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Ontario introducing $50,000 fines for careless drivers causing death

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 22, 2016, file photo, a driver uses her mobile phone while sitting in traffic in Sacramento, Calif.

Ontario is ready to impose $50,000 fines on drivers who kill through carelessness, in some of the toughest legislation in the country aimed at protecting pedestrians and cyclists, The Globe and Mail has learned.

The provincial government is expected to unveil on Wednesday a suite of new safety measures, as it seeks to address complaints by activists that deadly drivers are insufficiently punished.

"In these traffic court cases, the penalties are often woefully inadequate," said David Stark, a member of the advocacy group Friends and Families for Safe Streets, whose wife was hit and killed in 2014 while standing on a Toronto sidewalk. That driver received a $1,000 fine.

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"It's important for the driving public to be accountable."

The new legislation would also add an escalating licence suspension for those convicted of distracted driving, which usually involves looking at a phone, rising to 30 days on third offence. And it would double the range of possible fines – boosting them to between $300 and $1,000 – for drivers who don't yield properly to pedestrians at crosswalks, intersections and school zones.

The proposed legislation is expected to be introduced at Queen's Park this autumn. It is not expected to include funding for additional enforcement.

The province's move comes amid growing concern in Canada's urban centres about the toll modern transportation is taking on vulnerable road users. Over the past five years, more than 450 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed in motor vehicle collisions in Ontario's five most populous cities and on roads patrolled by the Ontario Provincial Police.

Among their new measures, the government plans to amend the province's Highway Traffic Act to add a charge of careless driving that causes death or bodily harm. Upon conviction, the charge would carry a fine of between $2,000 and $50,000, up to two years in jail and a licence suspension of up to five years.

Under the current Act, careless motorists who kill someone can be fined a maximum of $2,000, jailed six months and lose their licence for two years. In practice, lawyers and safety advocates say, these drivers are rarely fined more than $1,000 and almost never jailed.

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Drivers can already face stricter punishment under the federal Criminal Code, which has various dangerous-driving-related charges that allow for jail time. But it typically takes aggravating factors – a person who fled the scene, was speeding excessively or was alleged to be intoxicated – for driver behaviour to be elevated to a criminal offence.

Most drivers involved in deadly collisions face nothing more severe than a careless driving charge. Heather Sim described the "shock" of learning that the driver who killed her father this year as he rode his bicycle had been charged only with making an improper turn.

"He would have got a higher [punishment] if he'd been driving in the HOV lane with no one in the car with him," she said.

With fatalities dropping among motorists, who are increasingly protected by well-engineered vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists are forming a bigger share of the casualties.

A 2016 Globe and Mail investigation into pedestrian deaths over a number of years in Toronto found that as many as one in seven of those killed were not on the road when they were hit. The majority of these victims were seniors – who may move more slowly and have diminished vision or hearing, and are often more frail and likely to be hurt or killed when hit – in spite of these residents being a small minority of the population.

Politicians have begun to take note of the risks to pedestrians and cyclists, incorporating road-safety ideas into their transportation promises. Some cities have developed versions of a Swedish concept known as Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate road deaths and serious injuries, although funding typically remains modest.

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Maureen Coyle, a member of the steering committee of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, called the proposed provincial legislation "a step in the right direction." But she worried that it focuses too much on fines and prison instead of the simpler expedient of barring dangerous people from driving.

"I'd like to see people have their right to drive cars removed from them," she said. "Stop seeing the right to operate a car being sacrosanct. What is [more important] is the right of people to live and move around safely."

Safety advocates have long pushed for the laws to be strengthened and changed to take into account the result of a driver's action, not just the action itself. Under the current Highway Traffic Act, a driver who is careless may be fined the same for hitting a pole as for running over a pedestrian.

"I think [the new law] will help get the message out that people have to use extra caution," Mr. Stark said. "You have to slow down and you have to pay attention and keep your eyes open."

According to the Ontario government, distracted driving is causing twice as many collisions as it did in 2000.

The current fine for distracted driving is $490 to $1000 for a first offence. Under the new regime, that first offence would also result in a three-day licence suspension. Penalties would rise with each subsequent conviction for distracted driving. By the third offence, the maximum fine would be $3,000, with a 30-day licence suspension.

Sergeant Kerry Schmidt, spokesman for the Ontario Provincial Police, said that they have laid roughly 15,000 to 20,000 distracted driving charges on OPP-patrolled roads in every year from 2011 through 2016.

"I see drivers all the time and I just don't have time to stop them all," he said.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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