Photo Radar in Winnipeg

This is the first in a series of articles that will examine the emergence of photo radar as a traffic enforcement tool, its implementation in Winnipeg and the future prospects for photo radar.    


Introduction: Why Photo Radar?

During the past two decades many police agencies including the Winnipeg Police Service saw an increase in the demand for police services.  In some cities the crime rate increased, while in others the crime rate was relatively stable but the complexity of the issues being dealt with required the assignment of additional resources.  Issues such as illicit drug laboratories, computer based crime, residential grow operations, auto theft and the increased sophistication of organized gangs all contributed to the complexity of policing.  These issues and others led to the creation of additional specialized units in many major Canadian cities.  These specializing units drew resources away from traditional areas of policing such as traffic enforcement and mobile uniform and beat patrol.     

As resources were being siphoned away from traffic units, traffic enforcement lost its lustre in terms of a career option for young officers.  Traffic units stopped attracting the brightest and the best young officers in the same volume as in the past.  Upwardly mobile officers with career aspirations instead opted to go to other specialty units that offered greater rewards, both short-term in terms of the type of work and the possibility to earn overtime, and long-term, in terms of promotability.  

In some cities this combination of factors resulted in traffic units operating with high vacancy rates.  Efficient traffic units promote road safety and perform a vital enforcement function.  A by-product of enforcement is ongoing revenue for the city from traffic fines.  As the number of officers assigned to traffic units shrunk and the enforcement capabilities diminished, some police agencies embraced photo radar technology as a means of filling the void.   Photo radar presented itself as a technological alternative to traditional enforcement of traffic laws (speeding and running red lights) that required minimal police resources in terms of personnel.  

In order for a new approach to be successful, the initiative requires the support of the public. Most jurisdictions that introduced photo radar did so in a staged and deliberate manner designed to garner public support for the road safety aspect of the program.   Among police there was a genuine belief that photo radar would reduce infractions, especially speeding and red-light running, and result in safer streets.  Most jurisdictions very carefully crafted their photo radar messages around the safety theme and were able, on the merits of the case presented, to convince the public that photo radar was desirable. This was especially necessary in Manitoba.  Photo radar required the enactment of the enabling legislation by the province.  This was a highly charged political issue.  After the experience in Ontario no provincial government was about to bring in photo radar legislation without significant public support for the concept.  

Although police genuinely saw increased traffic enforcement using photo radar technology as a safety issue, it soon became apparent that many politicians saw it primarily as a huge, untapped source of potential revenue.  In some cities this caused significant strains between police agencies and their civilian oversight bodies.  The foundation for a potential break down of public support for the program was laid when photo radar morphed from a safety issue to a political issue.  Projecting revenue expectations from photo radar as part of the budget process put significant pressure on the police to achieve revenue targets, not road safety targets.  By necessity police attention was diverted from the safety aspects of the program to the revenue aspects.  Decisions that should have been evidence based and related to safety became tactical and revenue based.     

The evolution of photo radar in Winnipeg is a classic example of what happens when politics and revenue generation overshadow the safety aspects of a program.  

Road safety issues are addressed in a long-term context.  Take, as an example, the impaired driving initiative.  It took many years of dedicated effort to change the public mindset about impaired driving.  This was accomplished through a combination of education, changes in the law and selective enforcement.  It took a generation for the attitude to take hold.  

Politics on the other hand, especially at the municipal level, involves a short-term mindset – often the length of the current term.  This contributes to a ‘ride that horse until it drops/ milk this cow until it’s dry’ mentality.   When photo radar becomes ‘all about the money’ the safety aspect of the program is eroded and public support diminishes.  

Winnipeg may need to redefine its vision for photo radar, clarify its mandate and rebuild the  almost universal public trust the program once enjoyed.      

Subsequent posts will examine: 

  • Photo radar technology;
  • Introducing photo radar to Winnipeg, the process;
  • The move from a road safety program to a revenue source;
  • Photo radar in Winnipeg – the future.