By David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia News

A car appears to zoom by in a long exposure shot of a nighttime intersection.

Brian Thompson/Brantford Expositor/Postmedia News

Photo-radar devices that automatically send tickets to the owners of speeding cars will return to Ontario’s streets, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced in Ottawa Tuesday, as part of a package of changes meant to keep pedestrians and cyclists safer.

Ontario once had photo-radar vans enforcing speed limits on provincial highways.

They were massively unpopular. Mike Harris ditched them when he was premier in the 1990s, and they haven’t been seen here since, though they’re common in some other provinces. (In Alberta, the city of Edmonton alone gave out 70,000 photo-radar tickets in 2014.)

Wynne promised an imminent bill that will let municipalities install speed cameras in school zones and certain designated “community safety zones.” The same bill will let cities reduce speed limits in those areas from the default of 50 km/h and make it easier to install cameras that send automatic tickets to the owners of cars spotted running red lights.

Kathleen Wynne

Mike DiBattista/Niagara Falls Review/Postmedia News Kathleen Wynne

“It’s been the municipalities that have asked us for this,” Wynne said in making the promise in the gym at Elmdale Public School, surrounded by fifth-graders, and officials like Mayor Jim Watson, MPP and provincial Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, and Chief Charles Bordeleau of the Ottawa police.

The school has 500 students, most of whom “walk, bike or scoot to school,” said principal Suzie Robertson. Much of the neighbourhood has no sidewalks, so they mix with motor vehicles.

The equipment for one photo-radar installation costs between $70,000 and $100,000, based on a recent experiment with them in Gatineau. Exactly what it’ll cost to operate will depend on conditions the province imposes. In Quebec, the equipment has to be manned by police officers — so it can fire out a lot of tickets if a lot of people are speeding, but it can’t just be stuck in the ground and left there unattended.

Last spring, Watson worried publicly that photo-radar enforcement of speed limits would be a cash grab because it would target only law-breaking drivers. But in May, with his support, city council passed a resolution asking the province for what Wynne is now promising: The right to install radar cameras in limited areas where safety is considered more important than elsewhere.

“We’ve got a lot of people that just don’t respect speed limits,” Watson said. Surveys in Ottawa have found that traffic safety is the No. 1 problem the public would like police to deal with. Naqvi said it’s the single issue he hears about most when he canvasses in Ottawa Centre.

“We want to make sure that in and around school areas, when kids are dashing back and forth, that people are not speeding, going 60 or 70 km/h, because we know when they’re going at that speed there’s a very good chance that kids are going to get killed,” Watson said.

Watson said Tuesday he doesn’t expect speed cameras to become part of the standard traffic-enforcement kit around schools, but the city will probably install them in spots notorious for speeding and dangerous driving. He compared them to red-light cameras: Ottawa has about 40 of them and 15 more to be installed next year, but not at every intersection with traffic lights.

“I met a gentleman just a week ago on the main floor of city hall. He’d just gotten a red-light ticket and he said, ‘Thanks a lot for your red-light camera,’ and he wasn’t too happy. But he also said to me, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do this again’, because it was $375,” Watson said.

An officer operates a photo radar unit in Edmonton in a 2013 file photo.

Perry Mah/Edmonton Sun/QMI Agency
An officer operates a photo radar unit in Edmonton in a 2013 file photo.

The mayor’s also pleased that it will be easier to reduce speed limits in particular neighbourhoods. In places with no signs, the default speed limit is 50 km/h. The city can set it lower but that means installing signs at every intersection reminding drivers, and each one costs about $250. That adds up fast in a city where each ward’s annual budget for all its traffic-calming measures is $40,000. Wynne’s promise is to allow cities to designate areas with lower default speed limits, marked by fewer signs.

Lower speed limits aren’t magic: drivers tend to drive as fast as they feel safe driving, so the designs of streets matter more than anything else. But knowing the odds are a lot higher — possibly 100 per cent — that they’ll get caught if they speed will influence driver behaviour.

Don’t expect photo radar on Ontario streets by Christmas. The provincial bill has to get through the legislature, which typically takes months, and then municipalities will have to decide how to use their new authority.

Source: National Post