Research shows photo radar makes roads safer

There’s been a lot of discussion about the utility of photo radar – more properly known as automated enforcement – on Edmonton streets. While drivers everywhere have opinions about the efficacy of this traffic safety tool there’s no question that using it helps decrease motor vehicle collisions, thereby reducing injuries, fatalities and property damage.

While this contention is well understood among international experts who study traffic safety, the proof, as always, is in the research. For example, in 2013 my colleagues and I co-authored a paper titled City-Wide Safety Analysis of Mobile Speed Enforcement that focused specifically on the City of Edmonton’s automated enforcement program from 2005-2009. We wanted to examine the relationships between the occurrence of severe collisions and the number of hours of automated enforcement as well as issued tickets based on violations of speed limits. We discovered an inverse relationship: as the hours that automated enforcement was active on Edmonton roadways increased, and the number of issued tickets increased, the number of severe collisions decreased. Incidentally this research replicated a previous study published in 2010, with exactly the same results.

In 2014, we also published an evaluation of the effect of automated mobile speed enforcement on urban arterial roads. We wanted to study the relationship between the use of automated enforcement on arterial roads and the change in the frequency of collisions. Our findings were consistent with previous research, indicating significant reductions in all collision severities and types, with 20.1 percent of severe collisions reduced in known photo radar locations. Perhaps the most interesting finding of this study was what’s known as a spillover effect – when people know that photo radar is operating on one side of an arterial road they reduce speed, and therefore collisions, on the opposite side of the road as well, where automated enforcement is not in operation.

While I love my work as a traffic safety professor and analyst, I always find it disconcerting to have to convince people of something that those of us who study such statistics for a living find so obvious, especially when lives are at stake. There is a fact, deeply rooted in enforcement theory, that over time the presence of automated enforcement saves lives. As people get photo radar tickets in the mail and learn about automated enforcement, their behaviour changes behind the wheel, they slow down and collisions are reduced. For this reason automated enforcement is shown to be a useful supplement to police on the streets enforcing speed limits.

I understand and respect the public debate about automated enforcement, as citizens have every right to hold their governments to account on all public policy. I can only hope that those opposed to the practice and who remain unconvinced by academic research will acknowledge as much, and perhaps examine the reasons underlying their opinions in the absence of these facts.


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About the Author
Dr. Karim El-Basyouny
Dr. Karim El-Basyouny, PhD. is an Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta and the City of Edmonton's Urban Traffic Safety Research Chair. His latest research on automated enforcement will be published at the next International Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in January 2015.
  1. Lis
    5 years ago

    Thanks so much Dr. Karim! One of the arguments I hear on a regular basis is “those studies can’t possibly have taken into account other factors and variables that could have been associated with a decrease in collision rates”. I had a read through the study and understand the use of monthly dummies and trend variables as part of your modeling – but I’m wondering if you could touch on this a bit more, or help simplify for readers who may have the same arguments against the research?

  2. Chris F Cameron
    5 years ago

    Will Dr. El-Basyouny explain the $47 million cost over-run in transitioning the radar to the City, and how the City generated an amazing $40 million in additional radar enforcement to cover the shortfall? And why no City official has been held accountable for the cost over-run? And why the Mayor just shrugged it all off? Will you Dr. El-Basyouny?

    I agreed with the use of photo radar UNTIL there was a cost over-run covered by an amazing increase in photo revenue to cover the shortfall. Taxpayers do not believe the $40 million in photo radar revenue was coincidental. What about it, Assistant professor El-Basyouny? Please explain this .

  3. smith
    5 years ago

    I cant understand how flawed this gentleman’s theories are. He spouts off lots of vague evidence that is factually untrue. On a Strathcona city councillors blog he spouts his greatest concern are repeat offenders with photo radar. Based on the article here the writer believes photo radar tickets will prevent speeders.

    This isn’t an opinion he shares its a fact that’s deeply rooted in enforcement theory that over time the presence of automated enforcement saves lives. As people get photo radar tickets in the mail and learn about automated enforcement, their behaviour changes behind the wheel, they slow down and collisions are reduced.

    The data the city has proves others:

    In 2010 and 2011 in the Edmonton Capital Region, 33,910 vehicles received more than 4 photo radar tickets. These 33,910 vehicles were involved in 6,710 collisions.

    So much for making our streets safer. So much for photo radar changing behaviors of the drivers we most fear on the streets. Can we retract some statements here that are proven with hard data not to be true?

  4. Nathan Smith
    5 years ago

    On one hand, the Institute of Transportation Engineers has published research that speed limits are too low. Speed limits should be set by determining the speed of 85% of cars that go on that road. Using the 85th percentile to set speed limits works for the majority of the roads and thoroughfares around the world. Edmonton isn’t a special case where politicians need to set low speed limits.

    On the other hand, we have research paid for by a revenue-hungry city that says photo radar is great and low speed limits are great. Conflict of interest, Professor El-Basyouny?

    Your study, paid for by the City of Edmonton (who’s agenda is to keep the photo radar payments coming into its bank account), does not mention any other factor besides enforcement and speed. If those were the only two variables in the universe, then I would support your findings.

    However, improving road surfaces, brakes, tires, automotive safety features, lighting and visibility, signage and driver education all contribute to lower collisions. None of those things are mentioned in your study, which means you’re not looking at the whole picture.

    Not having the whole picture is a big problem for people trying to make decisions about Edmonton’s transportation and roadway systems. That’s why people are asking for City Council to end the photo radar enforcement program. They know that the program is there for revenue generation, not safety.

