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Here's the really annoying thing about speed cameras: They work

Studies show they make drivers slow down, and cities are buying in
Alistair Steele
March 27, 2023

Phil Landry stands on the sidewalk in front of Ottawa's St. Pius X High School, watching the traffic go by.

This busy quarter-kilometre stretch of Fisher Avenue between Kintyre Private and Dynes Road is four lanes wide and arrow-straight -- plenty of space to pick up speed if you're in a hurry.

But very few of the cars and trucks passing under the watchful eye of a nearby speed camera, housed in a light grey box about the size of a recycling bin and perched atop a three-metre pole, appear to be exceeding the posted limit of 50 km/h.

Landry, the city's director of traffic services, notes that in the 30 minutes he's been there, he's only spotted the camera's tell-tale flash about a dozen times.

Before this camera was installed in October, 85 per cent of the vehicles passing by the school were clocked at up to 65 km/h, and one in 10 was travelling even faster. (Traffic analysts look at the 85th percentile to get an idea of typical speeds in a given area.)

When the city measured again in late December, the 85th percentile topped out at 56 km/h, and the "high-end speeders" had dropped to three per cent. In just three months, overall compliance with the posted speed limit on Fisher Avenue had nearly quadrupled from a dismal 18 per cent to 65 per cent.

"So we can see that they're very effective," Landry said, gesturing to the camera. "This is an important safety feature that is shown to work well, and we've seen that at the other schools [where] we've installed these."

Ottawa's director of traffic services Phil Landry said speed cameras have been shown to work well, making roads "safer for everybody."

Cameras multiplying

Last month, the city announced plans to more than double the number of automated speed enforcement (ASE) cameras monitoring its roads in 2023 from 17 to 40, and to add up to 25 more annually until 2026, creating a web of ASE zones so vast that it could soon become difficult to drive from point A to point B in Ottawa without passing through at least one.

Speed cameras to more than double in 2023

For the first time, the new cameras won't all be installed near schools or parks. Instead, the city will create community safety zones along notorious stretches of King Edward Avenue and Hunt Club, Walkley and Montreal roads where speeding has been identified as a serious problem.

(Under Ontario's Highway Traffic Act, the cameras must be installed in school zones or community safety zones, and must be clearly identified with signs.)

Like an increasing number of jurisdictions across Ontario, Canada and the world, Ottawa is counting on ASE cameras to slow everyone down, reducing collisions and injuries at the same time.

"Our goal is to get down to zero fatalities and serious injuries," Landry said. "And the sooner we can get to that goal, the better."

Evidence shows cameras effective

There's a considerable body of evidence from around the world suggesting speed cameras like the ones multiplying in Ottawa do alter our driving habits for the better, sometimes within an astoundingly short period of time.

A systematic review published by the Cochrane Library in 2010 analyzed 35 separate studies from around the world and found average speeds in the vicinity of ASE cameras dropped by up to 15 per cent.

In some places, the proportion of motorists exceeding the posted speed limit declined by as much as 70 per cent, although most jurisdictions reported a reduction in the 10 to 35 per cent range.

The review also found a general reduction in collisions near speed cameras, with most jurisdictions reporting a drop of 14 to 25 per cent. There was a corresponding reduction in injuries and deaths.

In Toronto, where ASE cameras are also proliferating, preliminary data released in August 2021 showed the proportion of vehicles speeding in 40 km/h zones dropped from 49 per cent before the cameras were installed to 28 per cent after, while average excess speeds also fell.

That analysis also revealed an overall reduction in speeding from a warning period in early 2020 to the latter half of the year when the city began issuing fines, suggesting the threat of a financial penalty can be a powerful incentive to lay off the accelerator.

Sharp drop in 'high-end' speeders

In Ottawa, where cameras were first installed in eight school zones in 2020, municipal data from the pilot period shows a 200 per cent bump in compliance with posted speed limits and an overall reduction in speeding, including a 72 per cent drop among high-end speeders.

