Dawson: Exhausting, smug photo radar debate carries on

Tyler Dawson of the Ottawa Citizen wrote this brilliant piece on the photo radar debate. Reprinted here without permission:

The smarm and smugness that have accompanied the debate over whether Ottawa should get photo radar are indicative of the exhausting way arguments are conducted. This manifests itself, particularly, in the suggestions that people who don’t want photo radar are speed-crazed sociopaths and, from the other side of the debate, that photo radar itself is nothing more than a cash grab.

It’s literally true that photo radar is a cash grab; it would likely become a significant revenue source for the city. So there’s that. And some photo radar proponents likely are juice-swilling cyclists taking up lane space. But it’s also true that some people who don’t want photo radar really do drive like Vin Diesel wannabes and would prefer they remain able to get away with it.

None of these points, on their own, makes the case for or against photo radar or does much to discredit the other side, but they do reduce what’s actually a serious public policy debate to stupid quips. That will no doubt continue, even after last Wednesday’s transportation committee vote that referred a pilot project on photo radar to city council.

I, for one, rarely speed. I simply can’t afford the tickets – or worse, increased insurance premiums. So I’m not one of the aforementioned sociopaths and have no particular desire to drive like a showboating teenager. But I don’t like photo radar either; Edmonton went through a fantastically expensive process of getting it under city control and there’s been a long-running controversy over whether or not the city is lowering trigger limits on radar machines to reap more cash.

More to the point, the case hasn’t actually been made that Ottawa needs photo radar. There were 29 fatalities in 2014 on city streets; in Edmonton that year, where photo radar raised $34.5 million, there were 23. The transportation committee heard some profoundly weird arguments in favour of photo radar: for instance, according to the Citizen’s Matthew Pearson, that speeders are privatizing public space for their own convenience. This is obscurantist mumbo jumbo. And a petition in support of photo radar, showing 800 signatures – that’s well less than one per cent of Ottawa’s population.

The issue is whether or not city streets are dangerous. Are they? Is speeding the issue? Is photo radar the only conceivable way – or legitimately the last-ditch effort after all else has been tried – to tackle these problems?

Rightly, the city is looking only at a pilot project for now, and Mayor Jim Watson, backing down on his opposition, says he’ll accept it only in a school zone and only if the money raised goes to road safety. (Why has he changed his tune?)

“I believe this is a solid way forward for those who are hesitant about a widescale roll-out of photo radar on streets where it may not be warranted or for those who are concerned with the tool being used as a limitless revenue generating measure,” he said in a statement.

But does anybody seriously think that at the end of a pilot project, with the potential to raise revenue – and perhaps slow down drivers – photo radar is going to be abandoned by council?

Yasir Naqvi, an Ottawa MPP and the Ontario community safety minister, called Wednesday’s vote on photo radar a “bold step.” Politicians, ever eager to be seen to keep children safe, raise revenue without blowback and punish intransigence, are not likely to stand up to photo radar.

Ottawans should reserve the right to be suspicious of motives and what’ll happen if we get photo radar. There’s nothing wrong with worrying about this, or with wondering, as traffic fatalities continue to decline provincially, if we really need new enforcement technology or indeed more law enforcement presence in our lives.

Whatever the outcome of the debate and pilot project, an approach that tries to score cheap points over having a serious discussion damages public policy. And that’s no good for anyone.

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