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Don't smile: you're on photo radar

You are being watched. From street corners and roadsides, bank machines and satellites, video cameras record our every move. For police forces, photo radar, street surveillance, cruiser cams and tiny cameras have become efficient crime-fighting tools, gathering irrefutable proof of criminal activity and deterring would-be lawbreakers. For others, video surveillance is an uncomfortable erosion of civil liberties, the unblinking eyes of Big Brother.

Talk about Robocop. Vancouver police have a new system to nab lead-footed drivers: photo radar. A computerized radar gun tracks speeding vehicles, then snaps a picture. A computer reads the license plate number from the photo and mails a ticket to the owner. In this clip, Vancouver police superintendent John Lucie sings the system's praises. He hopes that such media appearances will get the word out: slow down, or you'll pay.
. Doug Stead, a businessman from Coquitlam, fought a five-year constitutional challenge over a 1996 photo radar speeding ticket. He argued that the section of the B.C. Motor Vehicle Act that allowed photo radar was unconstitutional, putting the onus on the accused to prove he's not guilty. In 2001 he was denied leave to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada. Stead says he spent $120,000 to fight the $117 ticket.

. British Columbia used photo radar until 2001. Premier Gordon Campbell stopped the program as one of his first acts upon taking office.
. The city of Vancouver has tried several times to save the photo radar system. In 2001, Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen said he wanted the city to continue using the cameras, even if they are phased out in the rest of the province, to "see if they are in fact effective at reducing injuries and saving lives."

. In 2003, Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell called for the restoration of photo radar to combat street racing.
. Premier Gordon Campbell steadfastly rejected the idea of reintroducing photo radar, saying the program was simply a cash grab.
. With photo radar, there is no way to identify the driver. The owner of the car pays the fine.

. In 1994 CBC Radio's Metro Morning aired a vitriolic debate between residents of neighbouring cities in Arizona. The town of Paradise Valley had used the system for seven years, and was pleased with the results. Nearby Peoria adopted the system in 1990, but scrapped it a year later after a public uproar. You can hear the Arizona photo radar debate in our additional clips.

. As of 2004, Alberta uses photo radar on some of its highways as they pass through cities, but decided not to install it on rural highways. The program collects millions of dollars of revenue each year. Manitoba also uses a photo radar system. Quebec has recently considered it. Ontario used the system briefly in the early 1990s and is debating reintroducing it.

. Edmonton was the first municipality in Canada to install "red light cameras" to catch drivers disobeying traffic signals. The cameras issue time- and date-stamped photos, along with fines to the vehicle's owner.
. Canadian cities including Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto have installed similar systems. A 2003 Toronto study attributed a 20 per cent reduction in personal injuries to the cameras. The city has issued 20,000 tickets since it introduced red light cameras under a pilot project in 2000.
Medium: Radio
Program: Dayshift
Broadcast Date: Nov. 19, 1987
Guest(s): John Lucie
Host: Danny Finkleman, Mary Ambrose
Duration: 5:21

Last updated: February 7, 2012

Page consulted on January 13, 2014

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