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Provincial Photo Radar Review

Photo radar is always a controversial topic. I’ve written about it in the past. I’ve also had hundreds of conversations about it. It is clear that whether they accept it or hate it, almost everyone seems to have a strong opinion about photo radar.

In response to criticisms and concerns, the province recently released a report on the use of Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE) in Alberta.

It’s been interesting seeing responses to this study. Some have held it up as proof that photo radar is a “cash cow” with no contribution to safety. Others are using this study as evidence that ATE is responsibly used to decrease accidents.

Since it is being used to support contradictory conclusions, I’d encourage you to read the study for yourself. You can click here to access it.

Following is a summary of the key findings I see in this provincial study.

Please note that I am not a statistician and I have not seen the dataset behind this study. I’ve also only spent a couple hours going over it. I do not have an expert level of knowledge on this. So I’d encourage you to read it for yourself and draw your own conclusion.

I also want to remind you that any mistakes or opinions found on this blog belong to me and me alone. If you spot any mistakes on my part, please let me know.


DOES AUTOMATED TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT (ATE) MAKE ROADS SAFER?

This study undertook an analysis of collision rates between 2008 and 2016. It found:

”[Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE)] has had a small contribution to traffic safety in the province, but is generally not being used in a way that maximizes traffic safety. Regression analysis isolated a direct contribution of ATE on the observed reduction in collision rates. While overall collision rates have per 10,000 residents declined by 29.35% over the 10-year period, findings from this analysis showed that 1.4% of this reduction in collision rates, and 5.3% of the observed reduction in the proportion of severe collisions, could be attributed to the use of ATE. “ (pg 3)

Here is an interesting graph found on page 81 of the report:

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Accident rates across the province have been declining, but they have been declining faster in municipalities with ATE. This study concludes that “the use of ATE does show an impact on collision rates, though the level of impact is somewhat limited” (pg 81).

The study also looked at how the proportionality of different types of collisions were effected by ATE. There was no statistically significant impact on side angle collisions. However, the data suggested that ATE may increase rear-end collisions, especially when deployed in intersections (pg 73, 84). This study also found that while ATE reduces collisions overall, it does not reduce the proportion of fatal collisions (pg 82).

It was also found that there is strong reason to believe that increasing the amount of hours ATE is deployed in a community reduces collisions (pg 91 - 93, 95).

There are a few notable limitations to this study. They include:

  • The analysis only looked for impacts that were directly and solely attributable to ATE use. This may not capture its full effect when it was one of several contributing factors leading to collisions reductions (pg 5)

  • There were deficits with the data set used, including an inability to map collisions to specific locations. This meant the study only looked at impacts ATE had on entire municipalities with no regard for its impact in specific areas or on specific types of roads (pg 72)

  • Population was used as a proxy for traffic growth (pg 78). In municipalities with significant commercial or industrial travel, the correlation between population and traffic changes may not be close.

  • When examining the impact of ATE in larger Alberta municipalities, the comparison cities used were in Ontario (pg 72). These two jurisdiction may vary greatly in terms of traffic laws, road engineering, driver education, and type of traffic. In fact, the study notes on major difference in that Ontario has significantly lower collisions per 10,000 people (pg 78). Without solid control variables, the findings of this study may have limited use.

  • No traffic safety data was collected by municipalities with no ATE (pg 78)

  • I did not find any examination of how the use of ATE in many of Alberta’s largest municipalities might impact patterns in other municipalities. There is a possibility that drivers may be unaware that ATE is not deployed in a particular municipality, so it impacts their driving habits even without being present. If this is happening, the results of this study may be skewed if ATE has had a non-considered impact on comparison communities.

With these limitations in mind, it is important to look at other evidence based studies when making decisions about ATE. This provincial study undertook an exhaustive literature review. Its conclusions found on page 108:

The findings of this research are clear and consistent:

• Speed enforcement cameras reduce speeds and prevent non-injury crashes, injury crashes and fatal or serious injury crashes.

• Fixed cameras had a greater effect on total crashes and fatal or serious injury crashes, but there were no differences in speeding or in injury crashes.

• There were no differences between overt and covert cameras

According to this study, ATE does reduce collisions by a statistically significant amount. However, it also gives significant evidence that this type of enforcement alone should not be relied on to lower collisions: there are many other important factors at play in making roads safer.

