It’s September and Toronto’s congested roads are growing busier with buses and parents ferrying children to and from school, adding to the artery-clogging disorder in the morning and afternoon.
Increasingly, the city is turning to automated traffic cameras to help keep Toronto’s drivers in check and improve road safety for everyone.
Canada’s largest city first installed red-light cameras in 2000 as part of the Ontario red-light camera pilot project. Starting with 10 units, the program was expanded over time as statistics showed cameras reduce “angle collisions,” or T-bone accidents, at busy intersections.
“Injuries and fatalities have decreased where red-light cameras were installed. As a percentage, injuries were reduced by 23 per cent and fatalities by 40 per cent,” City of Toronto spokesperson Hannah Stewart said.
“As part of the city’s Vision Zero Road Safety plan, it is critical that the city continues to take action to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries at signalized intersections by implementing and maintaining existing safety countermeasures.”
Vision Zero prioritizes the safety of vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, school children, cyclists and motorcyclists, with several comprehensive, data-driven initiatives. Ever-vigilant cameras play an outsized role in the plan.
Red-light cameras detect and capture images of vehicles entering an intersection while facing a red signal. The digital photos are reviewed by provincial offence officers and tickets are mailed to the owner of the vehicle, regardless of who was driving. The program is focused on altering driver behaviour to decrease red-light running and enhance safety.
Upon conviction, the only penalty is a fine, typically $325. No demerit points are involved, nor will anyone’s driving record be impacted because the technology cannot discern the identity of the driver.
“The city is not currently investigating options to identify individual drivers using the red-light camera system,” Stewart said in an email.
Intersections are selected for camera monitoring based on collision data at each location, including fatalities and injuries. The cameras are permanently installed, and signs are posted to inform motorists of red-light cameras in operation (there is a map showing their locations on the Toronto.ca
The busiest cameras in 2021 were at Bayview Avenue and Truman Road in North York where 3,679 convictions were recorded. The intersection at Kennedy Road and Highway 401 in Scarborough gets a special mention because the 2,664 convictions last year were less than half of the 5,641 tickets issued in 2018, demonstrating that cameras can be a deterrent.
A common perception of drivers is that many red-light cameras are broken and can’t record offences. Stewart sets the record straight.
“The percentage of cameras offline averages around five per cent,” she said. “The city has a rigorous program in place for maintaining red-light cameras and is modernizing the cameras to reduce maintenance and downtime. The number of cameras offline is typically highest in the summer when nearby construction impacts their use.”
A red-light camera is often turned off near construction activity for the safety of the equipment and the workers; for example, when the electrical wires that power the camera are part of an excavation site. Cameras may also be removed temporarily so that they’re not damaged by construction equipment.
Red-light cameras also are used to enforce another rule of the Highway Traffic Act, which states that vehicles can turn right on a red light only after coming to a complete stop. The technology senses when a vehicle is turning and will issue a ticket if the car doesn’t come to a full stop at a red light before making the turn, said Stewart.
With red-light cameras keeping vigilance over busy intersections, the City of Toronto explored the idea of installing automated speed enforcement cameras in the vicinity of school zones to capture speeders. The Ontario government passed enabling regulations allowing municipalities to operate an Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE) program in 2019.
ASE uses a camera and a measurement system to detect and photograph vehicles travelling faster then the posted speed limit. The evidence is processed at a central facility and the only penalty is a fine, often as little as $105.
As with red-light cameras, no demerit points are issued by the Ministry of Transportation, nor will the registered owner’s driving record be impacted. However, vehicles that have exceeded the posted speed limit by 50 kilometres per hour or more will see a summons issued to the registered owner to appear before a Justice of the Peace.
Fifty ASE systems are installed in community safety zones adjacent to Toronto schools, with two allocated per ward to ensure even distribution. Locations are chosen based on data that compares speeding and collision incidence rates.
Unlike red-light cameras, speed cameras change locations every three to six months, providing an opportunity to address a greater number of areas with safety concerns. Residents can request a speed camera in their neighbourhood should they feel speeding is an issue. “Coming soon” warning signs are posted 90 days before ticketing begins at any new location.
The proliferation of both red-light and speed cameras has pundits claiming that the program is all about boosting revenue for the city and not about improving safety. Not so, said Sean O’Connor, director of TicketSave.ca, a paralegal service.
“It’s good governance. The use of cameras helps motorists become better, safer drivers because getting photographed is not as intrusive as being charged by the police under the Highway Traffic Act, so you’re getting a second chance to do better,” O’Connor said.
It’s an interesting perspective from the owner of a business that doesn’t profit from the growth in traffic cameras, since clients don’t see much need to challenge fines in court.
“It’s not about punishment. The intended purpose is to improve driver behaviours. As the father of two young girls, I’m glad the cameras are out there,” he said. “And I’m a driver, too.”
In their first year of operation, Toronto’s 50 speed cameras issued a total of 227,322 speeding tickets, generating more than $23 million in revenue – although the cost of the technology and the staffing to process the tickets made it a zero-sum game. Still, it hasn’t deterred city council from ordering 25 more cameras to be installed next year.
Does O’Connor have any tips for motorists who want to avoid receiving a gotcha photo and ticket in the mail? “Yes, leave five or 10 minutes early. It costs you nothing, but you save gas and insurance – and maybe a life.”