Blue Line


February 28, 2016  By Chris D. Lewis

781 words – MR

Photo radar has to be about public safety

The NDP government of the day introduced photo radar to Ontario in August 1994. The transportation ministry released an interim report the following January showing that the program had reduced speed on provincial highways and made almost four times the revenue it cost to administer.

Photo radar was controversial, to say the least. The many naysayers viewed the methodology – the license plate of a speeding vehicle is photographed and the owner (who wasn’t necessarily driving) is sent a ticket – as nothing more than a government “cash-grab.”


The reality is that traffic offence revenue, including fines from highway tickets, goes to the municipality which hosts the court of jurisdiction. A small portion goes to the Ministry of the Attorney General to cover prosecution and administration costs.

Regardless, the newly elected Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government made good on a campaign promise and cancelled the program just 11 months after it was implemented.

For those of us who regularly drove Ontario’s Highway 401, the slowing of traffic along the London to Kingston corridor was quite palpable. I am told of similar impacts in other locations. Radio stations broadcast listener reports of photo radar van locations. Stories emerged of single drivers receiving multiple tickets for high speed infractions that occurred the same day. The topic was on everyone’s lips and undoubtedly on the “radar” of most drivers, so to speak.

There’s no way to predict how profound the longer-term impacts of photo radar would have been on road safety in Ontario – I don’t know the statistical impact the program had during its short duration. I do know that it at least slowed people down – not all but many.

A number of Ontario municipalities have, so far unsuccessfully, pushed the various Liberal governments for permission to run photo radar locally. The province did allow ‘red light cameras’.

Most recently, Toronto Mayor John Tory asked Premier Kathleen Wynne to allow photo radar in his city, publicly citing his desire to “use technology in place of uniform police officers. This will allow for more efficient deployment of expensive, highly trained police officers.”

There was no immediate commitment from the premier but she certainly didn’t dismiss the idea either.

I support photo radar. My few concerns are unchanged from those I had during its initial roll-out.

Firstly, although there are other offences within Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act that allow for the vehicle owner rather than the actual driver to be charged, it still bugs me.

Secondly, and more concerning, is the notion that photo radar somehow “replaces” police officers as opposed to “supplementing” what they do to enforce laws and reduce traffic collisions. Police agencies still need uniformed visibility at the right place and time to sufficiently impact driver behavior, based on statistical analysis.

A photo radar device on a pole or in an unmarked van placed in a problematic area might slow down anyone who is mailed a ticket {after} an infraction, but a marked car will cause immediate slowdowns.

As well, officers often uncover impaired driving and other serious violations when they interact with drivers stopped for all traffic violations, including speeding. Photo radar cannot accomplish that. It only focuses on speeding. There is no personal interaction whatsoever with offenders. Police officers enforce all traffic laws if they see an infraction, including many non-speeding violations.

There may be fewer officers doing traffic enforcement in larger municipalities if photo radar returns, but there has to be some. The fact is that fewer than 10 officers are working at any given time in most Ontario municipalities; in many, there are less than five. These agencies can’t cut one or two officers out of a platoon simply because photo radar has made a triumphant return. As well, employees are needed to run the equipment and administer the associated processes.

Lastly, traffic enforcement, including photo radar, needs to be about saving lives by changing driver behavior and/or removing the habitual offenders from the roads by suspending their driving privileges. The ultimate goal is police never having to issue a traffic ticket because everyone is obeying the laws and people are not getting maimed and killed in vehicle collisions. That wouldn’t bolster municipal government revenue streams but it would save a pile of lives and reduce the number of grieving families.

Photo radar is a valuable tool but should not be all about revenue generation. If it is, then those who allege it is only a cash-grab will be proven correct.


Chris Lewis served as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until his retirement in 2014 and is Blue Line’s Senior Management columnist. Contact:

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