Let’s talk facts, not opinion, on photo radar

“Just the facts, ma’am.” The famous line attributed to the 60s TV show detective Sgt. Joe Friday was aimed at cutting through the investigative clutter. We could use Friday’s no-nonsense character today as we search for the truth about photo radar, speeding and how to make our roads safer.

Recently, such prominent people as Edmonton’s police chief, Rod Knecht, have waded into the debate. He told reporters, apparently without being asked, that he would favour an increase in the posted speed along Anthony Henday Road from 100 km/h to 110 km/h. He said it was his personal opinion that the safety of the route would not be compromised because people already drive that speed.

Within days, Alberta’s Transportation Minister, Brian Mason, waded into the fray announcing a government review of photo radar, to ensure it was not being used as a “cash cow” by municipalities.

The two comments have drawn cheers from photo radar deniers and others who feel speeding is perfectly safe.

But what are the facts? What does the research show?

Mason and Knecht may be surprised to know answers to those questions can be found at the University of Alberta, right here in Edmonton.

Karim El-Basyouny is an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering. He is the City of Edmonton Research Chair in Urban Traffic Safety. The city funds an endowment for the the research chair and uses El-Basyouny’s team to provide data analysis on how to deploy photo radar to get the most benefits.

Before you start questioning whether that relationship taints his research, you need to know that his findings have been published by the U.S. Transportation Research Board, part of the prestigious National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

I sat down with El-Basyouny earlier this month to get some answers. (You can hear the full audio interview here.)

Me:  What does the research show about how Edmonton’s photo radar enforcement system works?

El-Basyouny:  I can say without any doubt the automated enforcement program in Edmonton has been effective in saving lives. Now, that is not my personal opinion. It’s not me saying what I think or what I believe in. That is actually based on the data we have analyzed here in the city of Edmonton. 

The analysis techniques made sure that this could be attributed to the enforcement being there and not because of changes in weather or changes in vehicle technologies or anything like that. It was actually that the city had started that enforcement, that we have seen those crash reductions which are essentially peoples’ lives being saved.

Me:  Why do you think there is so much public outcry (about the use of photo radar?)

El-Basyouny:  The cash cow argument always comes to the forefront because there is always that focus on the tickets.

There is a lot more that goes into a program like that. That basically includes the selection of the sites. The selection of the sites is based on statistics around speeding, around collisions, around vulnerable road users that potentially could be in a certain location, about complaints. So there is a wide range of criteria that is being used to select these sites.

Now, in none of that framework did we say tickets. We didn’t say we are going to that site because it gives us the most tickets. And I think a bit more explanation and bit more education to the public in terms of how a program is administered and how a program sets to achieve certain goals would go a long way to curb that argument a little bit.

Me.  Some of this seems to come back to speed. There seems to be a general feeling that speeding is not an issue, that speed does not contribute to collisions. What do you say to people?

El-Basyouny: The evidence is unequivocal. There is no arguing. This has been established in published research. I don’t understand why that would be an argument today.

Some feel comfortable driving a little bit over the speed limit. Well, faster speeds mean a narrower cone of vision which then ultimately means you won’t be able to see the vulnerable road users on the side of the road. Higher speeds also increase your braking distance.  And that’s again based on the laws of physics. The faster you are going the longer the distance you will need to come to a complete stop.

A (vehicle) hitting a pedestrian at 30 km/h is very different from the pedestrian survivability than hitting him at 50 km/h. Hitting him at 30 km/h, his chance of survivability is around 80 per cent. If you hit that pedestrian at 50 his chance of survival is around 10 per cent. It’s a big difference.

After my conversation with El-Basyouney I am left with questions. But not about the need for photo radar and speed limits.

I wonder why Transportation Minister Brian Mason or Police Chief Rod Knecht don’t seek out these facts before they begin making public statements based solely on their own opinions.

Mason, despite his experience as former bus driver, certainly has no professional expertise in traffic safety. And after scouring Chief Rod Knecht’s bio I can find no mention of his traffic safety analysis being accepted by international experts.

Just because their opinions find favour among some, that doesn’t mean they are right. In this case, “just the facts” tell a very different story.