Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The public wants photo radar - why is Campbell saying no

It's getting harder and harder to figure out Premier Gordon Campbell's opposition to photo radar.
The statistics suggest the Liberals' decision to cancel photo radar in 2001 has cost about 50 lives a year and thousands of injuries. Tragedies for the individuals and their families; a waste of human potential; and a major health-care cost.
Campbell is seen as a pretty pragmatic politician - look at the big swings on First Nations and climate change. You'd expect him to accept the reality that photo radar works. Crashes and deaths are both reduced.
I attributed the reluctance to an unwillingness to admit a mistake and the fear of a public backlash.
But last month Ipsos-Reid asked British Columbians how they felt about photo radar and red-light cameras.
The support was overwhelming for both, surprising even for those - like me - who figured the public recognized the common-sense benefits of deterring speeding drivers.
The poll, done for the Canada Safety Council, asked people across Canada about the devices.
Almost 90 per cent of British Columbians, and 84 per cent of Canadians, supported the use of photo radar in school zones.
Almost three out of four British Columbians supported the use of photo radar on highways, compared with 69 per cent of Canadians. And 84 per cent of British Columbians supported red-light cameras.
So there's no risk of a real political problem. In fact, it seems the public would welcome a measure that made life safer for their families.
It all makes the refusal to act baffling.
The evidence is overwhelming that photo radar works.
Before B.C. introduced photo radar in 1996, an average of 510 people had died annually in the five preceding years.
For the almost six years photo radar was in operation, the average annual death rate was 412 - almost 100 fewer lives lost per year to crashes.
The Liberals acted on their campaign promise and killed photo radar in 2001. And in the next three years, the average number of deaths increased to 449, an average 37 additional deaths per year.
A study done on B.C.'s first year of photo radar found "a dramatic reduction of speed" at deployment sites. "The analysis found a 25-per-cent reduction in daytime unsafe-speed-related collisions, an 11-per-cent reduction in daytime traffic collision victims carried by ambulances and a 17-per-cent reduction in daytime traffic collision fatalities," the study reported.
Almost 20 per cent fewer deaths.
The people who object to the cameras can come up with explanations.
But a major Australian review last year analyzed data from 26 photo radar studies done around the world. The number of crashes was reduced by between 14 per cent and 72 per cent once photo radar was installed, it reported.
Fatalities were reduced by an even more dramatic 40 to 46 per cent - cut almost in half.
Photo radar - or speed cameras, as they're called now - isn't a cure-all. It would be more effective to have increased policing. The survey found that 42 per cent of Canadians thought there should be more traffic enforcement - roadside checks, radar, speed traps and the general visibility of police. Only seven per cent thought there was too much enforcement.
But police officers are expensive. Speed cameras, done right, are cheap. The old B.C. system used vans. Other jurisdictions set up permanent camera boxes in appropriate locations - school zones, stretches of highway with a high rate of crashes. They rotate the actual cameras between sites.
So for very little money, speeds are reduced in dangerous areas, there are fewer crashes and lives are saved.
Sometimes people would get tickets they don't deserve, because they loaned their cars to someone. But most of us would want to know if someone - a child, perhaps - was driving our vehicle at high speed.
The public backs photo radar. It saves lives, reduces health-care costs and protects families.
How long can the government keep saying no?
Footnote: The government hasn't come up with any reason for its position. Solicitor General John Les has even turned down a request for speed cameras on the deadly Patullo Bridge. The RCMP want them; they say enforcement is too dangerous. ICBC and Surrey council say the cameras are needed to save lives.
But the government won't budge.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

James and the politics of leadership

NDP leader Carole James took quite a little beating for her muddled responses to the treaty ratification by the Tsawwassen First Nation.
Mostly deserved, I'd say. James was attempting to explain why the party hadn't taken any position on the treaty in the months leading up to the vote.
It was out of respect, she said. The choice to accept the deal - or not - was up to the First Nation.
James said she decided the party's position should be kept secret to avoid any appearance of telling the Tsawwassen what to do.
So how does the party feel about the coming Maa-Nulth treaty vote, James was asked.
We hope it passes, she said. (It did.)
Which raised the obvious question: Why wasn't James staying silent on that treaty ratification vote out of respect, as well?
Right. I should have, said a stumbling James. Oops.
Not a great leadership moment.
And confirmation, I'd say, of suspicions that the New Democrats' silence on the Tsawwassen deal was based more on a desire to avoid airing their public divisions than on any principle.
The party is pro-treaty. An NDP government fought for the Nisga'a treaty, while Gordon Campbell staged a long battle against the deal, trying to stall approval in the legislature and challenging it in court.
But the NDP has also taken the Agricultural Land Reserve as a sacred cause.
The Tsawwassen treaty includes a transfer of land to the band. Some of it was in the reserve, but it will be removed before it is handed over to the First Nation.
Supporting the deal would have been tough for the ALR purists within the party and the caucus. There might have been internal fighting.
And James' contradictory responses on the two treaties suggest that avoiding a public squabble was a large part of the NDP's decision to stay silent on the Tsawwassen deal.
The whole affair raised once again that perhaps James isn't tough enough for the job. The suggestion, I suppose, is that she should have bludgeoned the party into line - or at least public silence - and taken a position on the treaty.
There's not much evidence for the claim. James' approval ratings are still better than the public marks for Premier Gordon Campbell.
The last Ipsos-Reid poll, in June, found 54 per cent of those surveyed approved of the job she was doing. Campbell won positive ratings from 49 per cent of those surveyed.
And James has generally been gaining ground. Back in March 2005 a similar poll found her approval rating at 50 per cent. Some voters who were undecided then have been won over.
It might be that the pundit types put too much value on toughness.
It seems to be generally considered a good thing when leaders are decisive, even authoritarian. Hesitation is worse than being confidently wrong.
Canadians don't cut and run, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper, so the war in Afghanistan continues no matter what's happening on the ground. But certainty can be dangerous. The leader who insists he alone knows the right course can - with great and stylish decisiveness - lead his followers over a cliff. (Or into Iraq.)
Earlier this year The New Yorker profiled rising U.S. political star and presidential candidate Barack Obama. One of the knocks against Obama is that he's too inclined to compromise and consensus. (The article was titled The Conciliator.)
But Obama said he simply considers that sensible. He has strong views, he said, but he also recognizes that he doesn't have a monopoly on wisdom. If others feel strongly about an issue, it's smart to heed their views.
There's a risk of drift and indecision in the approach.
But we've run into a lot of problems created by leaders who are convinced they have all the answers.
Maybe it's time to celebrate a little compromise and conciliation.
Footnote: What's Campbell's approach? Tough to tell from the outside. But the government's big initiatives - the Conversation on Health, the New Relationship with First Nations, forest policy changes and now the new enthusiasm for fighting global warming - have all been launched from the premier's office. And the role of backbench MLAs in shaping policy through caucus committees has been sharply cut back since the 2005 election.