Playground zone tickets are up in Calgary for the first time in years but police say it's not a cash grab
Increase came after police asked city council to use fine revenue to hire more officers
Calgary police issued more than 91,000 photo-radar tickets in playground zones in 2019, reversing years of declines in these types of speeding offences.
Data obtained by CBC News under a freedom-of-information request shows the number of tickets grew by 22 per cent, compared to 2018.
Previously, police had pointed to steady declines in playground-zone tickets as evidence that enforcement was working and drivers were slowing down.
Still, there were fewer tickets issued in 2019 than in 2016.
Scroll down for an interactive map showing all the playground zone tickets issued in 2019
Acting Insp. Steve Ellefson with the Calgary Police Service Traffic Section said there's no single reason for the increase in tickets last year.
He said there was no significant change in the number of photo-radar vehicles or the number of officers doing enforcement. He said it's possible photo-radar resources were more focused on construction zones in 2018, which was a particularly busy year for construction in the city, but said police haven't done a data analysis to demonstrate that conclusively.
But one thing, he said, is certain: enforcement decisions are motivated by safety concerns, not financial concerns.
It's estimated that the increase in tickets would have meant an additional $1.6 million in fine revenue for the Calgary Police Service compared to the year before.
"That's never something I discuss with my teams," Ellefson said. "It's never about revenue. It's about compliance and traffic safety. It's not something that comes into my strategic deployment in any way."
But on the other side of the radar gun, not everyone sees it the same way.
'It's about making money'
The growth in tickets came shortly after senior police leadership told city council the service wanted to hire dozens of new officers using increased fine revenue rather than by raising taxes.
"We're asking for 24 positions that will be funded through an increase in revenue in the first two years," Deputy Chief Paul Cook said on Nov. 27, 2018, during budget deliberations at city hall.
"We desperately need those positions."
The request came at time when police were dealing with an increase in drug-related crime and council's budget was already strained.
Andrew Beckler sees the timing as suspicious. As a morning-show host with Calgary's X92.9 radio station, he says playground zone enforcement has been a "hot-button issue" for years.
He says a lot of listeners believe police target certain zones where drivers are likely to unintentionally speed, but don't necessarily pose the highest risk.
"It's not about safety at all, and it never was," he said. "It's about making money."
And there's one zone, in particular, that comes up in virtually every discussion.
Elbow Drive S.W.
The longest playground zone in Calgary stretches along Elbow Drive S.W. for 600 metres through the community of Elbow Park.
There are two lanes of traffic in each direction, divided by a treed median and flanked by expensive homes on one side and the Elbow River Pathway on the other. On the other side of the pathway, near the zone's midpoint, is a small playground behind a fence.
There are roughly 1,200 playground zones in Calgary and this is — by far — the No. 1 spot for enforcement.
More than 15,000 tickets were issued here last year, alone. That's nearly 17 per cent of the city-wide total.
"People have speculated that maybe it's due to the high property value around here and wealthy people tend to get their own way when it comes to traffic laws," Beckler said.
"But I think the city is just keyed in on the fact that this a place where it feels like you can go faster than 30 km/h. And they know if they park a [photo-radar] vehicle here most days, they're going to make a lot of money."
And while total ticket numbers have fluctuated, the proportion of tickets issued in this zone has increased every year since 2016.
Beckler said he's not opposed to traffic enforcement, he just believes the methods being used in playground zones like this target the easiest money rather than the most dangerous drivers.
"I'm not the least bit anti-police — my dad is a retired police officer — and I don't want to see Calgary police have their budget slashed," he said. "But I don't think we can make that up by unfairly enforcing certain laws."
Especially in long playground zones on roads that are designed for higher speeds, he said it's easy for drivers to accidentally exceed the 30-km/h limit without meaning to.
How fast is too fast?
Charlie Pester is a former police officer who now works as a traffic-ticket agent with Pointts, a paralegal service in Calgary.
When it comes to playground-zone tickets — which are primarily issued by mobile photo-radar vehicles — he said a big factor is the threshold at which the units are set.
