Crash statistics do not support photo radar
Now that it's canned, let's get on with new and more effective police measures
Carte Blanche - by Jim Kenzie © THE TORONTO STAR, Saturday, July 8, 1995, p. G11
Let's get one thing straight.
Despite what you may have read in an editorial in this very paper on Thursday, June 29, or in an even more pathetic Globe and Mail feature the week before, there isn't a shred of evidence to support the hypothesis that photo radar has saved lives in this province.
Which is why incoming premier Mike Harris canned the experiment this past Wednesday.
The Star editorial pointed out that traffic deaths in Ontario, as counted by the Ontario Provincial Police, decreased 16 per cent in 1994 over 1993. (Transport Canada, using a broader-based counting system, measured a 13 per cent decline for Ontario.)
The Star editorial said the decrease "can't be tied conclusively to photo radar -- yet", implying that sooner or later, it will be.
Guess again, dear editorial-writing colleagues.
First, the decrease in Ontario coincided with a very similar decrease Canada-wide. We did worse than some provinces, like Quebec, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, and better than others, such as Alberta. None launched photo radar campaigns during 1994; Alberta, interestingly, had one going in.
If the rest of Canada did nothing new and got a decrease, and Ontario did something new and got a similar decrease, it's pretty hard to conclude that the "something new" had any impact at all.
Second, results for the first six months of 1994 showed a 13 per cent decrease in Ontario -- and nationwide, too (see Wheels, June 17, 1995). So we were already on a steep downward trend prior to photo radar's introduction in August 1994.
Third, the 16 per cent applies across the province, not solely to areas where photo radar was used. Again, the most populous parts of the province -- Metro Toronto and environs -- were the main sites of the photo radar experiment, and would have a major influence on the provincial results.
But when we look at regional data, an interesting story emerges. Apart from notorious fishing holes near Million and Cobourg, the majority of photo radar operation took place in the Ontario Provincial Police's No. 5 District, comprising Aurora, Beaverton, Caledon, Downsview, Port Credit and Whitby detachments.
In the first six months of 1994, 5 District was enjoying a 44 per cent decrease in traffic deaths compared to 1993, significantly better than the 13 per cent average in the province as a whole.
But in the last six months, while the rest of the province improved enough to bring the provincial total to a 16 per cent decrease, 5 District recorded 38 deaths, an alarming 42 per cent more than 1993. Need I reiterate that photo radar was introduced during the last half of 1994?
Worse still, in the first full four months of photo radar -- namely, the last four months of 1994 -- 5 District had 29 deaths, 21 more -- a stunning 262 per cent increase over the same period in 1993.
Our editorial writers might like to rethink their suggestion that photo radar had a positive impact on traffic deaths in this province.
And when John Bates, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), complains that Harris's decision to drop photo radar puts an election promise ahead of saving lives, well, I wonder whose lives he's talking about? Apparently not the 21 extra people who died in 5 District during the first four months of photo radar.
I'm not saving now, I have never said, I likely will never say, that photo radar contributed to the increase in deaths, even though a similar pattern transpired in Calgary when photo radar was launched there.
All I have ever said is that speed limit enforcement, in and of itself, is irrelevant to highway safety.
The Star editorial notes that Ministry of Transportation speed surveys suggest that we are going slower, that there are fewer speeders out there, and they credit photo radar. Given the death statistics, I'd suggest that with friends like that, photo radar hardly needs enemies like me.
The editorial is apparently quoting a flimsy ministry survey (see Wheels, April 8, 1995) conducted at just six sites across the province, which showed, among other things, that the only material speed reductions occurred on our freeways -- statistically, our safest roads.
Terrific: we go slower; we kill ourselves more frequently. This is progress?
At the photo radar cancellation announcement, Harris said, "The goal is to do more than control speed - it is to combat those driving practices that photo radar was helpless to stop. These include drunk driving, aggressive driving, improper lane changing, and following too closely."
All right Mike!
He may not be aware that Germany, whose roads aren't as well engineered as ours (really), and whose cars aren't as safe over all as ours (yup, really), gets roughly the same safety results on their autobahns as we do on our freeways, despite average speeds some 30 km/h faster.
One more time: Speed does not kill. Speed isn't the problem; speed is the objective. If we weren't in a hurry, we wouldn't need freeways. We'd walk.
The question Harris has posed to Al Palladini, his new minister of transportation, and the OPP is: what next? We drop photo radar, but what do we replace it with that will improve traffic safely?
The OPP suggested the formation of three more dedicated traffic squads, like the R.I.D.E. patrol I rode with last November (see A Night On The Town With OPP, Wheels, Nov. 26, 1994). Harris says these will be implemented as "a temporary measure" in areas where photo radar had been in effect. Can't hurt.
The Caledon detachment of the OPP is relaunching aircraft patrols, whose major target won't be speeders per se, but lane swappers, tailgaters, and other aggressive drivers. No arguments from me.
The ministry is no doubt scrambling around, as we speak, trying to come up with something. To its credit, it has already taken a major step with graduated licensing, which I feel will have an effect, although the program will take a few years to produce benefits.
One possibility, and certainly the most economical, is: do nothing. We got a 13 per cent decrease in traffic deaths in the first half of last year doing just that.
In the United States, the number of speeding tickets issued has dropped steadily in the last five years, as police resources are increasingly allocated to drug law enforcement. What's happened to traffic deaths in that time? They've dropped, almost in exact parallel.
If they wrote no speeding tickets at all, would they have no traffic deaths? Even I won't try to sell you that one. But the reality sure supports my contention that speed limit enforcement doesn't affect the death rate.
If you ask me -- nobody has, but that's never stopped me before -- I'd take clues from places that do better than we do. Germany, for example. The most remarkable thing about German traffic, apart from the speed -- and I get this from everybody I talk to who's driven there -- is their lane discipline.
Why? Germans are taught to drive right, pass left. They're punished if they don't. And driving over there is a treat: fast, disciplined, safe.
So, Monday morning, I'd send the line painting trucks out to eliminate every case where the right lane disappears, whether it's to magically change into an off-ramp, or to reduce the number of lanes available for traffic. (Roads should "grow" lanes to the left, and drop lanes from the left. Surely, by definition, the "driving lane" can never disappear.)
I'd put big signs on every freeway overpass, reading "Drive Right! Pass Left!", or, "Not passing? Then move over", or, "Hey, you in the blue Tempo -- this means you!"
I'd back it up with a massive media campaign, pointing out that left-lane banditry is irresponsible, impolite, unsafe, and illegal. (No need to tell Minister Palladini about the effectiveness of clever advertising.)
Then I'd take those photo radar trucks - hey, we've already paid for them, haven't we? - set them out in the medians of our highways, and have the attendant snap pictures of every left-lane bandit they see.
I won't guarantee any immediate death reductions, Mr. Palladini. But if it works, we'd at least have traffic that moves more smoothly, and causes less aggravation.
And that'd have to be an improvement, wouldn't it?