Dozens of drivers get speeding ticket refunds because Winnipeg construction zone sign wasn’t legal

A Manitoba man who fought a speeding ticket in court succeeded in having not only his own ticket cancelled, but also those of more than 40 other drivers because a speed reduction sign was not legal in the first place.

The case has also led Winnipeg Police Service to make a change in procedures around enforcing reduced speed zones at construction sites.

“The whole episode is disturbing,” said Gary Gowler, who took his ticket to court. “There’s something wrong with this so I investigated and investigated some more.”

The issue first arose in 2016, when police enforced a reduced speed sign that a construction company put up at the Plessis Road underpass construction site without the required regulatory approval.

Police handed drivers 47 tickets over two days in June that year for exceeding a speed limit of 30 km/h, in what the city says would have otherwise been a 50 km/h speed zone.

Gowler got one of the tickets, with a $469.25 fine and two demerit points against his driver’s licence.

The idea that police were enforcing a reduced speed sign put up by a construction company is “outrageous,” he said in an interview.

“Why the heck would the officers, for two days, sit there [and] hand out 47 tickets, including mine?” he said. “The signs weren’t legal.”

Gowler said he drove past the construction site in the days after he got his ticket and noticed the 30 km/h sign was no longer there. 

That prompted him to do his own research. He discovered there wasn’t a regulatory approval for a designated construction zone and corresponding speed limit reduction at the Plessis Road underpass location at that time. 

Ticket defeated in court

When he presented that information in court in 2018, the Crown decided to enter a stay of proceedings, which put an end to his ticket.

Of the 47 tickets issued, six drivers, including Gowler, successfully challenged their tickets and had them stayed in court, a spokesperson for Manitoba Justice said.

While Gowler was pleased to have his ticket stayed, he wasn’t satisfied to leave it at that.

“It bugged me and bugged me,” he said. So after he retired from his job as a courier and had time on his hands, he sent a complaint letter to Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth in January 2021.

That set in motion a process that led to other tickets issued at the same location in 2016 being stayed in September 2021, the Manitoba Justice spokesperson said in an email to CBC.

Under what’s known as a rectification order in court, 41 drivers who paid speeding ticket fines totalling $12,833.33 had their fines refunded, the spokesperson said.

Demerits assessed against licences were also reversed by Manitoba Public Insurance, spokesperson Brian Smiley confirmed.

‘Thank you’ letter from police chief

On March 1, 2022, Smyth sent a letter to Gowler thanking him for bringing the matter to his attention.

A review of the 2016 case identified “a procedural deficiency,” Winnipeg police chief of staff John Burchill said in a statement to CBC.

“The officers acted under their own direction, and set up at this location based on complaints from construction workers of speeding in a construction zone,” he said.

As a result, a process has now been put in place “requiring district (non-traffic) officers to verify these zones through the Traffic Division’s Photo Enforcement Section, which receives and reviews the approved applications directly from [City of Winnipeg] Public Works,” Burchill’s statement said.

A 2014 file photo shows a sign indicating a designated construction zone on Kenaston Boulevard in Winnipeg. The City of Winnipeg has requirements for when such a zone should be in place, a spokesperson said. (Lindsay Tsuji/CBC)

PCL Constructors Canada Inc. was doing construction work at the Plessis underpass site when the tickets were issued in 2016 and had taken steps to get the speed limit reduced to 30 km/h. 

“Workers were concerned for their safety and well-being due to the volume of traffic passing through the project site,” said Kelly Wallace, a vice-president and district manager with PCL.

He said the workers’ safety concerns were in part prompted by a case in which a flag person at a different construction site had been hit and killed by a vehicle.

PCL tried to get a designated construction zone put in place at the Plessis Road site and proactively ordered signs to indicate a reduced speed zone, Wallace told CBC News. 

He said once the 30 km/h speed signs were received, a sign was mistakenly put up without the required approvals being issued.

“Upon realizing the speed reduction sign was erected without authorization, the sign was taken down and discussions continued with the authorities to seek speed reduction zones for the construction site,” Wallace said.

Requirements for zones

The sign was up for about six weeks, he added, and the request for a designated construction zone was never granted.

The City of Winnipeg has requirements for when such a zone should be in place, said Ken Allen, communications co-ordinator for the city’s public works department. 

One of the requirements is that the construction is happening on a road where the speed limit is 80 km/h or more, he said.

“At the time of construction of the Plessis underpass, the regular speed limit on Plessis through the construction area was already 50 km/hour, so that project did not meet the criteria” for a designated zone, Allen said.

He added that the city has no record of a request for a designated construction zone at the Plessis Road location.

With the 2016 tickets reversed in court and the fines refunded, Gowler now says he’s pleased with the followup action.

“Kudos to the Winnipeg police for doing this,” he said.

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