, rather it produces fines for vehicle owners long after the offence.

Photo radar was first promoted to cost around $10-15 million to implement, but final costs were about $110 million. It generated only a fraction more – about $130 million – in fine revenue. The fixed operational costs: hardware, equipment, computer systems, software development and integration, buildings, consultants, and so on, were typical of failed government programs: massively over budget. The reality is that automated systems only make sense when they issue lots of tickets and that means the real target – the 96-98% of tickets for those not travelling at excessive speeds – must be people most often driving at safe and reasonable speeds in areas where the speed limits aren’t properly set. The economics of photo radar work only when large numbers of marginal speeders are caught in the web. There simply aren’t enough drivers travelling at “excessive” speeds to justify the massive costs of automated systems and their support infrastructure – or the real target is not just excessive speeders.

Some critical facts from the Coroner’s report: 71% of the first-stage learner’s licence “L” drivers killed had consumed alcohol; 56% of all youth killed had drugs or alcohol in their system; 18% of the youth killed didn’t even have a valid licence; 32% were driving contrary to their licence restrictions. In none of these examples is the likelihood of a ticket in the mail to a vehicle owner (more often a parent in the case of new drivers) going to change behavior. Tickets issued by a police officer carry penalty points and the vehicle can be impounded on the spot for impaired driving or excessive speed. Police issued tickets also come to the attention of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles and form the basis of driving prohibitions for dangerous drivers – photo radar does not identify problem drivers.

The study notes the all too frequent association of speed and alcohol: “Impaired driving is a serious issue on its own; however, like other road safety factors contributing to young driver fatalities, it may be associated with speed.” ICBC’s own research shows that fully two-thirds of all speed-related fatal crashes have drug or alcohol involvement. We cannot understand how any thinking person – let alone professionals like those on the Coroners panel – would expect a ticket mailed weeks later to be an effective or reasonable approach to a driver who requires immediate police interaction to prevent real carnage.

In reaction to SENSE and public criticism, the BC Photo Radar program in the 1990s adopted an unenforceable and routinely ignored “fairness code”. Photo Radar is routinely abused as a means to raise money and is frequently outlawed by regulators due to citizen outrage at the abuses. The term “excessive speeding” is often thrown around to increase acceptance but the reality remains: the excessive speeder is a footnote to the process. The intended target is the average driver making a momentary mistake in areas where the speed limit doesn’t conform to average travel speeds: photo radar really “works” by collecting fines from a random sampling of average drivers going about their daily business safely.

The Coroner’s panel complaint is they weren’t given a personal invitation to the 2013-14 Rural Highway Safety and Speed Review. It’s an interesting claim given that 5 out of 12 of the panel members are members of other stakeholders who gave formal input into the year-long review in a widely publicized consultative review process. The review heard from thousands of submissions from the general public, ICBC, RCMP, BC Ministry of Justice Road Safety Unit, BC Chiefs of Police, and other groups providing more than ample balance from the safety-advocacy perspective. Where was the BC Coroner Service during this year long consultation process?

The panel states “to ensure an emphasis on serious injury and fatality prevention, professionals with road safety, injury prevention and public health expertise should be consulted on an ongoing basis in the course of monitoring and reviewing existing and proposed speed limits.” Really? “Public health expertise” where speed limits are concerned? This is the role of professional traffic engineers employed within the Ministry of Transportation and Highways using crash data compiled by ICBC and applying international standards.

The people behind this panel are proposing the creation of a massive and costly infrastructure that won’t address the issues they deem most important. Police in BC already issue 150,000-200,000 total speeding tickets each year, but only 10,000-20,000 of those are for excessive speeding. SENSE BC would offer this as a common sense, effective, and financially prudent solution: set proper speed limits: a process already begun with the recent speed rural highway speed limit review, and change the deployment of police officers from issuing tickets in speeding traps targeting those travelling at safe and reasonable speeds to instead focus on those truly travelling at excessive speeds. In addition, ICBC research shows there are a myriad of other offences more highly correlated to crash risk than speeding that don’t get enforced when speed traps are the easy way out. The result will be fewer “cheap” tickets to make their quotas, more tickets for dangerous driving, more effective and cost effective enforcement, and a better driving experience on BC highways.