  5. Anne
    5 years ago

    I have no issue with photo radar and support speed enforcement. However, I question the legitimacy of the City’s enforcement approach, and I am unhappy with the arrogance being displayed by the Mayor to the citizens of Edmonton.

    The fact is, the driving convention has always been 10-15 kmh over the speed limit. Personally, I think this is too fast and have purposely driven much slower than that, but it is what it is. The last time the City spoke out about the limit they would enforce, it was when we were debating whether to bring in photo radar at all, and that’s what the police said – “It’s not a cash cow, we’re only after extreme speeders, we target +15.”

    Two years ago, the City apparently started SECRETLY enforcing a lower limit. No hint, no word to Edmontonians. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a huge spike in PR revenue, tens of millions extra a year. Oddly enough, this also dovetailed with massive cost overruns from the City’s takeover of photo radar, which needed to be covered somehow. Coincidence? I have a hard time believing that.

    This state of affairs could have continued for years apparently, with the City staying mum about its new enforcement policy and raking in untold tens of millions. Luckily, the media got wind of it, Edmontonians started talking to each other, and everyone realized that not only did the enforcement change with NO NOTICE, but photo radar is being deployed very strangely, in transition zones, hiding under bridges, at tops of hills, where a safe and slow driver might inadvertently poke his nose over the speed limit for a few metres while making a safe and reasonable transition to a lower limit.

    The Mayor’s response, to paraphrase: “I am the lawmaker, you obey my laws. The limit is the limit.” Also, he is suggesting that anybody who breaks the limit – AT ALL – that’s right, 51 in a 50 zone – is guilty of criminal carelessness and endangering the lives of Edmonton’s children. That’s right – we’re practically all criminals, folks (except those who use cruise control and seniors who drive dangerously below the limit).

    I don’t know anybody trying not to fall below the flow of traffic who NEVER pokes his nose for even one second above the speed limit. I have NEVER had a photo radar ticket. I average the speed limit. But I certainly on occasion go 51 in a 50 zone, or 91 in a 90 zone, especially if I am dropping down from 110 kmh. What that means is I break the “Limit or li / mit” which the Mayor so kindly and condescendingly defined for me on his blog.

    I am tired of being lectured to and condescended to. The Traffic department needs to account to Edmontonians for their horrendous cost overruns and two years of secret change in enforcement policy until they were found out. The Mayor needs to stop targeting the vast majority of Edmontonians who are trying to be law-abiding citizens who conform with safe driving conventions and painting them as a danger to society. This strikes me as an irresponsible use of power.

    I have supported the Mayor and his strong LRT stance. I take public transit everyday and use my vehicle only on weekends for kids’ activities and groceries. But I cannot support him anymore, if he really hates drivers this much, and wants to penalize us all for trying to drive safely.

    I call on the Mayor to start listening to the concerns of Edmontonians. Yes, some of them are degenerate excessive speeders. But many are simply regular people who tried their best to conform with safe driving convention. We have real questions about this photo radar program. The Mayor needs to start answering those questions instead of proclaiming himself to be “the law.” It sounds like he thinks he is above the law.

    As for the rest of City Council – this isn’t a party system. I understand you are not required to follow the Mayor around. Do only a couple of you have any common sense?

  6. Chris F Cameron
    5 years ago

    This Letter to the Editor in October 10th Journal is well worth the read. It wa written by a former City of Edmonton Commissioner (1976 to 1984)

    Re: “Has city’s botched photo radar business plan led to more tickets?” David Staples, Sept. 5

    David Staples’ column last month sums up what’s led to “Radargate.” The current online petition may result in some public action in the courts and elsewhere.

    Here are my concerns:

    1) The never-spoken-about “grace” over the speed limit of 10 km/h has been a part of policing operation if not policy for as long as I can remember, not only in Edmonton and Calgary, but all of Alberta, B.C., and Saskatchewan. How it came to be is unknown; it may have been initiated by the courts questioning the accuracy of early radar or the question of whether or not 10 km/h over the speed limit was a real danger. It has become an institution that police and motorists mutually understand and accept.

    So, precisely which level of the city administration took it upon itself to meddle in this custom, lowering that grace to six km/h in March 2012?

    2) Would Mayor Don Iveson climb down off his high horse and acknowledge that someone in the administration has turned the city radar operation into a huge cash cow?

    3) Do the mayor and council recognize that people from other communities travel here for business, pleasure or touring? What happens when they come from a 10-km/h grace area to our six-km/h grace speed trap? Has any policy-maker considered the bad public relations from this money grab?

    4) Has the mayor or city council thought of the hypocrisy of their actions in just recently bringing Edmonton’s school zone speed limit down to 30 km/h to conform with our neighbouring communities in the face of this cash grab separating Edmonton from its nearby friends?

    5) Do the mayor and council have complete confidence the city administration will not twist, fudge or otherwise posture to cover up errors, mistakes or budget overruns on all the projects the city now has on the boards? I would be very concerned considering the lack of transparency of the administration in this example of “protecting their behind and to hell with the citizens of Edmonton.”

    Phillip H. Walker, city commissioner (1976-1984)

  7. Joanne
    5 years ago

    Can you please post your research here or post where it is published so it can be reviewed. Thanks, Joanne

  8. cory
    5 years ago

    If you want the roads safer and want to make money, just make drivers licences harder to obtain, too many horrible drivers on the roads. Bad drivers make the roads unsafe, not someone going 10km over the speed limit. Photo radar is just a cash grab, there’s lots of research to justify that.


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