The NDP government of the day brought photo radar to Ontario in August 1994. In the following January, the Ministry of Transportation released an interim report showing that the program had reduced speed on provincial highways and had brought in almost 4 times as much revenue as the program had cost to administer.

It was a controversial program to say the least, as the many naysayers viewed the methodology whereby a photo would be taken of the licence plate of the speeding vehicle and the owner (who wasn’t necessarily the driver) would be mailed a Provincial Offences ticket, as nothing more than a government “cash-grab”. The reality is that traffic offence revenue goes to the municipality where the court of jurisdiction is located, including fines from tickets along provincial highways. A small portion goes to the Ministry of Attorney General to cover prosecution and administration costs.

Regardless, the program was subsequently cancelled by Mike Harris’ newly elected Progressive Conservative government, 11 months after its implementation. The demise of photo radar was a campaign promise made by Harris and he held true to his pledge.

For those that regularly drove Ontario’s Highway 401 at that time – as did I, the slowing of traffic along the London to Kingston corridor was quite palpable. I am told of similar impacts in other locations. Radio stations were broadcasting listener-reported locations of the photo radar vans. Stories emerged of single drivers receiving multiple tickets for high speed infractions that occurred all in the same day. The topic was on everyone’s lips and undoubtedly on the “radar” of most drivers, so to speak.

There’s no way to predict how profound the longer-term impacts of Photo Radar would have been on road safety in Ontario – it wasn’t around for a full year. I also don’t know statistically what impact the program had during its short duration. But I do know that it was at least slowing people down – not all but many.

A number of Ontario’s municipalities have been pushing the various Liberal governments since to allow them to run photo radar locally, but to date that has not been approved, although “Red Light Cameras” have.

Most recently, Toronto’s Mayor John Tory has asked Premier Kathleen Wynne to allow photo radar in his city. He publicly cited his desire to “…use technology in place of uniform police officers. This will allow for more efficient deployment of expensive, highly trained police officers…”. There was no immediate commitment on the Premier’s part, but she certainly wasn’t dismissive of the idea either.

I support photo radar. The few concerns I have about it are unchanged from those I had during its initial roll-out.

Firstly, although there are other offences within Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act that allow for the charging of an owner as opposed to the actual driver of a motor vehicle, it still bugs me.

Secondly, but more concerning is the notion that photo radar somehow “replaces” police officers as opposed to “supplementing” what they do to enforce the laws and reduce traffic collisions. Police services still need uniformed visibility at the right place and time to sufficiently impact driver behavior, based on statistical analysis. A photo radar device on a pole or in an unmarked van that is placed in a problematic area might slow down anyone who gets mailed a ticket because of an infraction there – after the fact, but a marked car will cause immediate slowdowns.

As well, impaired driving and other serious violations are very often uncovered when officers are interacting with drivers they’ve stopped for all traffic violations – including speeding. Photo radar cannot accomplish that. It only focuses on speeding. There is no personal interaction with offenders whatsoever. Police officers enforce all traffic laws if they see an infraction and many of those offences are not speeding violations.

There may be less officers doing traffic enforcement work in a number of the larger municipalities if photo radar returns, but there has to be some. It is a fact that in the majority of Ontario’s municipalities there are less than 10 officers working at any given time. In many, there are less than 5. They can’t cut 1 or 2 officers out of a platoon simply because photo radar has made a triumphant return. As well, employees are needed to run the equipment and administer the associated processes.

Lastly, traffic enforcement –including photo radar, needs to be about saving lives by changing driver behavior and/or removing the habitual offenders from the roads by suspending their driving privileges. The ultimate goal is to see police never having to lay a traffic ticket, because everyone is obeying the laws and people are not getting maimed and killed through vehicle collisions. That wouldn’t bolster municipal government revenue streams but it would save a pile of lives and reduce the number of grieving families.

Photo radar is a valuable tool in my view, but should not be all about revenue generation. If it is, then those that allege it is only a “cash-grab” will be correct.

Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.