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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

For safer streets, getting an Ontario driver’s license should be harder

Forget licensing cyclists, it's drivers who need more training on how to share the road, writes Matt Elliott.

Cyclists aren't the ones in need of remedial training, Elliott argues.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

Cyclists aren't the ones in need of remedial training, Elliott argues.

I’ll admit it: nobody ever taught me how to drive in the city.

Growing up in suburban Oakville, I learned to drive on quiet residential streets mostly devoid of other traffic and sometimes devoid of sidewalks. At school, we shared tips on which testing centres offered the simplest road tests – people ventured north to farm country based on tales of tests that didn’t even require you to parallel park.

The goal was to make the process of getting licensed as easy as possible.

So even though I held a license, I remember having no real idea what to do when I first got behind the wheel in downtown Toronto. I learned by doing, which involved a bunch of moving violations and too many near-misses.

By the looks of it, I’m not alone in this. A lot of the drivers I encounter on downtown Toronto’s streets seem puzzled by how to safely navigate the streets.

They don’t know how to properly share space with cyclists. They turn without checking for them. They stop midway through crosswalks and end up caught in the middle of intersections. They blow by streetcar doors, honking when passengers emerge.

The worst of it might be on streets with designated rights-of-way for transit vehicles. The transit-oriented design along Queen’s Quay is not particularly complicated by international standards, but and you’ll routinely see Toronto drivers approach the street like it’s a diabolical traffic Rubik’s cube.

And for too many, the conclusion is to drive onto the tracks — hell, some geniuses have even managed to drive headlong into Union Station.

But while all of this is obviously dangerous and unacceptable behaviour, I do feel a small twinge of empathy. How many of these drivers, like me, learned to drive in places where there are few pedestrians, no cyclists and little resembling urban road design?

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a Campaign Research poll published last week showing 60 per cent of respondents in support for licensing cyclists on Toronto’s streets.

Despite what any polls say, a licensing scheme for cyclists is a complete non-starter. City Hall has studied the idea at least three times in recent history, and each time come to the same conclusion: it would cost a bundle and discourage people from taking up a healthy and environmentally-friendly transportation option. I’m against it, and you should be too.

What I’m not against, however, is making better training available for cyclists. Make bike-riding on city streets part of gym classes. Expand the city-run CAN-Bike training program.

But it would be wrong to talk about training for road users without first talking about better training for the people operating the multi-tonne metal boxes – the road users who cause the vast majority of injuries and deaths.

The best and fastest way to do this is to make getting an Ontario driver’s license way more challenging. Instead of the suburban-oriented training I went through, require GTA drivers to know how to handle busy city roads. There should be no one in a car who isn’t properly trained and tested on how to safely navigate streets shared with pedestrians, cyclists and transit vehicles.

If that sounds too hard then, well, maybe driving just isn’t for you. The good news is there are alternatives.

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