“Traffic Safety” Initiative in Quebec Lines Local Government Coffers

In 2009 the government of Quebec launched a traffic safety initiative, which included the installation of photo radar devices. Part of the project’s appeal was the promise from officials to allot portions of the revenue generated from fines to other road safety measures, in addition to victims of traffic accidents.

Four years later, not a cent has been spent in those areas. Exposing the issue, a recent headline in the Montreal Gazette reads, “Photo radar revenue sits unused,” which conjures the image of a group of officials twiddling their thumbs.

One of those officials, former Transport Minister Pierre Moreau, insisted two years ago — after further complaints from the opposition — that any revenue not used for traffic devices would be spent on further measures for road safety, and as compensation for traffic victims.

“We don’t have a choice, it’s in the law,” said Moreau at the time, referencing the law which states the fund has to be spent “exclusively to finance road-safety measures or programs, and road victim assistance programs.”

The article does show that the government has spent money, just not where they said they would. They have spent CAN$26.8 million on the purchase, installation, maintenance, and management of new traffic devices. Still, $13.2 million remains available for other purposes, but apparently not those that the law was intended for.

These devices do serve a practical purpose by addressing speeding and drivers running red lights. A February 2009 report by the US Department of Transportation states that 55 percent of fatal, speed-related crashes were the result of exceeding the posted speed limit (45 percent were due to “driving too fast for conditions”). According to Jennifer Wood at Esurance Blog, “red-light running is one of the top causes of accidents, injuring over 165,000 people per year, killing hundreds, and costing about [US]$7 billion in property damage, medical bills, and insurance increases.”

To a policymaker, increasing the presence of photo radar seems like a brilliant solution to three problems at once: increasing road safety, better allocating their officers, and, arguably their most important concern, raising revenue. Transport Quebec, in fact, simply waited for photo radar to become a “permanent solution” (effective June 2012), before creating a committee to allocate surplus revenue to other measures of safety.

While the traffic devices were installed with the intent to deter dangerous driving habits, it is perplexing that revenue-generating devices were installed before other safety initiatives were even discussed — especially since the government has repeatedly argued that the initiative wasn’t a “cash grab.” According to a 2009 article by Evelyn Reid at Canada Online, fines range from $154 for running a red light to $1,255 for speeding.

It is not necessarily in the interest of local governments to reduce the presence of these traffic devices. Menno Zacharias at Policing, Politics, and Public Policy relays the story of a Winnipeg police department that was asked to raise between $3 million and $5 million in additional revenue, in order to avoid politically unpleasant cuts or risk “grounding the helicopter.” This piece discussed traditional ticketing rather than fines generated by photo radar, but it shows an apparent inclination to reach for easy money from traffic tickets.

The supply of payments might decrease if people were to respond to the possibility of a higher fine by adjusting their driving, but a fine would have to be exceedingly high to eliminate speeding altogether. It is safe to assume that people will almost always speed, and if they are caught doing so, there will always be revenue from their offenses.

Consider this perspective from British Columbia, on the motives behind speed cameras.

An article in The Journal cites that in the county of Northumberland, located in the United Kingdom, even politicians are becoming concerned that speed cameras are being used simply to make money. This strategy became apparent when a camera was installed at a site with a low accident rate, while a particularly dangerous stretch of the A697 route had received no monitoring in a six-month period.

Councilman Glen Sanderson, deputy leader of the conservative group on Northymberland county council, points to the obvious ploy in stating, “It is an important road and one that appears to be ignored whilst, to the cynic, it would seem easy pickings lie elsewhere.”

Increasing the presence of photo radars might seem like a brilliant solution to a policymaker; it addresses safety and personnel issues, but it also holds major revenue-generating potential. However, if the government of Quebec wants to make claims about its concern for public safety, its concern should be reflected in its accounting.

A public safety project with nil safety activities but plenty of revenue-generating investments will be construed as a thinly veiled attempt to make money from unsuspecting drivers. Those who still believe their government wants to protect them might also think twice.

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