Along with the study, I also think that:

“given the high intensity of ATE use in Alberta’s municipalities, it is reasonable to question why ATE use has not translated into higher levels of collision reduction, and what improvements could be made to Alberta’s ATE program to maximize traffic safety outcomes” (pg 5)

Some are appropriately upholding this study to show that photo radar can improve safety. However, it is inappropriate to also use to to uphold the status quo. While this study does not refute the use of ATE in principal, it does call into question current practices in Alberta.


HOW DO WE COMPARE TO OTHER JURISDICTIONS?

This study put significant effort into comparing Alberta to other jurisdictions. Some interesting observations I made when reading these:

  • Alberta has 10 ATE Devices/100,000 people. The Canadian average in provinces which use ATE is 3.4. (pg 27).

  • There are 57 municipalities operating ATE in Canada. 28 of them are in Alberta (pg 35).

  • Many jurisdictions outpace most Alberta municipalities when it comes to sharing data about ATE with the public (pg 32).

  • The United Kingdom allows those receiving an ATE penalty to take a course rather than facing other punishments. It had a greater impact on people’s likelihood to re-offend than did fines or demerits. (pg 33)

Despite outpacing many other jurisdictions in use of ATE, Alberta doesn’t seem to be leading the way in terms of having the best practices.

The report also has a table comparing municipalities across Alberta (pg 14).

This table is problematic. First, it is not clear if it captures data from 2016, another year, or if it captures averages (my best understanding is that it is based on 2016 information). Additionally, City of Grande Prairie administration indicates that the enforcement hours it lists for us are inaccurate: it lists 82,842 hours whereas in 2016 we had 10,816 ATE hours. At this time, I do not have enough confidence in this table to make firm conclusions based on it.

Nonetheless, this information is still useful to highlight topics worthy of further investigation. I put this table into Excel along with population data from 2016 (source). You can download my spreadsheet here.

Following is a summary of the data. I compare Grande Prairie to all municipalities with ATE, as well as to mid-size cities only. I ran the numbers both based on Grande Prairie’s ATE hours as presented in the report, and based on corrected hours given to me by our administration.

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I highlighted the most interesting numbers in blue. Based on this table, it appears that, compared to other municipalities, Grande Prairie:

  • Has more locations where ATE is allowed

  • Has less ATE hours per resident than other municipalities

  • Collects less money per resident from ATE

  • May collect significantly more per hour that ATE is deployed

It surprised me that we collect less money per resident and have less ATE hours than other municipalities. This wasn’t my perception, and I don’t think it is a common perception in our community.

However, I was also surprised that by how much we collect per ATE hour. Higher traffic and worse driving habits may contribute to this. It may be evidence that our enforcement targets problem areas effectively. However, it might also be a strong indication that a significant amount of our ATE time may be spent in exploitive locations. I’m not confident drawing firm conclusions based on this table. However, it does raise a significant red flag to me- I’d like the City of Grande Prairie to get a good understanding of how our ATE revenue per hour compares to others.

The comparisons this report makes between jurisdictions should encourage us to be examining our ATE programs.


HOW SHOULD SITES BE SELECTED?

Municipalities are required to report to the province why they select each site for ATE. “Justification options include Historical reasons (History of speeding, History of collisions, History of red lights violations), Subjective reasons (Areas of public concern, Conventional enforcement unsafe), and Situational reasons (School/playground zone, Construction zone, High speed multilane arteries)” (pg 17).

35% of municipalities only ever report one justification per site, while 40% of municipalities report 2-3 reasons per site. 1/3 of all sites had “history of speeding” as a justification (pg 18).

The study also examined if the site selection criteria identified by municipalities effected the impact ATE had on collisions within their jurisdiction. No correlation was found to site justification and total collisions or the proportion of fatal collisions (pg 99).

Many, including myself, want site selection guidelines changed. Doing so might be worthwhile for the sake of increasing transparency and public trust. However, this study does not provide evidence that doing so would increase safety.


WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH ATE FINE REVENUE?

This study describes how fine revenue is distributed on page 67:

To every ticket, a 15% victims services surcharge is applied, which goes directly to the Victim Services Fund. This fund compensates victims of crime, although not necessarily traffic-related crimes or collisions. The Justice division of AJSG administers the court process, the fine collection, and the fine revenue distribution processes. For this, the province retains 26.67% of the remaining revenues if the violation is paid on time. If the payment is late, an additional fee of $20 or 20% – whichever is greater – is applied to the violation amount, and the entire amount is retained by the province to cover additional administrative costs. The municipality that issued the violation receives 73.33% of the violation amount. This money is unrestricted, so the municipality has discretion regarding how it is spent, which may include ATE program costs, traffic safety investments, or unrelated expenditures.

