Traffic enforcement in Winnipeg an exercise in coin collecting

City officials need to make safe laws, not profitable ones

Photo radar posted along Henderson highway, were the speed limit is 60km.

If you have received a traffic ticket in Winnipeg, you are far from alone. In 2011, there were roughly 130,000 traffic tickets issued in Manitoba, and that number has been climbing. In 2015, there were nearly 200,000 issued. With these increasing numbers, some serious questions have been raised.

Founders of the organization Wise Up Winnipeg, Todd Dube and Chris Sweryda, began looking into traffic enforcement almost a decade ago. They found numerous flaws with Winnipeg’s system of traffic enforcement.

What are the biggest issues with our enforcement in Winnipeg? First, the fines themselves. Manitoba consistently has the highest ticket prices in Canada, and by Manitoba Public Insurance’s (MPI) own admission, “Manitoba has some of the highest speeding fines in North America.” What is the purpose of these large fines? MPI can give no good reason: a recent study by the Australian New South Wales government looked into the effect of speeding tickets and found that “higher fines do not reduce the risk of re-offending.”

Now, Manitoba speed limits are established at the speed at which 85 per cent of motorists travel down a given road. The City of Winnipeg claims to follow this method for setting speed limits in conjunction with engineering guidelines for establishing safe speeds. The city also acknowledges that “many studies conducted throughout North America have shown that drivers’ speeds are mainly affected by the context of the road and not by speed limit signs.”

Yet the city is not being entirely honest when it says it follows these engineering guidelines. One example of this is in 1989, when the province approved an 18-month trial of reduced speeds along Grant Avenue, from 60 to 50 km/h. After this period, director of streets & transportation E.W.J. Clarke recommended that “the maximum speed limit be increased from 50 to 60 km/h on Grant Avenue between Stafford Street and Kenaston Boulevard.” Another report, 14 years later, came to the exact same conclusion. Yet city councillors continue to refuse to increase the limits on Grant Avenue to the speed recommended by these traffic engineers.

Coupled with this, Dube and Sweryda argue Winnipeg does not properly indicate speed limit changes. This would mean having a set of two signs, one on each side of the road, to first indicate a speed reduction is ahead – a speed limit sign posted on a yellow diamond-shaped sign with an arrow pointing up – and another set of two at the spot of the speed reduction. This is so that large trucks will not be obstructing the view of any driver, regardless of which side of the road they are on.

Remember Grant Avenue – the street with an unjustifiably reduced speed limit because of city councillors? It is also an example of a street that has only two signs total, both posted on the right-hand side of the road. There are these heavily enforced roads where speed limits are – by the admission of traffic engineers – too low, and also inadequately signed to inform motorists of the speed. This is effectively setting up motorists to be unfairly ticketed, since they will often be inadvertently breaking the law.

Dube asserted that “The only cities [in which] you will find these abuses are the cities with camera enforcement contracts,” – such as Winnipeg. The city contracts its enforcement to Xerox Business Solution Canada Inc., a subsidiary of the multinational corporation Xerox, and the mobile photo enforcement program alone had a revenue of over $17 million in 2015 – over $5 million of that going to Xerox directly.

If this were not enough, mobile enforcement vehicles are constantly enforcing reduced speeds in school zones on provincial and national holidays. This is yet another clear abuse of power for the sake of profit. The city cannot claim that these enforcement tactics are for the sole purpose of “enhancing traffic safety” when they continue to enforce the speeds around schools when there are no children attending.

Another issue with Winnipeg’s traffic camera system is amber light durations. Winnipeg uses a fixed four-second amber light city-wide. Regardless of whether you are travelling at 50 or 80 km/h, you will have exactly the same amount of time to decide whether you will safely make it through the intersection.

Many cities have moved away from this, and retired engineer David Grant – who sat on a panel to investigate complaints lodged against Winnipeg transportation manager Luis Escobar – goes so far as to say that the practice of fixed four-second times is “profitable, dangerous, and also illegal.” A case study from Fairfax County, Virginia, showed that an increase of 1.5 seconds resulted in a 94 per cent drop in citations. These numbers are very similar to those in other states like Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, California, and Texas, all of which increased their yellow light times and experienced a reduction in red-light running, collisions, or both.

MPI named the top five intersections in Winnipeg for crashes between 2005 and 2014, and there were a combined total of nearly 10,000 collisions. Sergeant Rob Riffel of the Winnipeg Police Service’s idea of tackling the problem? More enforcement, and more fines.

That is exactly the problem. You have someone like Sgt. Rob Riffel, who sits on the Chiefs of Police/Manitoba Public Insurance Road Safety working group. Yet Riffel’s actions indicate a greater interest in the fines to be collected than actually speaking with the engineers who make a living improving road safety.

By just taking a preliminary look into traffic enforcement, what we see is the City of Winnipeg grossly profiting from poorly engineered streets, and effectively ignoring the thousands of collisions that result by refusing to make any kind of change beyond fining motorists. Why is this? The hundreds of thousands of tickets given out every year result in millions of dollars in revenue for Winnipeg’s operating budget. The goal of these enforcements of law should not be to enrich a multinational corporation and a city eager to make a quick buck. It should be in the interest of the safety of motorists.