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Alberta changing ‘cash cow’ photo radar to focus on safety, not money

EDMONTON — Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason says it’s clear photo radar is being used as a cash cow by municipalities and he is implementing changes he thinks will fix that.

“It’s my intention that we are going to humanely put the cash cow down,” Mason told a legislature news conference Thursday.

Mason also released a third-party report showing that photo radar generates about $220 million a year in revenue while reducing collisions by about 1.4 per cent.

Municipalities keep almost three-quarters of that money and the rest goes to the province. There’s also a 15 per cent surcharge for a victims-of-crime fund.

The changes are to begin as early as June with photo radar to be banned at spots where the speed limit changes on highways.

Also in June, photo radar on high-speed, multi-lane highways won’t be allowed unless there is documented proof of safety concerns.

Municipalities will also have to begin posting on their websites all upcoming photo radar locations and the rationale for putting them there.

Mason said guidelines on where to put photo radar are to be updated, because the current ones brought in by the former Progressive Conservative government are vague and ineffective.

He said a good example of that is a current rules by which photo radar can be run on any four-lane highway regardless of the number of accidents.

“But the question is: where do most of the accidents take place? If you ask the police, they will tell you that most severe accidents take place at intersections,” said Mason.

“And yet most photo radar is not deployed at intersections. It’s deployed on long straightaways where people speed, and the accident rates there are much lower than they are at many intersections.” 

Mason said no limits or changes are being imposed on police running conventional radar.

He said he doesn’t believe in scrapping photo radar altogether.

“There are cases where photo radar has improved the accident rate, particularly for severe accidents … so it’s not nothing, but it needs to be improved.”

The province will help municipalities determine the best areas to run photo radar, Mason said, but added that “where their locations maybe don’t improve traffic safety very much but generate a lot of revenue, we’re going to tell them to stop.”

Municipalities and police agencies will have to present by March 2020 a clear plan to use photo radar, backed up by collision data to prove it’s being used at high-risk locations.

Mason said the government is still working out how to make sure municipalities comply with the new rules.

The report comes as all parties gear up for a spring election, which must be held before the end of May.

United Conservative Opposition Leader Jason Kenney said Thursday it’s also clear to him that photo radar in some instances has been used “to squeeze people for more money.”

Kenney said more policy details will be released in the coming weeks. If his government wins the election, he said they would keep photo radar in playground and school zones but added “we’ll go significantly further in constraining municipalities that use this as a cash cow.”

The report says 27 municipalities are using photo radar. The latest revenue statistics from 2016-17 show that Edmonton took in the most — almost $51 million a year — compared with $38 million in Calgary.

Among the smaller centres, Spruce Grove, on Edmonton’s western edge, led the way by racking up $5 million a year.