"Speed cameras themselves, or automated technology in general, does have an impact on driver behaviour and compliance," said Rob Wilkinson, director of community partnerships with the Traffic Injury Research Foundation who also steered the Safer Roads Ottawa Program.

"Wherever the cameras are implemented, we always see an improvement in compliance with posted speed limits, which is really what we're after," Wilkinson told CBC's Ontario Today.

The technology has also proven to be a cost-effective tool for calming traffic in many cities, he added.

"Yes, it would be great to have a traffic officer stop you right on the side of the road and give you a lecture about speeding in school zones. But the reality is, technology is the best use of resources that we have," Wilkinson said.

"I would rather have that same traffic officer out there dealing with impairment, cell phone usage and some of the other kinds of key issues on our roads that we actually need that human-to-human interaction for."

Cash-grab criticism

If earning revenue were the only goal, Ottawa's cameras have already proven their worth.

Last year, the city's 17 ASE cameras generated 127,939 speeding tickets, up from 80,944 the previous year when there were only eight cameras in operation.

In its three months of operation last year, the camera on Fisher Avenue caught 5,354 speeders in the act. A camera on St. Laurent Boulevard, installed last April, caught nearly 23,000, a rate of about 80 tickets a day.

The more cameras in place, the more tickets issued. The more tickets issued, the more money the city rakes in. Eight cameras earned the city $2.5 million in revenue in the latter half of 2020.

That figure rose to $5.6 million in 2021, and nearly $9 million last year as more cameras came into service.

Speed cameras are multiplying in Ottawa. This graphic breaks down how a snapshot of your license plate turns into money that the city reinvests in road safety, including more cameras.

According to the city, every penny is reinvested in road safety, which includes more cameras.

That's not cheap. According to a report to the city's transportation committee in October 2021, the combined annual cost of processing tickets, leasing and operating the cameras, and other administrative expenses totalled $225,000 per camera. (A portion of that cost is offset by ticket fees.)

The city insists their placement is entirely data-driven -- in other words, the cameras are put where they're needed most to reduce speed and prevent collisions, not where they're expected to earn the most money.

That didn't stop Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley from describing the city's move to place some of the cameras outside school zones this year as an attempt to "grab a whole lot of money to fund whatever their special programs are that they want to fund."

According to Dr. Emily Newhouse, medical health officer with Fraser Health in B.C. and one of the authors of a 2022 study into public acceptance and support for ASE initiatives in that province, the "cash grab" criticism is a common one.

"We did see that some folks had concerns about that," Newhouse acknowledged.
The 'no surprises' approach

Newhouse said the researchers were nevertheless "pleasantly surprised" to find a "fairly high level of public support" in the province for ASE.

They discovered that in order to win even wider public support, it helps for ASE programs like Ottawa's to be as transparent as possible about where the revenue is going and where the cameras will be. (Municipalities in Ontario are already required to erect signs warning motorists at least 90 days before the cameras begin operating.)

"We call it 'no surprises,'" Newhouse said. "So really making it so that people know what to expect so they have a chance to adjust their behaviour to comply."

While there's plenty of science showing ASE cameras reduce both speed and injuries in jurisdictions where they're in play, Newhouse said less is known about their deeper effect on our driving habits.

For example, do most drivers continue to observe posted speed limits even after they've exited an enforcement zone, or do they immediately hit the gas? And what happens after the cameras are removed? Does ASE technology have any lingering impact on road safety?

"We'll see behaviour change in the area where enforcement is present, and then you might see a halo effect ... sometimes in both time and space, you'll see a little bit of behaviour change in addition to that one location," Newhouse explained.

"I think it's likely that the more consistent enforcement there is, the more that leads to sustained behaviour change."

Back on Fisher Avenue, Phil Landry says he wishes the cameras weren't needed at all.
"I'd be happy if we didn't issue any tickets because that tells me everyone's going the speed limit, but unfortunately that doesn't happen," he said. "So we need these measures to keep our roads safe -- and make them safer."