Ontario Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli is not a car guy.
For him a vehicle is nothing more than something to get him from A to B. He doesn’t even have a favourite car from his past. But his wife has a 1976 white VW beetle ragtop, that’s her “baby.”
“I have a car that functions well and gives me comfort and that enables me to have as much vision and control as possible,” he said.
Not surprisingly, his transportation vision for the future is centred around transit and getting people out of their cars.
His eyes did twinkle — a bit — when talk turned to electric cars. He then launched into how the province has a pot of money to encourage the private sector to promote electric vehicle use, including charging stations.
Chiarelli, a 70-year-old veteran provincial politician as well as the former mayor of Ottawa, sat down with Toronto Star Wheels this week to talk about a wide range of topics from increased highway speeds — he’s dead set against them — to driver training and older drivers and finally his favourite topic, transit.
“Speed kills, that’s been demonstrated over and over again,” he said, dismissing suggestions out of hand that the posted speed on the 400-series highways be increased to 120 km/h from 100, even though motorists routinely drive at those speeds now.
He asked why Ontario would want to increase speed limits and spoil its enviable safety record.
“We have the safest record in North America . . . we have the lowest number of fatalities per capita compared to any other jurisdiction. That’s because we enforce and we have the right balance and I think we have landed on the right place for our speed limits,” the minister said, adding that if the speed limit was increased to 120 km/h, motorists would go even faster.
When it was pointed out to him that the 400-series highways were designed for 130 km/h, Chiarelli, a father of six, kept repeating “speed kills.”
The McGuinty government since 2003 has been consumed with road safety, introducing — among other things — zero blood alcohol for drivers 21 and under, the hand-held devices ban, mandatory seatbelts for all passengers and a top speed of 105 km/h for large trucks plus road racing legislation.
Chiarelli also said he couldn’t see any good reason to introduce mandatory road tests for people who are now required to complete a written test every two years after turning 80. Whether or not to order a road test is now up to the person administering the written test.
“My father was driving … until he was 96,” Chiarelli said. “He died at age 96 with a valid driver’s licence. He self-regulated. He wouldn’t drive at night. He wouldn’t go on a 400-series highway. He only drove in the neighbourhood,” he said.
“We are sensitive to their independence.”
Chiarelli did say the province is monitoring a Canadian study, conducted by several universities, called Candrive. It is looking into the behaviour of older drivers, adding that the report is expected this summer.
The research study is following 1,000 older drivers in seven Canadian cities for five years. Besides recording their driving habits using an in-car computerized monitoring device, participants will undergo yearly assessments to determine the factors that make older people safe or not safe to drive.
“A major objective of the study will be the development of a screening tool that physicians can use to determine who amongst their older patients is safe and not safe to drive,” according to a website statement.
Chiarelli noted that the Ontario driver’s handbook is being rewritten this summer “and one of the things we are updating is the roundabouts.”
“There are more municipalities now … going back to roundabouts so we are going to give it a little more attention than we have in the past,” he said.
Chiarelli’s answer for traffic congestion is not more major highways — save for the eastward extension of toll Highway 407 — but rather better access to public transit.
“Congestion is the evil of growth,” he said, “we are looking at every opportunity to minimize the number of cars.”
The transportation minister said the long-term plan for Golden Horseshoe communities is to have 75 per cent of the projected 12 million people living within two kilometres of a transit system.
“That’s why we have invested heavily in transit. Across Ontario in 7.5 years we have invested $13.7 billion in transit,” he said, adding that 47 per cent of the $12.9 billion for infrastructure in this year’s provincial budget is for roads and transit.
Chiarelli said his pet peeve as minister is the length of time it takes to get anything done, whether it’s to build a highway or another transit line.
“We know what has to be done but the time period to do the environmental assessment, to make the decisions, to do the consultation . . . From conception to decision making to time you are cutting a ribbon is a very, very long time and we have to find ways to shorten it,” he said.
Chiarelli said Toronto City Council is a case in point, where political wrangling and multiple debates cost precious time “for a much-needed project” funded, in large part, by the province.
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