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Driver who killed Erica Stark on Toronto sidewalk fined $1,000

David Stark, far right, seen leaving the courthouse with his late wife's parents after sentencing on Monday, argued in court the punishment under the current law is not enough.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The driver who killed Erica Stark as she stood on a Toronto sidewalk broke down in court on Monday as she heard how her actions had shattered a family.

The husband unable to work for months. Three young children devastated, one of them talking about suicide. The mother who laments that outliving her daughter "offends the natural order of life."

Monday's conviction of Elizabeth Taylor for careless driving came as Canada's largest city experiences one of its worst years for pedestrian fatalities since early last decade. The Globe and Mail has counted the death toll so far in 2016 as 44. About 13 per cent of this year's victims were – as with Ms. Stark in 2014 – not on the road when they were hit.

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Ms. Taylor was fined $1,000 and given six months of probation and six months of varying driving restrictions.

The sentence left some fuming about the value put on a life lost in a vehicle collision. And Ms. Stark's husband, David Stark – whose powerful victim impact statement described how he would try to comfort his crying children as they shared his bed after their mother's death – argued that even the greatest possible punishment under the current law would not have been enough.

"The maximum [fine] is $2,000 – it should be $50,000," he told reporters. "That would act as a strong deterrent to people to change their behaviour when they drive, knowing that if their actions result in a severe injury or death, they are going to have to come up with $50,000."

Toronto police use a more restrictive definition of a pedestrian death than does The Globe and do not include, for instance, people who are run down in a private parking lot. By the police force's count, the city has had 41 pedestrian fatalities so far this year. Either way of calculating the total makes this the worst year since at least 2003.

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Long-term data from the city show that drivers are responsible in the majority of pedestrian deaths. In spite of this, public-safety campaigns have tended to focus more on pedestrian behaviour. On Monday – coincidentally, at the same time as Ms. Taylor's case was being heard – the police released a video urging those who walk to be more careful.

Maureen Coyle, who is on the steering committee of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, said "it's easiest" to blame pedestrians, even though the same approach is not used in other circumstances.

"In conditions of most other fatality or serious injury, we don't jump to the assumption that the person who was hurt is at fault," she said. "But we have in this."

Toronto is rolling out a road safety plan based on a Swedish concept known as Vision Zero, which holds that traffic deaths and serious injuries are unacceptable and can be eliminated through better road design. Toronto's plan has the same overall goal, but was released with the modest target of cutting 20 per cent of deaths and serious injuries. After a wave of criticism, the plan was beefed up and its target changed to a 100-per-cent reduction. But skeptics pointed out that the goal's five-fold increase in ambitions was not matched by a quintupling of its budget.

Ms. Stark was killed in the city's east end while waiting for a dealer to put winter tires on her car. She had used the time to take a walk with a dog she was training to be a service animal. But as she stood with the dog by Midland Avenue, a minivan veered off the road and killed the 42-year-old.

According to the agreed statement of facts, the only two witnesses both remarked on the vehicle's speed. One said it was going "pretty quick" and the other described it as moving "faster than usual." But Justice of the Peace Lynette Stethem said there was no reliable evidence of speeding. The statement of facts also said there was no proof Ms. Taylor was using her phone while driving.

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The driver declined to take the stand, leaving Ms. Stark's family with no explanation for how the vehicle could have left the road.

"We do not know what happened and why Ms. Taylor drove up onto the sidewalk and hit Erica so hard that she died in a few minutes," Ms. Stark's mother, Linda Bissinger, told the court in her victim impact statement. "My only consolation is that a compassionate passerby tried to do CPR, held her in her arms, and talked to her as she died."

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