On page 68, it provides a picture of what this distribution would look like for a $100 violation:

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On page 12, it shows what total revenue across Alberta looked like from 2016-2017:

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It is important to note that the above describes gross revenue. Net revenue for both the province and for municipalities is significantly lower.

ATE revenues made up 0.94% of total revenues for urban municipalities (pg 13). Throughout the years this study examined, overall and per capita fine revenue has increased throughout the province: all municipalities showed an average increase of 11.5% and mid large sized cities showed an average 24% increase between 2013 and 2016 (pg 86).

It was found that in several municipalities, increased spending in non-enforcement based traffic safety initiatives (education campaigns, road engineering, etc…) was highly connected to decreased collisions (pg 91-2, 95-96). However, this study was not able to gather data to determine if municipalities are investing revenue from ATE into other traffic safety initiatives (pg 16).

Worth knowing about Grande Prairie: City ATE revenue has been declining and the 2019 budget assumes it will decline even further. The fine amounts forwarded to us from the budget goes into general spending. Its gross amount accounts for ~1.5% of total City revenue (its net amount is closer to 0.75%).


WHAT DO PEOPLE THINK ABOUT PHOTO RADAR?

As part of this study, a representative poll of 1200 Albertans was conducted. A summary of results found on page 145 shows that the majority of people surveyed:

  • Agree or strongly agree that ATE should be used to ticket drivers

  • Believe that ATE increases road safety to some degree

  • Disagree or strongly disagree that information about ATE locations is readily available

  • Believe to a moderate or great extent that ATE is primarily focused on revenue generation

Advocates for ATE could point to the fact that 79% of respondents believe that ATE contributes to road safety to at least some degree (pg 156) and 50% stated that knowing it exists has improved their own driving habits (165).

However, there are also findings that critics can highlight. Despite the fact that ATE fines usually go into general revenues, only 6% of respondents indicated that that is how they would like revenue to be allocated (pg 167). And only 38% of respondents thought that ATE reduced collisions in their municipality (pg 158).

This survey seems to indicate that Albertans generally support ATE in principal, but that they have problems with how it is being implemented.


HOW DOES THIS CHANGE MY THINKING?

You can click here to see what I have written about photo radar.

I’ve got issues with Grande Prairie’s photo enforcement program. I surveyed every study I could find, and they clearly demonstrate that ATE contributes to safer roads. On an anecdotal level, I know that the tickets I receive change my behaviour. So I do believe that ATE is an acceptable strategy in principal. However, I do not think that our approach has been optimized to deliver the best possible impact on safety. I also think it is massively lacking when it comes to transparency and public accountability. I’ve suggested ten changes we should make to our ATE and road safety programs.

This study largely confirmed my previous research. It demonstrates that, while photo radar does contribute to safety, there are many other important strategies that need to be pursued. It also suggests that, across Alberta, ATE programs could be refined to better reduce collisions.

At the same time, this study suggests to me that I should be re-thinking some of my proposed changes. Specifically, results indicate that site selection criteria may not be as important as I have previously thought.

I especially found value in the public perceptions gathered in this study. Most agree that photo radar should be used to ticket drivers and that it contributes to safety. But most also think information is hard to get and that it is being used to generate revenue, not reduce collisions. Regardless of our views on photo radar, this disconnect should disturb us. It is clear that municipalities are not using ATE in a way that citizens can trust. That is a problem.

I also find some of the jurisdictional comparisons made in this study disturbing. Compared to other jurisdictions, Alberta has a very high prevalence of ATE. And there is a possibility that Grande Prairie is collecting much more money per enforcement hour than other municipalities are. At the same time, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that Grande Prairie or Alberta roads are safer than roads elsewhere. In fact, this study states that we have more collisions per person than Ontario does. This should be causing decision makers to ask if they are over-relying on this photo radar to reduce collisions. Could we get the same results while handing out significantly less fines? And is there a possibility that our reliance on photo radar has led to under investment in other safety strategies? These questions deserve close attention. And if the answer to either of them is “yes,” change needs to be pursued.

This study has strengthened my resolve to advocate for change to our current program. I’m also thankful that as Council reviews this program, this study will provide me with empirical evidence to push for that change.


WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

That’s my thinking [for now] on this study. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Did you read or skim it? If so, what popped out to you? What am I missing? Did it change your mind on anything? Did it offer confirmation of any of your views? Was there anything in these findings which surprised you?

You can comment here, email me at dbressey@cityofgp.com, call me at 780-402-4166, or find me on the GP Round Table Facebook group.

Thanks for reading!

-Dylan