News / Toronto

Drivers who kill or injure pedestrians, cyclists often avoid criminal charges

Road safety advocates say the law must change to recognize the vulnerability of cyclists and pedestrians.

Pedestrian and cyclist advocates, along with victims of Toronto's deadly streets, gathered in front of City Hall Wednesday to ask the city to embrace Vision Zero. Among their demands were stiffer penalties for drivers who kill or injure vulnerable road users.

Liz Beddall/Metro

Pedestrian and cyclist advocates, along with victims of Toronto's deadly streets, gathered in front of City Hall Wednesday to ask the city to embrace Vision Zero. Among their demands were stiffer penalties for drivers who kill or injure vulnerable road users.

The driver who ran a red light in Scarborough and killed cyclist Edouard Le Blanc received a $700 fine and was handed six demerit points.

“Justice is not being served, not for the victims, not for their families, not at all,” said Edouard Le Blanc’s widow, Maisie.

A woman who crossed into the oncoming lane and killed Bruce Tushingham while he was cycling along a rural road in 2013 had to pay $500.

“We were floored. She didn’t just hit a mailbox that can be fixed. This was a life,” Bruce’s widow, Linda, said.

Every victim of Toronto’s deadly streets that Metro has spoken with feels let down or betrayed by the legal system. Laws meant to deter irresponsible behaviour on the part of drivers aren’t working and, in many cases, are sending the message that taking a life will cost you as little as $400.

Patrick Brown is a personal injury lawyer and safe streets advocate in Toronto. He’s been working in the field for more than 15 years and has noticed “a consistent and repeated pattern” where drivers who kill or injure pedestrians or cyclists avoid criminal charges – and the steep penalties that accompany them.

The burden of proof under the federal Criminal Code is extremely high, Brown said, and often requires demonstration of intent, something that’s not always apparent when drivers unwittingly kill or maim their victims.

“Talking to the police, they feel getting a conviction is too difficult,” Brown said.

As a result, those behind the wheel are often charged with careless driving, a provincial offence that has a lower burden of proof – and much lesser consequences.

Last year, Toronto police laid 3,740 careless driving charges; many of those cases involved drivers who hit pedestrians or cyclists. The charge carries a fine up to $2,000, a maximum jail sentence of six months that is almost never applied and the possibility of a temporary licence suspension.

Brown said prosecutors often encourage victims or their families to accept careless driving plea bargains rather than go to trial.

“I was told dangerous driving is a criminal offence and, if charged, there was a chance the driver would be exonerated,” David Stark, whose wife Erica was killed last year by a minivan driver who veered onto the sidewalk near Gilder Drive and Midland Avenue.

Brown, Stark and others are calling on the province to institute stiffer penalties for careless drivers. In particular, they’re asking for higher fines specifically for drivers who kill or injure pedestrians and cyclists.

“When you’re in a car, you’re encased in steel. You’ve got a seatbelt. You’ve got side-impact airbags. Other people on the road don’t have that, and the law should reflect that vulnerability,” Brown said.

However, the plea has yet to spur the Ontario Liberals to action.

Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca told Metro he’s “open-minded” and that the government is “looking at whether to bring forward additional penalties or fines,” although he wouldn’t offer a timeline for any possible legislative change.

Asked if a $700 fine was appropriate for the driver who killed Le Blanc, Del Duca wouldn’t say.

“I don’t think it’s my place to say whether it’s appropriate or not,” he said.

Del Duca did trumpet Ontario’s track record of highway safety, noting fatalities on provincial highways have been trending downwards.

Brown applauded the government for making highways safer but said that’s only one part of the story.

“They’ve focused on protecting drivers on 400-level highways,” he said. “They have a good track record on car-on-car fatalities, but Public Health Ontario has acknowledged that’s not the same as pedestrian and cyclist deaths. In fact, those numbers are increasing.”

Change may be on the horizon.

Mayor John Tory has pledged to push the province to increase careless driving fines, and newly minted Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Eleanor McMahon has a private member’s bill before the legislature that would do just that.

McMahon’s husband, OPP Sgt. Greg Stobbart, was killed by a careless driver 10 years ago. She’s been a passionate advocate for safer roads ever since.

Under McMahon’s Bill 213, the careless driving penalty would be upped to a fine of between $2,000 and $50,000, a maximum jail sentence of two years (the longest sentence allowed for a provincial offence) and a licence suspension of up to five years.

“If you’re careless and have disregard for others, you shouldn’t be able to walk away from an encounter where you killed someone with a $500 fine,” McMahon said.

The legal responsibility for safe streets falls across all three levels of government. Here’s a breakdown of how our cities, our province and our country’s laws impact our roads.

Federal

The federal government is responsible for the Criminal Code of Canada, which governs the laws around things like dangerous driving. However, the burden of proof for criminal charges is very high, meaning many pedestrian and cyclist collisions are handled under provincial law.

Provincial

The province is responsible for all major 400-level highways in Ontario. It also oversees the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, which sets out the penalties for things like speeding and careless driving. Provincial charges typically result in fines or demerit points and violators are seldom sent to jail.

Municipal

The City of Toronto has authority over its local roads and is required by law to maintain them to a certain standard. The city is able to pass bylaws around road safety, such as the prohibition against sidewalk cycling in Toronto. Lastly, the city establishes the criteria for when to implement or upgrade pedestrian crossings. 

Are you concerned about Toronto’s deadly streets? Click here to contact your councillor and tell them you want a road safety plan that puts pedestrians first and makes our roads safer for everyone.

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