Northeast Calgarians wonder why their playground zones get so much less speed enforcement
Police say enforcement anywhere improves safety everywhere, but others aren't so sure
Esther Halton can still remember the sound of the car braking.
It was the early 1990s, not long after she and her husband, Joseph Hillby, bought their heritage house along Elbow Drive S.W. They were new parents to a little boy, Graham.
"We could hear the screeching," Halton recalled.
She looked outside and saw her neighbour rush out and put a blanket over a young boy who had been hit by a car. The collision, she later found out, left him with brain damage.
"That poor child," she said. "He would be in his thirties now."
Halton has lived in Elbow Park since 1989 and knows how much speeding goes on along Elbow Drive, a winding route that follows the river just south of Calgary's core, wedged between a green space and blocks of some of the most picturesque and expensive houses in the city.
But it's not just the memory of the injured child that sticks with her. It's the face of the man who was driving the car.
"[From] the look, and his whole body, I just felt like he may have ended his life — not physically, but mentally — on that day, knowing what he'd done to that child," she said.
"He looked like his life was destroyed."
After a series of incidents like this in the 1990s, Elbow Park residents rallied and demanded the city take action to improve pedestrian safety. City council agreed to put in a playground zone and, today, that stretch of Elbow Drive is — by a wide margin — the No.1 playground zone in the city when it comes to speeding tickets issued by photo radar. With nearly 39,000 offences from 2016 to 2018, it accounts for 14 per cent of all playground-zone tickets handed out during that time.
There are roughly 1,200 playground zones in Calgary, but data obtained through a freedom-of-information request shows nearly two-thirds of tickets over the past three years were issued in just 10 of those zones. Five of the top 10 are in the southwest quadrant of the city, four are in the northwest and one is in the southeast (in Inglewood). None are in the northeast.
And there, some people wish police would come more often with their photo-radar trucks.
A tale of two playground zones
The playground zone in Elbow Park stands in stark contrast to the one along Valleyview Road N.E.
Here, the zone is much shorter, and less clearly marked.
A sign indicating the start of the zone stands directly behind a telephone poll. In photos captured by Google Street View, tree branches obscure another sign marking the end of the zone. In between, a stop sign at an intersection lies on the ground, perhaps knocked down by an errant vehicle.
It was here that, in October 2018, a toddler was killed. He was three years old.
Still today, there's a big red heart on a nearby chain-link fence that was put up in his memory, and to remind drivers to pay closer attention.
Police say excessive speed was not a factor in that collision, but area residents have been concerned for years about drivers who ignore the playground zone's 30 km/h limit and no-passing rule, according to Larry Leach, president of Crossroads Community Association.
"There's a lot of speeders that come through this area," he said. "We get a lot of student driver vehicles. They're going very slow and people get impatient and pass them in the school zone."
The beginning of the playground zone is also at the bottom of a hill, with cars parked on both sides of the street. Leach said that makes visibility a problem, as it's easy for kids to to just "pop out" and catch drivers by surprise.
The zone also sees far less enforcement than the one in Elbow Park.
According to the data, Calgary police positioned a photo radar vehicle on Elbow Drive on 851 separate days from 2016 to 2018, or 78 per cent of the time. That presence led to 38,856 tickets being issued and more than $5 million in fines.
In Vista Heights, the playground zone saw at least one ticket issued on just nine separate days over that same, three-year period. That's 0.8 per cent of the time. A total of 15 tickets were issued, totalling $1,889 in penalties.
Leach acknowledges the area sees far less traffic than busy Elbow Drive, which carries about 17,000 cars back and forth on an average weekday. Valleyview Road, by comparison, isn't even active enough for the city to do regular traffic counts.
But even granting that, he sees the disparity in enforcement to be way out of whack.
"That's dramatic," he said of the numbers. "And that's cause to make you go, 'Wow.'"
Of course, it's impossible to say that a particular collision would have been prevented if only police had put a photo-radar van in a particular playground zone on a particular day.
But, for safety advocates, that's not the point.
For them, it's a question of risk. It's about reducing the likelihood of a tragic event — or, at least, reducing the severity of the consequences when such an event does occur. Reduce the risk across hundreds of playground zones over thousands of days, they say, and lives will be saved.
"To see some enforcement here would be a strong sign that people care," Leach said.
Cristine Centeno also wonders why photo-radar trucks don't visit her neighbourhood as often as some in the southwest.
She often sees drivers speeding through playground zones near her home in the northeast community of Falconridge, where she lives with her husband and four-year-old son.
