Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair announced today that he was endorsing the idea of bringing back photo radar cameras for busy Toronto intersections. Call it a blast from the past, as the older amongst you may remember the year 1994 and the Bob Rae government's 11 month experiment with the technology, which, unbeknownst to them at the time, was one of the last straws the Ontario NDP levied on the back of the people of the province before being replaced by Mike Harris' PCs in 1995.
But in the here and now, Blair's justifications are squarely fiscal: with Toronto City Council unwilling to consider increased funding for policing in the 2013 budget, Blair says that placing the devices at key intersections will free up officers to perform other duties rather than standing on a street corner and issuing citations. It's a smart way to frame it considering that the photo radar experiment in the 90s was characterized by opponents as a blatant tax grab. And although some are ready to paint photo radar 2.0 in a similar light, there's another reason photo radar might be a good idea: drivers are crazy.
While walking past a fast food restaurant around the lunch hour the other day, I noticed something bizarre. In the parking lot were several cars, and in them were people munching on their burgers and fries. And just a few feet away was a restaurant with tables and chairs, which was half empty. What does this have to do with photo radar? It plays to the fact that many of us fetishize our automobiles. They're an extension of us, and our homes. In fact, if you commute there's a good chance that you spend more time on an average weekday in your car than in your house, which might be one of the reasons why people think they're justified in driving exactly the way they want on city streets.
It's a disturbing trend I've noticed that along with speed and distractions, there's a perception seemingly with most drivers that they own the road. In much of the recent discussion about bikes and bike lanes many have pointed out that a lot of bikers still ride on the sidewalk, and if you are a bike rider I don't blame you. The roads are dangerous, and it sometimes seems that the thin white line between bike lane and car lane is not nearly enough space when cars are trying to duck and swerve around traffic, especially at the speeds they're driving at.
But at least on a bike there's some kind of feeling of parity with the rest of traffic, false though it maybe. Try being a pedestrian out on the streets. Try walking across the road, with the signals, at a busy intersection. I have, and I do, and there's nothing quite like the feeling of the breeze at your back as a car turns a corner barely missing you by a couple of feet. There's also that great feeling of menace as that car in the corner of your peripheral vision creeps around the corner coming towards you, as if to say, "Hurry up! All your walking is making it harder for me to get where I want to go!"
It's as if some drivers have forgotten that they share the road with people who aren't necessarily in cars, and it seems that in a city that always prides itself (or derides itself, as the case may be) for being Green, a lot of people are forgetting that. If I were King of the World, or even just King of Guelph, I would set up photo radar at intersections to not just catch speeders, but to catch people who are acting threatening to pedestrians. Of course, that's largely subjective, but let's be honest, so are a lot of the tickets and citations handed out by police and by-law officers.
But since I'm not King of Guelph, or the World, I'll settle for a public shaming. The following is a list of license plates I've jotted down in my travels the last couple of months. They belong to cars owned by drivers whose behaviour I thought was threatening to my safety or the safety of others while crossing the road.
As to the age-old critique that photo radar is a tax grab, let's be honest: if you're following the rules of the road, what do you have to worry about? I know, any law school student will tell you that argument doesn't hold water if the police try to execute an unwarranted search of your vehicle if they should happen to pull you over, but when the car's in motion, it's not just a personal conveyance, it's a potential battering ram on wheels. And since many of us seem to feel a symbiotic relationship with our car, maybe finding a reason to promote more responsibility is not such a bad thing.