When it comes to traffic safety, there are a lot of rules designed to help us navigate our streets in an orderly manner. But what happens when you see people acting selfishly or in ways that are prohibited?
I wouldn’t go as far as to call the streets surrounding the Greater Toronto Area the wild, wild west of motoring, but spend 30 minutes driving around and you’ll see what I mean.
Intentions on the road are no longer clear as drivers become more unpredictable. Motorists find loopholes to skip through lights, bypass traffic, use their phones while driving, and more during their commutes. What should we do when we see these uncooperative driving behaviours?
Let's start with the obvious one: impaired driving. In Canada, impaired driving killed 155 people in 2019, and injured 540. By comparison, only 108 people died from all other criminal offences causing death (excluding homicide) in 2019. That year police services in Canada reported a total of 85,673 incidents of impaired driving, the highest number since 2011.
We know drunk driving is wrong, and the police encourage the public to take action against it. If you spot a dangerous driver on the road and suspect they’re impaired, you can call 911 to report them. The police will head on over and check it out, and you can go about your day feeling like you helped make the roads a bit safer.
But what about distracted driving, like texting or fumbling with a mobile device while driving? About 100 people are killed and 16,000 are injured by distracted drivers every year in Ontario. Although it's not a criminal offence like drinking and driving, it seems to be just as dangerous. You can call 911 or the authorities if you see someone texting and driving, but will it have an impact?
When you call about drunk drivers, the police can conduct a sobriety test (if they follow up on your report). In the case of distracted driving, they can’t check if someone has sent a text recently or prove that it wasn’t done via a hands-free function, so the dangerous driver has to be seen with their own eyes to make the charge.
Other kinds of driving behaviours feel unsafe. More people on the highway are getting out of live lanes of traffic and using merge lanes to pass people. This move feels like the follow-up to the “I’ll just pass you on the right,” which is a byproduct of people not having proper lane discipline on the highway.
Now the merge-lane bypass might seem like an innocent loophole to exploit, but it, too, can lead to accidents, especially to cars entering the highway via the onramp and getting a surprise in their lane. Additionally, in really dense traffic, some react aggressively to those using the merge lanes to pass and will block them from merging in later, like vigilante traffic police. You can just imagine the kind of road rage this can lead to.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do. Since passing on the right and re-entering merge lanes aren’t against the Highway Traffic Act, motorists are free to pull this move as much as they want. Interestingly, people can get tickets for using the shoulder or unmarked lanes of a highway, meaning there are rules in place to stop people from using routes they’re not supposed to.
However, not all is lost as citizens should be able to petition or request changes through their elected leaders to possibly change the lane markings on those merge lanes to be solid on one side and dotted on another, perhaps discouraging those to cross over and impeding on-ramp users.
If you feel helpless about these traffic conditions and behaviours, know that there are online reporting tools that may help get the message across to a repeat exploiter. Both the Ontario Provincial Police and Toronto Police Services have websites for you to fill out, to help with traffic or driving complaints. If the complaint is deemed appropriate, the police will follow up.
In the case of the Toronto police, the website said “a letter will be sent to the owner of a vehicle outlining the date, time and location of the incident. The letter will also include important messages encouraging the owner to ensure all who drive their vehicles do so in a safe and responsible manner.”
Now of course this system can be exploited too, and I can imagine disgruntled neighbours sending off reports and wasting the police’s time. Fortunately, information is required from the person making the complaint, and there’s a pretty big warning about the consequences of filing a false report.
While we have to use the roads together, there’s a fine balance between over-policing each other, and letting everything slide. The police may currently seem unable to keep up with traffic enforcement, but they could just as easily be flooded by reports of someone crossing a lane when they shouldn’t have, leaving the real solution somewhere outside of their grasp: education. Just like the warnings of impaired driving, safe motoring comes with repeated messages about the benefits of defensive and predictable behaviours, and until that’s implemented, everything else feels a bit reactive.
Sami Haj-Assaad is an award-winning automotive journalist from Toronto. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @Sami_HA.
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