"That's where you're going to get the increase in numbers," he said.
"If they had the thing at set at, say, 15 [km/h] over [the limit], they're not going to get as many tickets written as they would if they knocked it back to 10 over."
Ellefson said police won't publicly discuss the threshold for their photo-radar cameras.
"I don't want to provide anybody with any thoughts that it's OK to do this much over or whatever," he said.
"Look, the speed limit is what it is, and you should not exceed that."
Calgary police also refused to release the speeds or penalties associated with playground zone tickets in 2019.
Previously, they had released the penalty information in response to an earlier freedom-of-information request for the 2016 to 2018 ticket data.
But when it came to the 2019 tickets, police cited sections of Alberta's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that allow for information to be withheld that could "harm the effectiveness of investigative techniques" or "hamper the control of crime."
Revenue in the millions
From 2016 to 2018, the average fine for speeding in a playground zone was $131.69.
At that rate, the tickets issued in 2019 would add up to just over $12 million.
The provincial government takes a chunk of that money but the bulk of it — about $8.8 million — would go to the City of Calgary, which then directs the money to the Calgary Police Service.
In 2018, the city's share of playground-zone fines would have been roughly $7.2 million.
These estimates are based on the ticket data and the assumption that the penalties associated with each ticket are all paid in full. In reality, some penalties are reduced or quashed, while others go unpaid, so the actual totals will be lower.
Actual fines and penalties — of all kinds, not just playground zones — added up to $58.4 million in revenue for police in 2018, according to audited financial statements. That was about $2.5 million more than had initially been budgeted.
Police spent just over a half-billion dollars in 2018 on their operations, so fine revenue covered about 11 per cent of that total expense.
"Our traffic revenue is substantial towards our effective deployment and operations of the service," Cook told members of city council last summer, when the audited financial statements were presented.
Financial statements for 2019 are not yet available.
Ellefson acknowledged the perception among some Calgarians that tickets are more about money than safety but said that is absolutely not the case, not even indirectly. He said financial discussions between council and senior CPS leadership do not filter down into their daily operations.
"In terms of what's discussed at the highest levels of the organization, that's not something that I'm involved in here in the traffic section and it's not part of our strategic deployment," he said.
"It really isn't."
Short and long-term solutions to speeding
As for why so many tickets are issued in some playground zones, like the one on Elbow Drive, Ellefson said the question could just as well be asked of drivers as of police.
"Why are there so many violators in this area?" he said. "Are we supposed to leave the area where there's a lot of violators to go somewhere else? That doesn't make any sense."
Ellefson also rejected the suggestion that going 41 km/h in a 30 km/h zone isn't worthy of a ticket.
"You can say 11 km/h over in a playground zone isn't much until somebody comes running out in the road chasing a ball. Now, all of a sudden you may not be able to stop in time."
That said, he also acknowledged that many roads in Calgary — including the Elbow Drive playground zone — were originally engineered to accommodate higher speeds and that kind of design tends to encourage people to drive faster.
"That's a really long playground zone, right? It goes on and on and on. So you have to wonder: Is there a piece that engineering could play that would improve driver behaviour in this area? I think the answer is probably yes."
He said police are constantly working with the city to respond to citizen requests for traffic safety through a combination of enforcement, education and road-design changes, but the latter takes the longest and costs the most money.
"I don't think there's any question that the actual best way to impact driver behaviour is through long-term engineering," he said. "And I know the city is working toward that. It takes time obviously. So enforcement is part of it but the long-term solution is changing the way our roads are engineered."
Playground zones near you
If you're wondering how much — or how little — enforcement your local playground zone has been getting, you can look it up on this map.
Each playground-zone icon indicates an enforcement location in 2019. The larger the icon, the more tickets in that spot. Click or tap on the icons for more detailed information.
Scroll around, zoom in and out, or use the search function to look up a particular address or community:
Map not displaying properly on your device? Click here for a stand-alone version.