Why we need red-light cameras

Montreal: My daughter saw the car coming at her, through the intersection, right through a red light. She remembers thinking, “Is he actually not going to stop?” It was Saturday, at 11:30 p.m., at the intersection of Cote des Neiges Rd. and Jean Brillant St. in Montreal. My daughter and two friends were driving north on Cote des Neiges. Their light was green.

The driver of the other car hit their car, pushing it around 180 degrees, into the opposite lane. Witnesses said he slowed down slightly, then kept going. A classic hit-and-run through a red light. More than a dozen Quebecers are killed every year because someone runs a red light. More than 330 are injured every year for the same reason.

By some miracle, no one was seriously injured Saturday night. Because she hit her head against the car window, my daughter was taken to hospital by ambulance, immobilized on a stretcher. But, as one of nearly 15 emergency workers who arrived on the scene explained to her, protocol requires anyone whose head is hit be taken to hospital. Tests showed she was fine, with the exception of a headache and some bruising to her head. Her two friends were unharmed.

All three are very grateful to the emergency workers and to the people nearby who rushed to their assistance and the doctor at the Royal Vic who stayed past the end of his shift to look after them. To say nothing of a driver who drove off in pursuit of the other car, managing to get its licence number.

The car was found and has been impounded, according to police. If, at the end of what can be a fairly long process, the driver is charged with leaving the scene of an accident, he will join a cast of thousands. In Quebec in 2005, 10,696 criminal charges for leaving the scene of an accident were laid in Quebec, an increase of 16 per cent over the previous year, when 9,120 charges were laid. When you think of how many people leave the scene of an accident without being caught, those numbers are a reminder of Quebec’s famously insouciant attitude toward traffic rules.

If police in Montreal hope to crack down on these crimes, it would help if they kept track of hit-and-run accidents, but they don’t. It’s true the penalties can be stiff: The maximum sentence in a conviction of a hit and run is five years in prison; it’s life imprisonment in the case of a death. But nothing is stiff enough to serve as a deterrent if drivers are not caught.

In terms of running through red lights (with or without leaving the scene of an accident), in Quebec, it is the main or secondary cause of 30 per cent of fatal accidents at intersections. Although in general, the death and injury rate on Quebec’s roads has been falling, the number of drivers who think they’re entitled to go through red lights seems to be climbing.

That is one of the reasons Quebec set up red-light cameras at 15 locations across the province. Traffic violations have dropped by 80 per cent at those locations. There were fewer accidents involving injuries and fewer accidents -a drop of 25 per cent for accidents and 27 per cent accidents involving injuries. Public support for red-light cameras -as well as for using photo radar in the fight against speeding -runs as high as 80 per cent.

Red-light cameras have proven not only effective, but also self-financing -an important consideration in a province crippled with high taxes. So far, the only decision Quebec has made about the red-light cameras is that they will continue to be used at the 15 locations until spring 2011.

It’s time the pilot project be made permanent and extended to all intersections where there is a high traffic flow or some indication of dangerousness. For too long, drivers have been allowed to run red lights with little risk of being caught, never mind penalized. As a driving habit, it has become banal. Hit-and-run accidents are only a little less commonplace.

This kind of attitude won’t be turned around without resorting to serious measures like substantial fines and suspended licences. But our family, my daughter’s friends and their families -and we’re all aware how lucky we were – think it’s time to take serious measures.

Photograph by: Phil Carpenter, The Gazette