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driving concerns

I’ve always wondered about right turns on red lights at intersections with red-light cameras. Will I get a ticket in the mail if I come to a complete stop, yield the right of way to oncoming traffic and pedestrians, and then turn right? – Tor, Ottawa

Smile. You won’t get a ticket for turning right at a red-light camera as long as you come to a complete stop first.

But in most cities, if you don’t stop, you’ll get a ticket in the mail.

“As is standard for all red-light cameras in Ontario, should a vehicle not come to a complete stop at the stop line before making a right turn at a red light, the camera will be activated and a violation will be issued,” Stuart Edison, program manager of signal installation and field programming with the City of Ottawa, said in an e-mail.

In Ontario, not stopping at a red light comes with a $260 fine, plus $65 in fees and surcharges.

If a police officer spotted you and handed you a ticket, you would also get three demerit points – but red-light camera and photo radar tickets don’t come with demerits or go on your driving record anywhere in Canada.

That’s because the photos can prove that it’s your car and licence plate, but they can’t prove who was driving.

So, if you’re the registered owner of a car but your friend was driving it, for instance, you’ll have to pay the fine. But because they don’t go on your record like normal tickets, they won’t affect your insurance rates.

Ottawa has red-light cameras at 74 intersections, according to the city’s website. The city issued 42,578 red-light camera tickets in 2019, 35,557 in 2020 and 29,381 in the first nine months of 2021. The dramatic decline is a result of fewer people driving during the pandemic.

You have to come to a complete stop before turning right everywhere in Canada.

Most other cities with red-light cameras, including Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto, will charge you if you don’t stop before turning at a red-light camera. In Montreal, where right turns on reds are illegal, you’ll get a ticket for any turn on a red.

But in British Columbia, red-light cameras don’t ticket cars that don’t stop before turning right at a red light – even though it’s illegal, according to the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia (ICBC). That’s because of “technical reasons,” ICBC said.

“The program’s current technology does not provide sufficient evidence of whether a vehicle came to a complete stop prior to turning right, as is needed to charge an offence,” Lindsay Wilkins, ICBC spokeswoman, said in an email.

Not all provinces allow red-light cameras. Nova Scotia, for instance, doesn’t. But to reduce crashes at intersections, Halifax city council is reconsidering that stance.

Caught on camera?

So how do red-light cameras know whether you have come to a stop.

It helps to look at how they work. In Canada, there are two main types: cameras that use pressure sensors built into the roads and cameras activated by radar.

Some also can tell whether you speed through an intersection and issue speeding tickets.

Calgary uses sensors for its red-light cameras, which issued 18,910 tickets in 2021.

“We have sensors, approximately 70 centimetres apart, in each lane,” said Sergeant Joerg Gottschling of the Calgary Police Service. “If you trigger both sensors at a red light, it will take two photos.”

With Calgary’s system, the second photo is taken about a second after the first.

“That first shot is when you trigger the second sensor and you’re not yet in the intersection, Gottschling said. “The next one will capture your vehicle in the intersection.”

For all red-light cameras, police officers look at the photos and decide whether to issue a ticket, Gottschling said.

Sometimes, just crossing the first sensor on a red will trigger a flash, but you won’t get a ticket unless you crossed the second, Gottschling said.

For speeding on green lights, Calgary’s system calculates your speed based on how long it takes you to get from the first sensor to the second sensor.

It makes the same calculation for turning on a red, Gottschling said. It looks at how fast you’re going during your turn. If you’re going too fast, it assumes that you couldn’t have stopped.

“If someone were to stop and proceed, their speed going over that sensor would be in the neighbourhood of eight to 15 kilometres per hour,” Gottschling said. “If they’re going 41 kilometres per hour, there’s no reasonable explanation to suggest that they stopped.”

Gottschling wouldn’t specify the exact speed threshold for issuing a ticket for not stopping before a turn on a red in Calgary because he doesn’t want to encourage drivers to coast through a red-light turn.

Radar-based systems also look at your speed to determine whether you’ve stopped before a right turn. Some other systems use video, he said, so officers can see whether or not you stopped before turning.

What about left turns? Could you get a red-light camera ticket if you’re stuck in the intersection waiting to turn left when the light turns red?

In every city with red-light cameras, as long as you cross the stop line and enter the interaction to make your left turn before it turns red, you won’t get a ticket.

Fight the right?

Even though red-light camera tickets don’t go on your driving record, you can fight them in court like you would fight a ticket that was handed to you by an officer, police said.

But the technology is “pretty reliable,” said David Anber, an Ottawa-based criminal defence lawyer.

Police also have to check the systems regularly to make sure they’re accurate, Calgary’s Gottschling said.

“I watched a few of those trials and it’s very difficult for people to argue against this,” Gottschling said. “What explanation are you going to come up with when there’s a photo of you not yet in the intersection, then there’s one of you in the intersection 0.8 of a second later – and both times it’s red?”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.