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Time's up on `street racing' law

Anniversaries are often a time for taking stock. They are usually happy occasions. Candles are lit. Cakes are baked. Presents are handed out.

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Anniversaries are often a time for taking stock. They are usually happy occasions. Candles are lit. Cakes are baked. Presents are handed out.

On such occasions, one can be forgiven for perhaps taking too rosy a view of the past.

Perhaps that’s what’s behind the shiny, happy faces of those celebrating the first anniversary of Section 172 of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, which gives the police the power to seize vehicles going 50 km/h over the speed limit. This law, passed one year ago last Tuesday, also allows police to impose fines of up to $10,000 before the accused even gets a day in court.

They are still averaging 23 scofflaws a day. Now that is down from 40 a day when the crackdown began, but we don’t know how many cops they have on patrol now versus then.

Regardless, with the amount of publicity this has received, you’d have thought that if the law had any deterrent effect whatsoever, nobody would dare take a chance.

Not so’s you’d notice.

The reason people aren’t paying much attention, of course, is that 150 km/h on a 400-series highway is, under the right circumstances, perfectly safe. It must be, because thousands of people – not just 23 – drive at this speed every day without incident. Only if they are unlucky enough to catch the eye of a police officer do they become heinous criminals.

Traffic engineers recommend that for optimal (i.e., safest) traffic flow, a speed limit should be set around the 85th percentile – the speed at or below which 85 per cent of traffic is moving. On any 400-series highway, that’s somewhere between 120 and 130 km/h, depending on time of day, traffic, road and weather conditions, etc.

A hundred kilometres per hour? Get serious. It has been proven that no amount of enforcement will ever get people to drive at less than a road’s design speed. As I always say, if we weren’t in a hurry we’d all take Hwy. 2 east and west, or Hwy. 11 north. And we’d be in greater peril the entire time. As I keep saying, our fastest roads are our safest roads. You can look it up.

OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino and his predecessors have spent billions of our tax dollars trying to maintain this fiction of a 100 km/h speed limit, the lowest in the otherwise civilized world, to absolutely no effect.

Do we drive any more slowly than we did 30 years ago? No.

Are our highways safer than they were 30 years ago? Unquestionably, yes.

Does the speed we drive at or the limit the police try to impose have any effect on our safety? Not a bit.

As pointed out here a few weeks ago, the Ministry of Transportation’s own statistics indicate that excessive speed is a factor in only 13 per cent of fatal collisions. Yet about 70 per cent of all traffic tickets written by the OPP and their local counterparts are for speeding.

We are not dying on the 400-series highways where the vast majority of section 172 enforcement is taking place. Kids are getting drunk and driving into lakes. Young women are making U-turns on regional roads and getting T-boned by transport trucks.

Is section 172 going to save any of them? Not a chance.

And where are our police officers? Out on the 400, turning respectable citizens into criminals.

Oh, and the real street racers? They love it, because the cops aren’t even looking for them. Fantino has been quoted saying he is “satisfied” with the 41 per cent conviction rate under the new law. I’m glad he’s not running a brain surgery school.

From what I’m hearing, many prosecutors are simply not taking these charges to court because they fear a challenge on one of at least two constitutional questions the law raises, the most obvious being its complete disregard for the most basic tenet of British common law: you get your day in court before being convicted and punished.

Speed is not at all like drunk driving, for which an immediate suspension is justified. The way this law is written and enforced, the police officer assumes the role of judge, jury and executioner.

Fantino also claims that the public is behind him on this law. Surely not the 8,459 people who have been charged under it, according to the latest statistics. Nor the masses, whom Fantino is sworn to serve and protect. They’re voting with their right feet, every single day.

I wonder when Fantino last drove on a 400-series highway. In an unmarked car. I wonder if he saw anybody going 100 km/h – without their four-ways on, that is.

Not likely. Since this is supposed to be a democracy, you’d think that evidence alone would be enough. Ha, ha again.

Also taking issue with the law are the dozens of people who email me every week. Like the young woman who, by all accounts, is the most law-abiding, police-respecting person in the GTA. She waved at another driver at a stoplight and was charged with “street racing.” Her parents’ car impounded, huge fine, insurance rates inflated for all time.

Because she waved at someone?

Then there’s the chap who had to hustle a little to squeeze into a gap in traffic and may have squealed a tire in doing so – it was a hot day. Same punishment.

There’s a reason we have due process. Or did have.

Doing 90 in a 40 km/h school zone? Throw the book at ’em.

Doing 150 in a 130 km/h zone, which, like it or not, is what the 400-series highways are? It may be a lot of things, but street racing or stunt driving it is not.

Fantino claims the law is working, by which I assume he means it’s saving lives. If he had some numbers to support this claim, you’d think he’d let us know. The OPP did trot out some spurious stats for the Civic Holiday weekend, but once they were challenged they never resurfaced, because they were totally bogus. And the police knew it.

The fact is that this law is costing lives because it takes scarce police resources away from real traffic issues and allocates them where there can be no hope of a positive result. (I define “positive result” as proof of reduced crashes and deaths, not meaningless numbers about charges or conviction rates.)

Enforcing section 172, or any speed limit, in fact, has absolutely nothing to do with what’s causing us to die on our highways. Worldwide, the only things that correlate with traffic deaths are impaired driving, failure to use seat belts and highway design. Nothing else. End of story.

We’ve done reasonable work in the last 30 years on seat-belt use, but more must be accomplished. Likewise, impaired driving is down, but nowhere near enough.

If Fantino wants to do something positive for traffic safety, the lowest-hanging fruit would be to apply his considerable political skill to fight for real improvements to our highway system.

More roundabouts, for example – they produce 40 to 60 per cent fewer collisions, overnight. And no more disappearing right lanes. The most impressive thing about traffic in Germany or England isn’t its speed or the safety (both of which are considerably higher than here, despite generally smaller, less crash-resistant cars) but lane discipline. Why is it better? Because their driving lane never disappears.

Oh, and would somebody please tell Jim Bradley, the transportation minister, to lay off this nonsense that the law is supported by “the people who are in a position of having to go to a funeral when it’s someone in their family [who dies].” At least until he has lost a sister to a traffic collision, as I did.

Maudlin appeals may work in politics. But to improve traffic safety, we need to deal in facts. And the facts are not on his side.

Wheels’ chief auto correspondent Jim Kenzie can be reached at jim@jimkenzie.com
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