Thursday, June 18, 2009

Emergency services see red over traffic tickets

OTTAWA — Police officers, firefighters and paramedics on emergency calls in Ottawa are racking up thousands of dollars in red-light camera fines and the tickets are exasperating rank-and-file rescue workers.

Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act exempts emergency vehicles with lights and sirens activated from having to wait at red lights provided they come to a full stop first and proceed only when it is safe to do so.

But more than 60 times since last year, police cars, fire trucks and ambulances speeding to calls have been dinged for not coming to full stops at the 10 red-light cameras rotated around 19 city intersections. The resulting $11,000 in traffic tickets was recouped from the three services’ operating budgets.

One of those $180 tickets, to the Ottawa Paramedic Service, was based on a photo showing a police escort blocking the intersection and waving the 5,500-kilogram ambulance through the red light. The service contested the fine with city hall traffic officials and won a rare victory.

The issue is especially contentious with police. The department was hit with 30 tickets last year and a dozen so far this year. Offending officers face discipline, from verbal warnings and loss of pay to formal charges of discreditable conduct.

And that has Ottawa Police Association seeing red.

“If it was you who had just suffered the heart attack, or your child who was in need in of assistance, or if it was an officer who needed assistance because of a call going terribly bad, would you really care whether they came to a full stop, or slowed down enough to ensure that it was safe to do so,” says Gary Babstock, a labour relations officer with the association.

Babstock is on secondment from his job as a police constable.

Sensors embedded in the road at red-light camera intersections trigger the cameras when a vehicle fails to stop at the white stop line and enters the intersection above a certain speed, believed to be 20 to 25 km/h.

Babstock says as long as officers or other emergency workers are not reckless or imprudent, “like going through Carling and Bronson at 70 km/h at four in the afternoon,” authorities should trust their judgment and dismiss any camera fines and disciplinary actions.

“You can’t invest the amount of time and authorities and decision-making abilities that you do in police officers and other emergency workers and then turn around and take that away from them when an actual emergency presents itself,” he says.

“For an officer to have used their judgment, which you’ve given them to use, and then say that their judgment is discredible because they went through a red light is really hypocritical.”

If, however, a cruiser is involved in an accident while running a red, he notes the province’s Special Investigations Unit provides investigative oversight and can lay criminal charges against an officer when warranted.

Over the years, more than a dozen area accidents have been blamed on emergency vehicles failing to travel safely through red lights. The most tragic was in 1982 when a fire department aerial ladder truck ran a red, collided with a van and smashed into the front of a Somerset Street tailor shop, killing two men in the doorway. (The Ottawa Fire Department received five red light tickets last year and four so far this year, according to City Hall records.)

Emergency services management, meanwhile, says the issue is an open and shutter case.

“The law is there,” says Staff Sgt. Denis Cleroux, of the Ottawa police professional standards service.

“It gives you authority to go through safely with your lights and siren activated,” only after a full stop.

Every instance in which a red-light camera is triggered by a police car, “is a concern as it raises the possibility of having an accident. There’s always one time that you get sidelined. We can’t take a chance on that.”

The Ottawa Paramedic Service was hit with seven red-light camera tickets last year, including one or two that were waived. With the service on track earlier this year for an estimated 20 red-light camera tickets, a memo recently issued to paramedics warned all vehicles must come to a complete stop before proceeding through a red.

“It’s a dangerous thing for us to do and we know that and we instil that in our paramedics,” says J.P. Trottier, the service’s spokesman. “If you want to cause an accident and not get to the patient in a timely fashion, boy, this is a good way of doing it by not stopping.”

Most motorists and pedestrians are simply not expecting an emergency vehicle to suddenly cut them off, he says. They “have the green light and away they go. With the windows up and the air conditioning on and the music full blast and they’re on the cellphone, chances are they’re not going to be listening to the siren.”

In 2002, a Guelph paramedic rushing a very ill newborn to Hamilton General Hospital was suspended for a day without pay after refusing to pay a $190 fine for running a red light on the way.

As a neonatal team worked on the infant being transferred from Guelph, the driver drove through a downtown Hamilton traffic light and triggered a red-light camera.

“Rather than standing on the brake, I kept going through. There was nobody around,” he said later. Slamming on the brakes, he said, would have been risky for the neonatal team.

“There’s absolutely no way they wouldn’t have been thrown forward.”


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