OPINION - Politics and Road Safety

SoapboxThis has been an interesting week for road safety. The Provincial Health Officer has released a report, Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Reducing the Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes on Health and Well-being in BC, that suggests lower speed limits in residential areas and the return of automated speed enforcement as a means of reducing injury and death on our roads. Tom Fletcher is the legislative reporter for the Black Press in Victoria. He quotes Minister Todd Stone's response to the report:

"We believe there are more effective technologies that can be employed, and frankly a better way to utilize precious police resources than to resurrect what was largely a failed photo radar program that was nothing more than a tax grab for British Columbians,"

Hearing "nothing more than a tax grab" from Minister Stone tells me that he is positioning himself politically rather than speaking in terms of road safety. Who is "we" and what are those technologies? How does he qualify calling photo radar a failed program, especially when an evaluation by Greg Chen published in Traffic Injury Prevention finds that photo radar in BC was responsible for lowering speeds, reducing collisions and producing an annual net benefit of $114 million for government and $38 million for ICBC. That really means a saving to you and me as these are costs that are covered through taxation and insurance fees that come out of our pockets.

Chen, who is an associate professor at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, concluded the following:

Automated photo radar traffic safety enforcement can be an effective and efficient means to manage traffic speed, reduce collisions and injuries, and combat the huge resulting economic burden to society. The cost-effectiveness of the program takes on special meaning and urgency when considering the present and future government funding constraints. The application of the program, however, should be planned and implemented with caution. Every effort should be made to focus on and to promote the program on safety improvement grounds. The program can be easily terminated because of political considerations, if the public perceives it as a cash cow to enhance government revenue.

To me, this brings to mind Thomas Sowell's quote regarding politicians:

"No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems -- of which getting elected and re-elected are No. 1 and No. 2. Whatever is No. 3 is far behind".

Dr. Kendall's prescription for road safety could be a bitter pill for us to swallow collectively but I find it more likely to produce a cure than I do the reaction of Minister Stone. The leading cause of unintentional injury and death in BC is a motor vehicle collision. Collisions cost to our health care system alone $8.8 billion annually. This is three times the cost of our precious police resources, only a relatively small portion of which is dedicated strictly to traffic law enforcement.

I dislike arguing about the political and monetary costs of this issue. While it is important, being safe and not suffering harm from the use of our highways is far more critical on a personal level. Perhaps we can only see this after becoming a victim, assuming that we survive to consider it.

I have been reading your fine articles and today’s on the High Way Minister’s comment on photo radar and raised speed limits. I agree with your assessment. It’s interesting that some who post comment on your articles think that the speeders are unfairly targeted and that drivers who follow the limits or drive below them are the problems. Also some think that distracted driving is not such a big issue and may be addressed by future technology.

The comment on driver training and licensing is one area that  I think could be improved, based on driver training in Industry. All industrial vehicle operators,on our site, were trained and certified by a professional Instructor, and there was follow up on safe operation by a supervisor, to ensure that every new operator had the skills/knowledge to operate the equipment safely. Despite this investment in training and supervision, some operators would develop habits to get the job done more quickly or easily,and take some risks. All accident were investigated on our Industrial site ,and rarely was lack of knowledge of the rules,or mechanical failure a cause.  Most often it was  an issue of inattention, distraction or motivation. Rarely was there disciple involved but often those vehicle operators with repeat accidents were required to attend a defensive driving course or be retrained and recertified. Communication on safe vehicle operation was at least monthly in safety meetings and more often on safety bulletins. Rarely were there any injuries related to vehicle operation,and decades without a serious injury.

How might this approach be used to reduce collision injuries and deaths on BC Roads? Perhaps every BC driver should be required to have at least one training session with a professional driving instructor before

being issued/or reissued a driving license  .There needs to be system of retraining/education for drivers who have repeating offences and accidents. There needs to be some system of follow up- whether it is a police cruiser, drones, photo radar or other technology to motive  drivers not to speed excessively, drive impaired and distracted-the big 3 killers on our roads.

On our Industrial site ,some contractors would complain that following a few critical rules took too long. This is same attitude that our political leadership apparently have on safety on BC Roads. On our work site, it may have taken a bit longer, but not one contractor employee was seriously injured or killed-unlike many BC construction sites.

