Next week warning signs will go up on many Toronto roadways: Photo radar is coming. As part of its campaign to reduce the number of pedestrians being struck and killed by cars, the city is installing gotcha cameras in 50 locations. The signs are meant to alert drivers that, once the radar is activated this spring, they will face fines if they are caught speeding.
Many will grumble at this high-tech encroachment on their autonomy. I used to grumble myself when Ontario briefly had photo radar on its highways, catching speeders by surprise and sending them tickets in the mail. But the case for putting photo radar on Toronto streets is strong.
Though a campaign to cut road deaths, Vision Zero, is more than three years old, city hall has been struggling to make progress. The Vision Zero website says that 57 people have died on the roads this year as of Nov. 28, the majority of them pedestrians. Another 242 have been seriously injured. Many of the victims are older people scrambling to cross broad suburban streets, where drivers often floor it.
The city has been taking a series of safety measures in response. It is doubling the number of red-light cameras, which catch those who blast through intersections after the light has turned. It is putting in more crosswalks and traffic signals, 30 so far this year alone. It has set a goal of installing 80 school-safety zones a year. These include flashing beacons, better pavement markings and signs that tell drivers how fast they are going.
Photo radar is the obvious next step. Cars that are speeding will be caught on camera. The owners will get “a big fat ticket,” as Mayor John Tory puts it. The fine will be $5 a kilometre for drivers going up to 19 kilometres an hour over the limit, $7.50 a kilometre for 20-29 km/h over the limit and $12.50 a kilometre for 30-49 km/h over.
A test showed how badly these penalties are needed. When the city installed photo radar on Avenue Road, a busy central street, it caught 60,000 motorists a week going above the limit. On another street, Renforth Drive, a car was going 202 km/h in a 40 km/h zone.
One of the main thrusts of Vision Zero is to lower speeds. Scores of roadways across the city have signs showing new, lower maximums. But it won’t do much good if drivers ignore the signs. Catching and punishing speeders should help get everyone to slow down. Edmonton saw the number of speeding tickets drop sharply when it started using speed cameras.
Photo radar helps authorities catch speeders without drawing on valuable police time. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders admitted recently that in 2013 the force disbanded a special unit that handled driving offences. He is setting up a new unit to resume the work, but it’s too small to monitor more than a fraction of city streets. It makes little sense to have highly paid cops sitting in cars looking at radar readouts when automatic cameras can do the same.
New York is expanding the number of speed cameras to more than 2,000. British Columbia has started using speed cameras at busy intersections where many accidents happen.
Photo radar should really have come to Toronto years ago. Mr. Tory has called for it repeatedly over the past few years. The provincial government dragged its feet. Queen’s Park only recently moved to authorize cities to use radar, and even then it kept its distance. Drivers will notice that those signs say “municipal” speed cameras are coming soon. In other words, blame city hall for this, not your provincial government.
Alberta’s government is skeptical, too. It is conducting a two-year review of photo radar. The transportation minister says he wants to make sure it is not just a “hidden tax.” That is a common charge levelled at speed cameras. It doesn’t hold up. A city report said Toronto would net just $11-million a year from the new cameras, a drop in the bucket for a city that spends $13-billion.
Photo radar isn’t meant to pick drivers’ pockets and enrich city hall. It is meant to make them slow down and save lives. If it lowers the scale of death and injury on Toronto roads even a little, it will have been worth it.