‘I’m dreaming of a red light camera’

An intersection in downtown Kingston from the sky. Photo by First Response Media.

Last year at this time, I penned my second behind-the-scenes piece looking at municipal government in Kingston: a little ditty introducing you to our new, 2018-2022, city council. I did so to the tune of ‘The 12 days of Christmas.’ Corny, perhaps. But fun, I hope.

Yes, as one of my long time political mentors — who was only the fourth ever elected-female MP to lead a federal party on a full time basis (four other women have held interim leadership roles) — once said to me over lunch: “No matter your role in life, you have to take your position, not yourself, seriously.”

With that in mind, and in the spirit of good cheer, I offer my reflections on and information about the newly-approved red light camera program in #ygk, in the cadence of ‘I’m dreaming of a White Christmas’ with apologies to Bing Crosby fans everywhere.

I’m dreaming of a red light camera…

The dream became a reality on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, when Kingston City Council — in a close 8-5 vote — approved the purchase and installation of 10 red light cameras across the city. This move, I contended with seven others, is an integral part of our efforts to increase road safety for all and reduce accidents on city streets.

Indeed, red light cameras are one of the many initiatives under council’s strategic priority of “improv[ing] walkability, roads, and transportation.” Red light cameras are intended to work in conjunction with other efforts, such as the $127,000,000 active transportation implementation plan, the road safety plan known as Vision Zero, other traffic calming measures and technologies, police presence in our neighbourhoods, and individual responsibility.

Just like the ones I used to know…

Red light cameras were first introduced to Ontario in 2000 and are currently used in eight other municipalities. If you’ve driven through the GTA in the last 19 years, you may have passed under one (hopefully on a green) as cities such as Toronto, London, and the regions of Halton and Peel have employed them with great success and results in terms of reducing serious car accidents in the form of ‘T-Bone’ collisions. More on that below.

Where the camera flashes and motorists dampen / their speed before the white line except in the snow

This is incredibly important: Red light cameras go off after the light turns red and record any cars not past the white line of the intersection in question. In other words, if you’re already in the intersection (passed the white line) when the light turns red, you are fine: proceed cautiously. If, on the other hand, you enter the intersection on a red light and progress forward at all, you will get a ticket of $325. That is, if an enforcement officer in the centralized control booth can tell you’ve moved beyond the white line. For example, in a snowstorm, that would be hard if not impossible to discern, so you would not get a ticket despite your traffic transgression.

I’m dreaming of a red light camera / with every intersection I pass…

When I spoke in favour of redlight cameras (RLC) at council, I used only facts and figures on the safety gains from red light cameras, augmented by anecdote from the deputy-chief of police, and one of Kingston’s traffic constables/police officer’s compelling numbers and stories.

But what I did not share at City Hall, however, was my own personal frustration with dangerous driving that I seem to witness more and more. I have seen far too many people disregard traffic signals (the official term councillors and bureaucrats use for ‘lights’). From sitting idle on a green, likely illegally looking at a phone, to ramming through a late-stage amber, or worse, already-turned red, I can only say: PEOPLE, WAKE UP! DRIVING IS NOT A RIGHT!

We have been entrusted with heavy, usually fast moving, hunks of metal if we have our licenses. It is up to us to operate them wisely, carefully, and for the benefit of our own safety, and the safety of those around us. Of course, how the city designs roads will help create conditions for safe driving — narrowing and curving streets, for instance. We should not forget, though, that it is ultimately up to the driver to respect features of the road, including signals.

Indeed, I was once horrified to see a full-on metal-crushing, plastic-obliterating, car-deflecting, traffic-halting, driver-stunning, God-awful T-Bone collision. Why? Because the car behind mine, in the lane beside mine, accelerated through an intersection on a red. By some grace, no one was killed. Yet there were injuries and near death experiences when the speeding car ricocheted down the road in the opposite direction, out of control, jumping the curb of a farmers’ market, and landing literally a foot from a man in a wheelchair. It was unbelievable. Enter RLC: a proven means to reduce these encounters by up to 50 per cent! That’s not a theory, it’s practice seen in the data from most municipalities using them in Ontario. This is tremendous outcome for approximately 10 per cent of the cost of having corresponding police presence. (To be sure, my numbers on the price does not include the rebate we will get if/when people get tickets).

May you drive safely, not fast…

We should never confuse simply stopping at a traffic signal as good driving. In fact, it is the most basic skill. Other than avoiding the catastrophic collisions described, I don’t deny that red light cameras do little to promote better vehicular behaviour elsewhere, save for the ways in which red light camera free up traffic cops to patrol in different locations. Nevertheless, just like we employ tools to help people with other basic skills, this one should not be discounted, especially as it literally saves lives.
Not speeding, now that’s more holistic measure of street safety, for sure; and that’s where the already mentioned combination of road design and other efforts come into play. Yet, we once again confront the fact that even on a narrow, windy road, some deranged person might choose to run a red, speed, jump a curb, etc.

And may all your tickets be class!

Every ticket that is issued is a chance to learn (re: “class”). Some people will make erroneous claims about the ticketing process. Arguments include:

  • The money flows out of our community.’ This point completely neglects that in almost all instances of red light camera use in Ontario, most of the money comes back to the community in the form of a near 75 per cent municipal “forward[ing]”, $260/$325. Indeed, most provincial red light programs are revenue neutral, costing the cities essentially zero dollars over time. Even if we have no tickets because everyone learns to stop at red lights — which is the goal — and hence no subsidy, the cost of the red light program is still orders of magnitude less than stationing officers at the intersections, roughly $3M vs. $30M. When I asked the deputy-police chief about this, he said it’s unimaginable to calculate how much it would cost to have said constables 24/7/365 at 10 intersections. My math is one constable per intersection per eight-hour shift, with three shifts a day = three constables per intersection x 10 = 30 constables a day. Factor in overtime, holidays, and more, and we’d need 40 traffic officers a year, all of whom who earn roughly $90,000 per year. So you see, my estimate is actually conservative.
  • ‘There is no chance to appeal a ticket if you feel you were wronged.’ This is simply not true. There is a way to challenge fallacious penalties; remember, this is a government run program and, though it may be slow, it is still a public entity under democratic scrutiny.
  • ‘The money spent could be better spent on something else, such as automated speed enforcement, also known as photo radar in school zones.’ Thankfully, at the beginning of this month, the provincial government announced that this technology will be allowed for the first time ever. Where, when, how much it will cost, and who will be eligible is yet to be seen. As a council, we cannot operate on hypotheticals. For that reason, it was prudent and right for council to move forward on red light cameras so they can order and implement them as soon as possible (that is, by 2022) in order to free up staff capacity to pursue new avenues if/as they emerge, a time by which, to be very clear, the province may still not have given the details on photo radar. Even if those factoids are available at the appropriate time, council could ask for staff to reprioritize other undertakings in order to give the green light to red light cameras and photo radar at the same time.

Green light for red lights, which brings us back to the holiday season. May you have a safe and enjoyable winter, no matter what you celebrate, everyone!

Robert Kiley is Kingston City Councillor for Trillium District and a high school teacher. He writes a monthly “behind the scenes” Op-Ed article for The Kingstonist. He tweets at @robert_kiley.

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