Not much is going to change on BC Roads with the present leadership in Government. It is the ‚ÄúWild West‚ÄĚ approach, which some of your posters support ‚Äďthey are dead wrong.

Hearing "nothing more than a tax grab" from Minister Stone tells me that he is positioning himself politically rather than speaking in terms of road safety. Who is "we" and what are those technologies? How does he qualify calling photo radar a failed program, especially when an evaluation by Greg Chen published in Traffic Injury Prevention finds that photo radar in BC was responsible for lowering speeds, reducing collisions and producing an annual net benefit of $114 million for government and $38 million for ICBC. That really means a saving to you and me as these are costs that are covered through taxation and insurance fees that come out of our pockets.

'Tax grab' is one of those emotionally charged terms that rarely stand up to scrutiny.  Especially when it's clearly a fine that is being levied, against an unknown vehicle owner, rather than a government levy on personal or business income.

I'll be frank: I detested Photo Radar when it was in use, because of the way that it was applied, even though I would readily support having Red Light cameras in 24/7 operation at every intersection.

Here's my point of view.  When Photo Radar came into use more than twenty years ago, the premise was that it would only be employed in high-collision areas, or on streets where local residents wished for control of traffic speeds as a safety issue.  And, at first, this seemed to be the case.

But before long, about a year I think, those unmarked Dodge vans with the little tripod behind them were constantly being placed on relatively high speed arterials.

What do I mean by 'relatively high speed'?  Well, your average driver actually isn't an irresponsible fool.  Generally speaking, your average driver will drive according to conditions, and the greater their experience and emotional development, the more they are likely to apply their own judgment to situations.  So if they're on a confined narrow street, parked cars on both sides, kids wandering about, they'll voluntarily reduce their speed according to the conditions - the speed limit has nothing to do with it.

But that same driver, on an open straight piece of road, with good visibility to both sides and ahead, able to easily identify any hazards or conflicts well in advance of any pending collision, will in all likelihood drive in excess of the posted (or very often unposted) speed limit, using exactly the same judgment skills.

So where did we see those camouflaged vans, with the hidden police officers?  South Granville comes to mind.  Southwest and Southeast Marine Drive.  Busy, multi-lane arterials where the vast majority of drivers would be exceeding the limit, and continue to do so to this very moment, so don't tell me that Photo Radar made a difference in driver behaviour or crash rates.

And meanwhile, the whole penalty issue had taken a dramatic shift.  Remember what I said about 'an unknown vehicle owner'?  That's the key issue.  So long as that unknown vehicle owner is able to pay, then they're able to speed.  Or let their kids speed.  Buy your teenage son a Ferrari, why don't you?  It's only money, when you're rich.

Thing is, the Demerit Ticket system is supposed to remove drivers from the road if they break the rules too often, or too severely, or both.  But two officers in plain clothes hiding in a civilian-appearing van with a radar behind it aren't going to be handing out tickets to anybody, are they?  No deterrence affect there, either.  They're hiding in plain sight, deliberately.  A quantum shift from having a marked cruiser beside a highway.

So I'm inclined to question the assertions and conclusions in Chen's study.

Now I did say that I'm in total support of Red Light cameras, more support than is being given to them by the authorities (who use them randomly, and sporadically), and you might wonder why.

Well, it has nothing to do with income, although that's always a good thing for ICBC, Police, Provincial Government, etc. 

It's just that I can't think of any situation, any time anywhere, that justifies driving through a red light.  Hell, you're supposed to stop for an amber, if you can do so safely; so there's no excuse whatsoever for running a red.  And the consequences that can come from a T-Bone collision, in terms of damage, injury, and death, are horrendous.

Plus which, if a vehicle owner, be it a company or a parent or whomever, was to be issued that ticket, I doubt that they would ever allow the driver responsible to operate their vehicle again; certainly not if they had any sense or judgment.  This isn't just about fines, it's about fundamental safety.

And of course, they should be able to nominate the driver who was operating the vehicle, in order to make them pay the fine.  Before they fire them, or take away their keys.