"Nobody's there to catch them," she said.
"It's scary. Sometimes kids just run. Even if the mom's doing her best to watch the kids, especially young boys like that, they just dart off … and then they put the blame on the parents."
One of the busiest roads in her community is Falconridge Drive N.E., which sees about 10,000 cars per day in front of Falconridge School. That's about 59 per cent as much as traffic on Elbow Drive.
And yet, the playground zone on Falconridge Drive saw enforcement just 16 per cent as often as on Elbow Drive, and had just six per cent as many tickets issued.
Police, however, say issuing a ticket in any playground zone helps reduce speeding in all playground zones.
The deterrent factor
Traffic unit Sgt. Joerg Gottschling says photo-radar operators are mostly given free rein to decide where to position themselves, and they tend to gravitate areas where they know they will catch the most speeders.
And Elbow Drive has been a consistent hot spot.
Gottschling could only speculate as to the reasons for ongoing speeding along that stretch of road. Perhaps, he said, it's drivers who aren't familiar with the area who are getting caught.
"I'm sure the local residents are getting caught seldom," he said. "If you live in that part of town, you're going to know that that's there, and you're going to know it sees a lot of attention, so you're not the one going to be caught."
It could also be the length of the zone. At 670 metres, it's far longer than most.
"Maybe people start off going slow, and they just can't resist to step on that gas a little bit after they've travelled 250 metres within the zone," Gottschling said.
And he believes that, for many drivers, getting a ticket in the mail will be enough of a deterrent to change their behaviour, in general, in the future. So it doesn't really matter if they get ticketed on Elbow Drive or Falconridge Drive; they'll still slow down the next time they're enter any playground zone in the city.
"I would hope that if I give you a ticket this afternoon for speeding that that's actually going to transfer to the point where you're actually gonna stop at the stop sign as well," Gottschling said.
But Greg Hart, co-founder of Vision Zero YYC — the local arm of an international organization working to reduce injuries and deaths from traffic collisions — isn't so sure about that.
Hart says research suggests photo radar, in the first place, is less of a deterrent than getting pulled over by a police officer. The experience of being caught in the act of speeding and the stress and embarrassment that comes along with it tends to have a much longer-lasting effect in a person's brain.
And the experience of being penalized for speeding, he added, is "very localized."
"So if it happened to you on a particular highway or a particular place, the next time that you go there, you've had this emotional memory that that's attached to that place," he said.
As such, he doubts all the photo-radar tickets issued in the southwest will have much of an effect on speeding in the northeast.
He also believes police should focus their enforcement on zones where children are most at risk, rather than zones where they're likely to nab the most speeders.
Gottschling recognizes that many people are unhappy with how police handle traffic enforcement. He hears the complaints all the time: either they're doing too much, or not enough, or they're not doing it the right way.
But he says police have a primary and genuine concern to curb speeding and reduce the number of people who are hurt and killed on city streets — something he's personally dealt with many times.
"I saw a lot of death," he said. "I was the person who knocked on a lot of doors. I've been to collisions where children are hit. I will never, until the last day I work here, feel bad about giving you a ticket for speeding in a playground zone."
Halton, for her part, can understand how it may seem like Elbow Park is getting more attention from police than less affluent parts of the city.
But, she says, there are also some particular concerns with traffic on Elbow Drive, which serves as a primary route in and out of the Beltline for many drivers.
Back in the 1990s, one city alderman called Elbow Drive a "mini-expressway," as debate raged over whether to put a playground zone on it, to the chagrin of many commuters. Not only did the zone end up being installed, it was later extended. And the speed limit on either side of the 30 km/h playground zone was also reduced, from 50 km/h to 40 km/h.
Today, Halton thinks the length of the playground zone is justified. There's a school, a park, and sometimes kids playing soccer close to the road, she points out. The high degree of enforcement along Elbow Drive is a good thing, in her view, as she agrees with police on the deterrence issue.
"If you know there's ticketing happening here on a regular basis, that might encourage you to slow down here but it might also encourage you to slow down at other playground areas, because you start to think about it," she said.
And despite all that enforcement, she still sees — and hears — cars roaring down Elbow Drive on a regular basis, something she attributes to the design of the road.
"The fact it's two lanes, and divided, makes it feel more open," she said. "People treat it like a racetrack."
And that aspect — road design — is what we'll explore tomorrow, in the third and final part of this series.
- PART ONE | Calgary has 1,200 playground zones. Most speeding tickets are issued in just these 10 spots
Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at email@example.com
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With files from CBC data journalist Jacques Marcoux