By Detective Sergeant Chris Plante, York Regional Police (Ontario), Major Collision Investigations
In the realm of road safety, it’s easy to get caught up in discussions about vehicle safety features and road design improvements. While these aspects are important and key elements of any road safety strategy, one often-overlooked component that plays a pivotal role in our vision for safer roads is traffic enforcement.
No one likes getting tickets for what many drivers see as minor offences, such as running a stop sign or red light, speeding or unsafe lane changes. But in the broader context of road safety, enforcement is one part of a larger whole: The Safe Systems Approach.
The Safe Systems Approach is built around four pillars: Safe road users, safe vehicles, safe speeds and safe roads. York Regional Police uses this guiding philosophy to shape our Road Safety Strategy. It acknowledges that humans are prone to making mistakes and the goal is to create a road environment that forgives these errors. In other words, we know collisions occur but, with several safe systems in play, the severity of the collision, including serious injury or death, is reduced. Traffic enforcement directly contributes to two of these pillars: safe road users and safe speeds.
No matter how well designed the roads or vehicles are, responsible human behaviour behind the wheel contributes to their effectiveness. Consistent enforcement serves as a constant reminder to road users to follow traffic laws and behavioural norms. Tied closely to frequent education and awareness campaigns, visible law enforcement encourages drivers to make safe choices. Knowing there’s a risk of getting caught and facing penalties is a powerful deterrent against reckless behaviour.
When we talk about safe road users, we’re not just referring to drivers. We must also consider the vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Traffic enforcement reminds drivers to respect crosswalks, yield to pedestrians, provide ample space for cyclists and be aware of and provide space around motorcyclists. Without visible enforcement, these vulnerable groups are at greater risk.
All four pillars of the Safe Systems Approach are employed when officers are patrolling our roads, responding to complaint areas or engaging in traffic enforcement.
When speeding becomes a “stunt driving” offence
Often, driving over the posted speed limit is a Highway Traffic Act (HTA) ticket in Ontario, also known as a Provincial Offences Notices (PON). This is not a criminal offence. Speeding fines can range from approximately $50 to $350, along with associated demerit points.
If a driver is found going 40 km/h over the posted limit in a zone that is under 80, this is considered Stunt Driving under the Ontario HTA. The charge results in a 30-day licence suspension and a 14-day vehicle impound.
And while those penalties are substantial, unfortunately York Regional Police have found they are often not deterrent enough.
In my role as the Commander of the Major Collision Investigations Unit, despite our education and enforcement efforts, I was still seeing serious injury and deaths relating to excessive speed. From the enforcement side of the house, Stunt Driving tickets were recently issued for such staggering speeds as 141 km/h in a 50 km/h zone, 146 in a 60, and 198 in a 100 km/h zone.
Ticketing drivers for Stunt Driving was clearly not enough, nor was the penalty appropriate for such egregious speeds. It was time to adjust our enforcement culture and begin to have some earnest conversations about when speeding alone becomes the criminal offence of Dangerous Driving.
When excessive speeding becomes a crime
The Criminal Code of Canada explains Dangerous Driving as an offence where the actions of the driver represent a “marked departure” from the standard; when someone’s actions are a significant deviation from normal, expected behaviour. It indicates a level of wrongdoing that goes beyond mere carelessness or minor violations of the law.
If a case of extreme speeding is far from what an ordinary, sensible person would do in similar circumstances and the speed presents a predictable danger to the public, then it meets the threshold for a criminal charge.
The offence of 141 km/h in a 50 km/h zone, for example, occurred in school zone (30 km/hrlimit) in a residential neighbourhood (40 km/h). Worse, it occurred in the middle of the day, when children, pedestrians and cyclists can be expected to be present on or near our roadways.
This person’s driving behaviour entered the realm of criminal based on these factors. The driver was posing a danger to the community, which police have a duty to protect. At York Regional Police, we adjusted our enforcement culture to better recognize such instances as criminal offences. Being arrested and charged under the Criminal Code is significantly more serious, with harsher ramifications, than being issued a ticket, even if that comes with a suspended licence and vehicle impound.
Speeding continues to be a major factor in many motor vehicle collisions and is often an aggravating factor in those that are serious and fatal. When warranted, York Regional Police will continue to lay criminal charges. Dangerous driving will not be tolerated in our communities.
The future of road safety
As we continue to combat the offences putting all road users at risk, we are also looking toward the future. Another significant change in road safety culture is on the horizon: self-driving technology. This includes automation in vehicles so advanced, drivers would have little to do behind the wheel except enjoy the scenery. It also includes vehicles that may not require a human behind the wheel at all.
There have been mixed reactions about this concept. Some are eager to embrace this evolution, while others are slightly fearful, believing that the technology is still in its infancy. I can assure you that every level of government, as well as police services and policy makers across Canada, have been keeping a close eye on this industry since 2016, when the testing of autonomous vehicles was first permitted as a pilot program on Ontario roadways.
There may be instances where the autonomy of a vehicle or the self-driving technology makes a mistake, but not at the rate humans make mistakes behind the wheel. We are entering a period of time where public education into this topic will be of the utmost importance. York Regional Police has been and will continue to prepare for this next evolution in road safety culture.
On another technological front, policing has recently been assisted by the resurgence of automated speed enforcement. In Ontario, these devices generally are located in vulnerable areas such as Community Safety Zones near schools. Combined with red-light cameras, these force-multipliers significantly assist conventional traffic enforcement efforts and are running around the clock. I would call on all municipalities, cities and policy makers to embrace this evolution in enforcement culture. It will save lives and it is a part of the Safe Systems Approach.