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Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair calls for return to photo radar

Motorists make their way along a residential street in the Beach area in Toronto, Ont. Friday, April 27/2012.

Kevin van Paassen/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

It would provide considerable savings for a cash-strapped police service; it could put a serious dent in congestion and make the roads safer; it would help streamline court proceedings; and all the resultant revenue would flow into city coffers.

Armed with those four arguments, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair wants to see legislation permitting police to deploy photo radar in the city, along with cameras that would nab drivers who make prohibited turns during rush hour.

Mayor Rob Ford, however,  strongly disagrees.

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"I support the chief, I support the police, but I don't support photo radar," he told reporters Wednesday at the Etobicoke Olympium, where renovations are to take place for the 2015 Pan Am Games.

"The people don't support it, taxpayers don't support it, I don't support it. People don't want to have these tickets every time they go through an intersection. It costs a lot of money at the end of the day."

It's not the first time the polarizing issue of photo radar has been a hot potato in Ontario.

The NDP government launched such a program in 1994, but just one year later Mike Harris's Progressive Conservatives scrapped it, saying it had done did little to reduce speeding.

During that year, more than 240,000 tickets were handed out, yielding fines totalling more than $16-million. Then, in 2004, the McGuinty government declared the idea would remain dead.

Mr. Blair, however, believes that for a variety of reasons it's now time to revisit it.

"Last year the Board of Trade did an analysis and found that gridlock in GTA was costing city nearly $6-billion in productivity," he told a news scrum at a Crime Stoppers event.

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"That's something we should not ignore...congestion is a very significant issue that impacts on the quality of everyone's life.

"What I want the city and the province to consider is allowing us to do the enforcement that's already taking place in the expensive way, and to do it more efficiently.... The technology exists, and it has improved significantly in the last 15 years."

Mr. Blair is currently grappling with a budget freeze in 2013 that he has warned will leave fewer officers on the street.

The changes he wants to see would not give the police any extra revenue, since local government would get it all. Nor would it create any new offences.

What it would do is free up police to do other things

First, however, the laws would have to change.

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The city of Toronto already has red-light cameras at several key intersections, targeting drivers who speed through yellow lights.

But as with deploying photo radar, the provincial government would have to enact legislation enabling authorities to use cameras to catch drivers making prohibited turns. Municipalities would also have to amend their bylaws.

Mr. Ford conceded that photo radar would make money for the city, but he said that's not the issue.

"Does it create revenue? Yeah. but the average person doesn't want it. I do what the taxpayers want me to do, and they don't want photo radar, so I don't want photo radar."

Mr. Blair sidestepped the mayor's opposition to his proposal.

"My job is to provide as much information as I can to our elected officials so they can make an informed decision," he said. "I'll leave the politics of this to the politicians."

"We're doing a review internally with our Traffic Services, we've had some discussions with the province through the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and certainly Toronto isn't the only jurisdiction with an interest in this...We believe the time has come to look to technology for a solution."

Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, spoke to Mr. Blair about his proposal Wednesday morning and agrees it may be time to re-examine the idea.

"Because of the increased costs of policing - it's at the forefront of every municipal agenda - it may be time to revisit it," Ms. Meilleur told reporters at Queen's Park.

Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli,  however, was more  lukewarm.

If the Ontario government looks at this, he said, it would be in the context of road safety.

"It's  a discussion we might want to have, but certainly not in the context of solving the police budget challenge," he said.

With reports from Kristina Virro and Karen Howlett

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