Speed enforcement should be above board
Vancouver Courier
July 30, 2000

In last week’s column, I showed that the province’s speed enforcement program, in particular photo radar, is methodologically unsound.

Ironically, this program might never have become necessary if police hadn’t changed reporting procedures in 1994. Citing the top three causes of an accident, instead of the one major cause, inflated speed’s role in a crash from third to first. Consequently, the notion that speed is the leading cause of fatalities is nothing more than a fiction derived from padded statistics and unreliable crash investigation reports. To someone of a cynical cast of mind, it might seem as if photo radar were brought in to solve a specially created problem.

Yet for some people, detailed analyses like this aren’t important; they say photo radar slows speeders, and that’s all that matters. One anonymous caller to my voice mail even suggested that the province buy more photo radar vans. Such views are based on questionable presumptions about the relationship between speed and accidents, and of the cost-effectiveness of photo radar in promoting road safety.

First, fast drivers are not necessarily more dangerous. In fact, people who drive five to 10 km/h over the limit are statistically less likely to cause accidents than people who drive five to 10 km/h under the limit. One might infer from this that speed limits are set too low, and that drivers who moderately exceed it have a better sense of what a safe speed is.

Issuing tickets strictly on the basis of speed, with no allowance for skill, driving conditions or genuine risk of safety, is a punitive act that can only engender resentment and disrespect for the program, ICBC and the luckless, put-upon police officers who have to implement photo radar. This last point brings me to the cost-effectiveness of photo radar as a means to improve safety, and for this we need to go to California.

In 1998, Steven Bloch, senior research associate for the Automobile Club of Southern California, conducted a study at three streets in the city of Riverside to compare how photo radar and electronic speed display boards (with or without intermittent police enforcement) slowed traffic.

The data, collected over four weeks, was designed to answer three questions, two of which are important for our purposes: Which device is more effective in reducing speeds, and which is more cost-effective?

Although Bloch found that photo radar and display boards both reduced speed, the boards outperformed photo radar in every category. They produced greater speed reductions, and these reductions persisted farther down the road from the enforcement site. Also, the boards’ effects lasted longer after they were removed. When intermittent police enforcement was added, speed was reduced even more.

As for cost, there’s no comparison. Assuming that 100 cars pass an enforcement site every hour for 12 hours, Bloch put the per-car policing cost of photo radar at 39 cents (55 cents if the cost of equipment is included.) The per-car cost for an unmanned speed display board was one red cent!

In B.C., photo radar consumes millions of dollars per year. Once you add up development costs, police rental, equipment maintenance, ticket processing, capital costs and other expenses, it cost ICBC $10.74 million in the 1999–2000 fiscal year. For 2000–2001 that figure is expected to be $11.83 million, according to the attorney general’s ministry.

But photo radar is only part of speed enforcement. For example, ICBC also pays overtime police costs to conduct “corridor enforcement” (normal speed monitoring) on major routes. In calendar year 1996, this came to $200,000, $2 million in 1997, $4 million in 1998, $5 million in 1999, and $5.5 million in 2000—an increase of 2,750 per cent in four years. Drivers should be incensed that their premiums are being used to pay for services that should be funded out of general revenue.

How much lower do you think premiums would be if ICBC stuck to selling insurance? Unfortunately, ICBC makes a bundle from speed enforcement, which is why it’s addicted to speed. Penalty points bring in revenue, and drivers who have points pay higher premiums. Thus, ICBC is dependent on drivers to speed so it can collect money to help fund a program designed to slow drivers down.

A proper speed reduction technique would not have ballooning budgets or be dependent on punitive income. It should be effective, inexpensive and contribute to road safety. Speed display boards are the answer. All you need is a board and a volunteer. In fact, ICBC already provides portable radar equipment and reader boards and police are training volunteers under the Speed Watch community partnership program.

Assuming a board ($13,000) used 12 hours a day for 200 days, Bloch estimated the daily operating cost over seven years (with $200 annual insurance) to be $10.29. When four hours of motorcycle police enforcement is added over those 200 days, the figure rises to a mere $91.79 per day—peanuts!

Because display boards don’t depend on revenue, speed limits would not have to be kept artificially low. Michael Cain director of research for SENSE (Safety by Education Not Speed Enforcement) said limits should be raised on highways and arterial routes from current levels to the 85th percentile—the speed of the fastest car in the slowest 85 per cent of cars in the flow of traffic. If we want safer streets we need to have less-expensive, smaller-scale speed enforcement and stricter driver education, like in Germany.

Remember: Speed doesn’t kill—bad drivers kill.