A new anti-speeding device enrages drivers but promises big revenues
BIG BROTHER PATROL
A new anti-speeding device enrages drivers but promises big revenues
When Toronto lawyer John Wein-gust heads north to his cottage, he is used to watching for traffic police hiding in their favorite spots. But now a new electronic cop will be waiting to zap and ticket him by mail—and there is virtually nothing he can do about it. Last week, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) deployed a photo radar net in the Toronto area that can secretly detect speeders. And instead of getting a chance to beg a roadside cop for leniency, errant drivers will simply receive a ticket in the mail about three weeks after they were nabbed. Weingust, for one, does not intend to quietly accept the new electronic traps. He says the system makes a mockery of the law and individual rights, and that he intends to form an organization to derail it by snarling the court system with citizens fighting their tickets. ‘We have to stop this insidious law,” said Weingust, “and the only way to do it is to clog up the courts.”
There will be no shortage of enraged drivers to protest. Last week, four OPP vans equipped with photo radar were pinching more than 1,000 drivers a day on highways in, and leading to, Toronto. While some 40 jurisdictions across North America now use similar technology, Ontario, with six million drivers, is the largest one yet to implement the system. Photo radar has been deployed in Calgary since 1988, in Edmonton since last year, and British Columbia is considering its use in the Lower Mainland next year. Indeed, photo-radar surveillance may spread to highways across Canada as cash-strapped governments recognize its revenue-generating potential. In Ontario, the provincial government hopes eventually to generate $1 billion annually from speeding fines, compared with the current $55 million. Said Liberal MPP Sean Conway, who fought the measure in the Ontario legislature: “They are picking the pockets of Ontario residents.”
Photo radar may be the most efficient traffic cop ever. A radar beam, transmitted from a device on the front bumper of an unmarked police van, catches every vehicle exceeding a
specific target speed. That triggers a computerized camera on the van’s dashboard that can snap two photos a second. A ticket, along with the photos of the car and its front or back licence plate, is later sent to the car’s registered owner. The owner is held responsible for paying the fine regardless of whether he was driving the car at the time.
The silent sentinel has already angered thousands of drivers in Calgary over the past six years. Among them is Calgary artist Kym Knowles, who was snared last month as she sped through a 40 km/h zone in the city. Her car was photographed doing 57 km/h, and last week Knowles received a $55 summons giving her 35 days to either pay or challenge the ticket in court. Like most of those caught in the electronic web, Knowles cried foul. “I think using a camera is incredibly unreasonable,” said Knowles. “It is becoming a police state.”
Calgary police Traffic Sergeant Robert Howie, however, is unsympathetic. He said
that photo radar has encouraged the city’s heavy-footed drivers to slow down—and, in the process, saved lives. Since 1988, more than 135,000 motorists have been caught by the system. In the same period, based on the speed of drivers caught, police say, the average speeds on residential roads in Calgary have dropped by five to eight km/h and by about 10 km/h on major highways. “We have done our share in getting people home safely,” said Howie. “It has saved lives and cut costs.”
Ontario Provincial Police insist that the new technology will bring down speeds on Ontario roads as well. Last week, in his office overlooking one of Toronto’s busiest freeways, OPP superintendent Colin Brittan, who is in charge of implementing the system, defended photo radar with the resolve of a man who has seen too many mangled bodies pulled from car wrecks. After just four days of operation, he said, he had received dozens of calls from people who claimed that Toronto drivers, like their Calgary counterparts, were already becoming “civilized.” And he predicted that a year from now, when drivers realize how much safer the roads are, the program will be dramatically expanded to control other dangerous traffic areas. Said Brittan: “I believe that there will be a demand to move this equipment into its next logical use, which is intersection control.”
But critics say that the only reason it will be expanded is to generate even more revenue for governments. Brian Lawrie, president of POINTTS, a national firm that fights traffic offences on behalf of clients, says that police statistics used to defend photo radar are misleading because they fail to note that the technology was introduced at the same time as such other control measures as stepped-up police patrols. Said Lawrie, who also contends that speeding is not a major cause of accidents: “This is the ultimate in tax collection.”
The potential revenue generated by photo radar ticketing was an obvious selling point in
Ontario. In his 1993 provincial budget, Treasurer Floyd Laughren stated that the government expects to earn $130 million a year initially from the system, rising toward the estimated $1 billion annually after it is in full operation. In Alberta last year, photo ticketing generated an additional $2.5 million for the city of Edmonton and $3.5 million for Calgary.
Apart from the irritant of paying more in traffic fines, critics maintain that photo radar tramples on individual rights. In 1992, the New Jersey state legislature banned photo radar over privacy concerns. And Thomas Wright, commissioner of the Ontario Information and Privacy Commission, told Maclean’s last week the system forces people to submit to unwarranted surveillance. In future, he added, it could be refined to monitor the movement of virtually every citizen. Said Wright: “This technology has the capacity to photograph every car on the road.”
Such sweeping surveillance could ultimately prove to be a boon to the insurance industry. As the law is currently structured, governments in Canada that deploy photo radar are not supplying the insurance industry with the names of motorists caught in the system. Nor will motorists receive demerit points—another system that the insurance industry uses to
establish premium rates. In an attempt to ease public resistance to photo radar, the government decided not to issue demerit points, which drivers receive for speeding tickets issued by a policeman. But Toronto lawyer Weingust said that insurance companies could simply write a clause into their client’s policies that demand that they disclose any speeding tickets they have received under the photo radar system. If they did not, their policies could be in default. Said Weingust: “Photo radar will be a gold mine for the insurance industry.”
People renting cars will also be responsible for paying their own speeding tickets. And the car rental agencies are adjusting their contracts to make sure their clients have no way of dodging the tickets. Nelson Lebre, manager of a Rent-AWreck agency in Toronto said that when a car agency receives a ticket, his firm will pay the fine and then bill the client. If a dispute follows, he said the agency can produce a binding contract. Said Lebre: “We have a contract with the time stamped on it, and we can produce „ it in court if we have to.”
Despite concerns over improper y use, Canadian courts have so far I supported the deployment of photo I radar. In the latest of two rulings, in 1990 Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Robert Montgomery rejected a claimant’s arguments that photo radar violated his rights and concluded that it does not infringe on life or liberty. So instead of constitutional challenges, Lawrie, a former police officer, and Weingust argue that drivers should try to foil the system by clogging the courts with challenges against individual tickets claiming that they had been unfairly nabbed. At the same time, MPP Conway predicts that once people start receiving expensive tickets in the mail, the backlash will be explosive. “People are going to be enraged,” said Conway. “There won’t be a politician in the province whose ears won’t be burning.”
Drivers afraid of being caught may also try to obscure their licence plates. Across Ontario at flea markets and auto shows, merchants were doing a brisk business last week selling plastic covers which allegedly block the radar’s vision. It is not illegal to own or sell the covers, but it is against the law to block licence plate numbers. In Calgary, some drivers have taken to leaving their licence plates muddy, and in a few cases have taped over numbers. According to the Calgary police force’s Howie, that has just led to more serious charges. But as the program expands, drivers across the country will be increasingly desperate to dodge the invisible cop.
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