Every time anybody dies – not only a youth – it is a tragedy. To promote costly automated enforcement when a valid solution already exists with our existing experienced police officers is a poor and unacceptable proposal. The agenda here is neither logical nor sensible: it can only be driven by those seeking to raise revenue and create bureaucracy. Our kids deserve better.

This editorial by SENSE was published online in the Vancouver Sun on February 16, 2015.


  1. Niles Broadhurst

    July 9, 2015

    SPEEDING IS NOT SAFE IN ANY BOOK/PLANET/SPECIES!!! I don’t care what you say, you CANNOT JUSTIFY that travelling at 140 km/h on a straight road is safe just because you can see for miles and miles!! a small animal that runs out in front of your vehicle can send your vehicle out of control even if you don’t see it and react, worse if you do react and you attempt to avoid the object at high speed!!!

    Radar detectors only serve one purpose – evade radars that detect speed, so you ARE NOT USING IT AS A RESPONSIBLE MOTORIST!!! A responsible motorist would drive at a SAFE SPEED!!! You would not need a radar detector if you were………….NOT SPEEDING!!!

    Australia has a very tough stance on speeding:

    This is just one state (province) where speed camera’s are used and used properly.
    You only feed the quotas by SPEEDING!! so here’s a thought – DON’T SPEED = NO REVENUE!!! pretty simple! But, NO you would rather create a website about advocating raising speed limits which equates to safer roads!!! How in the hell did you come to this conclusion? By believing the stats from the one entity who you are determined to change the rules for PURE convenience and PURELY to stick it to the man!!! There is NO OTHER DRIVER for this website and ANYONE who believes in this behavior and mindset!!!

    How about advocating the government and police/RCMP to fix the internal issues/errors rather than run a campaign equivalent to advocating that helmets don’t save lives or seat belts don’t saves lives!!! SERIOUSLY!!!

    • Jordan

      August 13, 2015

      Niles, if you had taken the time to actually read the studies linked on this website all your questions would be answered. Your comment simply looks childish and ignorant.

      • Niles

        September 10, 2015

        You think I didn’t read the studies?? this has nothing to do with the issue, it’s blaming revenue raising rather than the MAIN issue!! There is Yep, exactly the sort of reply that re-enforces my comments. You don’t want to slow down or be told what to do. If you can get away with it, you will, there is no policing yourself! I will continue to NOT obey the laws until I end up in a wheelchair or some else does or they are no longer with their family………….Everyone in BC wnats to live without following the rules until something happens, then “it’s not my fault!!” blame someone/something and sue……..

  2. Charles

    March 1, 2015

    Before I make comment on this specific editorial, I applaud the SENSE Team for working diligently to educate the public in the matters of speed and safety.

    As for this editorial, I cannot agree more on what has been written. I would have no problem if photo radars were set up in the interest of public safety, to catch idiots driving excessively fast, but that is not the case. If the municipalities actually wanted to catch the people driving at dangerous speeds they would set the photo radars to catch only those extreme cases, but they don’t, as we all know they are set up for revenue and not safety. Pure money grabs, where artificially low speed limits are accompanied with photo radars, which are strategically set up in locations selected for optimal profit generation and not on excessive collision occurrence.

    I currently live in Manitoba where the roads are straight and flat and have arbitrary low speed limits, but unlike BC, Manitoba has high fines ($312.25 for going limit +20 km/hr and sky rocket from there). A friend of mine was fined over $500 dollars for going over 130 km/hr last year on an empty twined lane Hwy where you can see literally straight to the horizon along the road (police were hidden partially in a bush).

    There are US & Can municipalities that are very candid about giving police ticket quotas or set up photo radars to generate revenue to balance the budget. Driving in a safe and reasonable manner can result in an expensive ticket if the driving force is municipal revenue. Winnipeg is one of those places. Winnipeg has a record of misuse, errors and other legal problems resulting in the cancelation of thousands of tickets and refunding millions of dollars in fines to avoid going to court to be held accountable. Hopefully, BC will not return to this practice with the use of photo radar.

    To combat the issues mentioned above I use a radar detector. Radar detectors are not used for the sole purpose of evading the consequences of irresponsible driving. Radar detectors provide some protection to the responsible motorists who do not want to be excessively taxed for safe and reasonable driving.

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