Photo radar? Bring it on!

Friday, January 23, 2004


Written by Scott Piatkowski

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize the “new” government of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. You could criticize them for campaigning against P3 hospitals, then letting them go ahead. You could criticize them for saying that they’d protect the Oak Ridges Moraine, then allowing development to go ahead. You could criticize them for campaigning on major new spending commitments, and then claiming to be surprised by the size of the deficit. You could criticize them for… but, I’d really better stop myself before I run out of space on the page.

One thing I don’t want to criticize them for is for toying with the idea of returning photo radar to Ontario’s roads. Sure, I could mention that they didn’t campaign on the issue last fall, or in 1999. I could point out that they freely joined with the Mike Harris Tories in criticizing photo radar when it was first introduced (indeed, there are some lovely examples a current Finance Minister Greg Sorbara waxing poetic in opposition to photo radar). But, I’m not going to do that either, because I sincerely hope that the Dalton gang does reintroduce photo radar.

There are legitimate reasons to support photo radar. Some of those reasons relate to safety and some of them relate to money. Since the opponents of photo radar like to deride it as “a cash grab”, let’s deal with the money issue first. Mark Arsenault, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association, has said that photo radar is nothing more than “a tax on motorists.” The easiest way to dispense with this criticism is with a giant “So what?” The province clearly needs additional revenue (due to the aforementioned fiscal deficit, and a whole series of social needs that are crying out for attention). Other than by reversing some the Harrisites’ tax cuts to corporations and wealthy individuals, I can’t really think of a better source of revenue than fining people who voluntarily choose to break traffic laws. If you’d rather not pay, the solution is breathtakingly simple; don’t drive faster than the posted speed limit.

I haven’t decided what I think of the strategic wisdom of Dalton McGuinty’s decision to openly say that his newfound fondness for photo radar stems from the fact that “It's a revenue generator, absolutely.” The danger of emphasizing the fiscal rationale is that it will make it politically attractive for a future government to gain points by killing it (again). While, photo radar most certainly is a good way to raise money, it is surely much much more than that.

I commuted to Toronto for part of the time that photo radar vans dotted the sides of our 400 series highways (and, no, I never received a photo radar ticket, although I’ve certainly had a few “regular” speeding tickets). People drove slower then, and that was a good thing. Higher speeds increase both stopping times and reaction times. They increase the likelihood of accidents and also the magnitude of collisions when they occur. And, when the “flow of traffic” requires people to travel at 120 km per hour merely for self-preservation, they can make driving on major highways an even more harrowing experience than it needs to be for many drivers.

It has been suggested that photo radar doesn’t do anything to solve other traffic violations. It won’t catch people who, for example, follow too closely or change lanes recklessly in order to get ahead of you. But, we wouldn’t criticize a cure for cancer on the grounds that it did nothing to deal with male pattern baldness, would we? People committing those other traffic offenses do so because they are in a hurry, and they are usually speeding as well. Moreover, by freeing police officers from the mundane task of aiming a radar gun toward passing cars, photo radar could actually increase their ability to crack down on these other offenses.

The objection to photo radar that puzzles me the most is the idea that it is “an invasion of privacy”. I suppose that, in the hands of a John Ashcroft figure, it could be used to maliciously track the movements of every driver in the province, whether they were speeding or not. But, there are already so many ways that people can be tracked (from to debit and credit card records to pervasive security cameras), stopping photo radar isn’t going to stop that particular conspiracy theory from becoming a reality. Indeed, there is every possibility that any tracking system could be used for positive ends, such as following the trail of child abductors.

So, as much as I dislike the McGuinty government’s record so far, I don’t put its flirtation with photo radar on my list of concerns. Let’s get the system up and running as soon as possible, so we can begin realizing its positive effects on our finances and public safety, and get on with criticizing them for their broken promises.

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