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Alberta government puts freeze on new photo radar equipment, locations

WATCH: The UCP government has launched another review to look into how photo radar is being used in Alberta. Tom Vernon reports.

Effective Dec. 1, municipalities and police agencies will not be allowed to install new or upgraded photo radar devices or set up new locations as the provincial government examines the current rules.

The United Conservative government is working to refine rules for photo radar site selection, operational restrictions and data collection.

“Our goal is to ensure photo radar is used for safety, not to generate backdoor tax revenue,” Transportation Minister Ric McIver said in a news release.

“Albertans are skeptical about the impact photo radar has on safety and we do not have useful data to analyze so we can make a decision. Alberta has three times as many photo radar units per capita as British Columbia but our roads are not meaningfully safer.

“A temporary freeze means municipalities and police cannot purchase or install new and costly equipment while we work with them to build better oversight and reporting on the effectiveness of photo radar.”

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McIver said the freeze could last up to two years as the province consults and collects information.

READ MORE: UCP will continue to roll out NDP’s photo radar overhaul

In February, the NDP transportation minister, Brian Mason, released a third-party report that revealed photo radar was used by 27 municipalities and generated $220 million a year in revenue, but reduced collisions by only 1.4 per cent.

Based on the report, Mason announced changes to severely limit or ban photo radar at perceived revenue-generating spots, known colloquially as “fishing holes.”

UCP to continue NDP plan to change photo radar rules
UCP to continue NDP plan to change photo radar rules

Photo radar is no longer allowed at spots where speed limits change quickly, called transition zones, and on high-speed, multi-lane highways unless there is documented proof of safety concerns.

McIver said the government will continue with those bans.

Municipalities and police agencies were also directed by the NDP to have a clear plan in place by March 2020 to use photo radar, backed up by collision data, to prove it is only being used at high-risk locations.

READ MORE: Alberta photo radar overhaul coming after review finds it’s a cash cow

NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley said McIver’s data review puts that March plan on the backburner and opens the door to municipalities continuing to run photo radar at questionable locations.

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“We (when in government) were very clear with municipalities that they would need to begin to provide data on safety by March of 2020 and they would have been prepared to do that,” said Ganley.

“I don’t think this needs to be delayed.”

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An added twist to this review is that a budget implementation bill set to be passed in the coming days will increase the provincial take from photo radar tickets to 40 per cent from 27 per cent, she said.

Alberta photo radar review finds it’s a cash cow
Alberta photo radar review finds it’s a cash cow

“I question, in light of the moves (the government) made with respect to changing the fine ticket revenues, whether this is essentially an indirect way to get more money to municipalities after they removed it,” she said.

When asked if it’s problematic for the province to review photo radar while it is simultaneously set to profit more from it, McIver said revenue will take a back seat.

“We’re going to make sure the focus for photo radar is on safety.”

READ MORE: Alberta budget 2019 includes cuts to cities, civil servants, universities

The City of Edmonton said it will continue to be open and accountable with the province on the photo radar program. In a statement to Global News, the department of traffic safety said money from photo radar is reinvested into traffic safety improvements.

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“Safety is our priority,” the statement read, in part.

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“Edmonton was the first city in Canada to commit to Vision Zero, the goal of zero traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries, making our streets safer and more livable… We are one of the only municipalities in Canada with a stand-alone policy on the use of photo radar reserve funds.

“These improvements have included the installation of crosswalks and traffic signals, introduction of left-turn lanes and re-engineering of intersections to make them safer. The city’s approach to speed management and enforcement is to be transparent and accountable.”

There are 806 approved photo radar sites in Edmonton; about 170 of which are active week to week and listed publicly on the city’s Open Data Portal.

Last year, a total of 378,619 photo radar tickets were issued in Edmonton, translating to $46.65 million.

“All of that money either goes directly into policing or into traffic safety initiatives,” Mayor Don Iveson said, “as well as a good deal of the policing budget comes from ticket revenue.”

READ MORE: Committee looks to put more Edmonton photo radar money into crosswalks

“It’s really cutting back on Vision Zero, potentially, cutting back on policing. Obviously, those are priorities for us so we’re going to have to find different ways to sort of user-fund it today.

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“Public safety is non-negotiable for us,” the mayor added. “If the toolkit changes, we’ll adapt accordingly. If we have to scale back traffic safety, that would be a real shame.”

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In a news release Tuesday, the UCP said the independent review found that data was limited and inconsistent. The UCP also said the review found that photo radar operations in Alberta showed only a marginal contribution to traffic safety.

“Traffic tickets should help increase public safety and not be used to generate revenue,” Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said. “We are conducting this review because Albertans need to have confidence that photo radar is an effective way to keep people safe. I look forward to working with the minister of transportation to understand the value of photo radar and see if it’s worth preserving.”

READ MORE: From truck to box, questions raised about Edmonton photo radar

Iveson said the issue is in the hands of the province now.

“We complied with the last review that they did and we came out with no issues because we’re the most transparent, as it is, around the program,” he said.

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“We want to put ourselves out of this business because people actually slow down. But enforcement remains part of how you actually get compliance. But we’ll comply, of course, with anything the province wants to know about our program.”

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— With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press