Saturday Special

Photo radar hits a bumpSpeeding tickets dry up as law student makes case

By: Geoff Kirbyson
1:00 AM | Comments (19)

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Motorists on Isabel Street are warned the camera is watching. ( JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES )

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Reader submitted this photo of a photo-radar van on Lagimodiere Boulevard. Note the ‘No Stopping’ sign beside the parked van and the overturned safety reflector behind it. Note also that no workers are in sight, but the couple was ticketed for failing to slow down in a construction zone. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

A COURT decision threatens to dry up a civic cash cow — its practice of ticket*ing drivers who fail to slow down for a construction zone even though workers can’t be seen for a country mile
In January, a third-year law student argued successfully before a justice of the peace that nine photo-radar tickets, snapped in idle construction zones, should be thrown out. The Crown has appealed, but pending the appeal, fines aren't being levied.
Critics of photo radar say ambushing unsuspecting drivers like this is a cash grab and has absolutely nothing to do with improving road safety, the original impetus for adopting the technology back in 2002.
The blatant disregard for the rules of the road shown by the operators of mobile units raised the ire of many Free Press readers. One couple, after getting snapped going through an unmanned construction zone, circled back to take pictures of their own. They show a van clearly parked on the side of the road without a construction worker in sight and a "No Stopping" sign in the foreground.
In February, Mayor Sam Katz responded by instructing Glen Laubenstein, Winnipeg's chief administrative officer, to ensure no photo-radar cameras are set up alongside inactive construction zones unless ongoing work presents some form of safety hazard.
Soft shoulders or narrow lanes are examples of such safety hazards, he explained.
"If none of those issues exists, there should be no photo radar up," he said.
Katz also said he's asked the CAO to ensure all reduced-speed warning signs are consistent, regardless of whether city workers or private contractors are working on roadways.
Dave Brickwood, assistant deputy minister of justice for courts, said staff have not calculated how many photo-radar construction-related cases have been put on hold since justice of the peace Norman Sundstrom's decision.
However, he said that by the time the issue is brought before the Court of Appeal, staff will know how many cases are hinging on the ruling, because if Sundstrom's decision is overturned, new trial dates will have to be set.
The Sundstrom decision will likely go to the Court of Appeal in mid- to late April. Brickwood said not all construction-related cases would likely be affected by the Court of Appeal ruling -- only those cases where tickets had been issued when workers were not present.
Jon Butcher, director of Canadian operations for ACS Public Sector Solutions, the Dallas-based company that operates the photo-radar system for the Winnipeg Police Service, said it has nothing to do with the placement of mobile units. That decision, he said, is made by its client, the City of Winnipeg.
"Certainly we don't put vehicles anywhere. We have no say in that," he said.
Butcher also disputed the notion that ACS was motivated by profit to boost the number of tickets issued. The city leases the cameras and other hardware from ACS.
"We get a fixed fee plus a transactional fee based on the volume of work we do, including the production of tickets, court packages and associated costs," he said.
Jodi Koffman, the third-year law school student whose argument formed the basis of Sundstrom's ruling, said she believes her case has become stronger in the past two months.
"The amount of support that's out there really starts to speak to our side," she said.
Koffman, who is scheduled to graduate this spring, said she's been overwhelmed by the public outcry.
"I never dreamed it would be such a hot-button issue. Sometimes it's good to have cases where the judiciary hears what the public is actually feeling and hears their sentiments. At the end of the day, the law serves the people. If the people have an opinion, they have a right to be heard," she said.
The entire photo-radar cash cow, not just the construction-zone segment, could end up as roadkill if Nancy Thomas is successful. The executive director of the Road Safety Awareness Group, a Winnipeg-based non-profit organization promoting safer streets and protection of personal privacy, has collected more than 1,100 signatures in less than a month for its petition calling for the elimination of photo radar.
"Photo radar creates no safety whatsoever," she said, noting numerous reports from jurisdictions around the world that have implemented the system only to find collisions increased significantly since the cameras went live.
She said she's "fairly confident" her campaign will ultimately prove successful. Thomas said her group will continue to collect signatures until next month, when it's hoped an opposition MLA will jump on the bandwagon and bring the issue before the legislature.
"The more exposure we can get, the better. Whenever photo enforcement has been put to a public vote, it has never gone through. We're going to push it with our petition. It could result in a bill being passed to repeal the legislation," she said.
MLA Kelvin Goertzen, the Tories' Justice critic, said he's concerned that police have an over-reliance on photo radar.
"It becomes sort of a crutch for traffic enforcement. There are copious amounts of studies that show traffic enforcement officers do a lot more than enforce traffic. They reduce real crime by their presence. One of the most common ways is criminals who are caught through traffic inspections, driving with an expired licence tag or driving recklessly. Police pull them over, they find out there's an outstanding warrant on them or they find weapons in the vehicle. That's a very proactive way to police. Photo radar doesn't do that," he said.
Ron Lemieux, minister of infrastructure and transportation, said the evidence shows that photo radar works in making streets safer.
"I've been advised that it has made a difference in areas where there were a lot of crashes. So the city is telling us that it is working where they've told us that they wanted to use them," he said, noting there are no plans to expand photo radar.
Thomas noted nine U.S. states have eliminated their photo-radar programs. Nearly two years ago, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the use of automated ticketing machines violated state law and deprived motorists of due process. That forced an end to the program and a subsequent class-action lawsuit will see more than 14,000 recipients of red-light-camera citations receive refunds of more than US$2.5 million.
-- With files from Larry Kusch, Bartley Kives and Aldo Santin