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(Peter Cheney, Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
(Peter Cheney, Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Minor traffic infractions a major police distraction Add to ...

I drive my wife to work each morning because I like to spend as much time with her as I can. But the commute has also provided an unexpected education on modern law enforcement – and by “law enforcement” I mean “revenue collection.”

Virtually every day, my wife and I see police stationed on Shaw Avenue, a quiet, tree-hung street that looks like anything but a crime hotbed. But there’s always a cruiser there. Some days there are two, or even three. Their job? To issue tickets to drivers who make the mistake of going straight at the intersection just to the north. (It’s illegal to go straight between 7 and 9 a.m., and 4 to 6 p.m.)

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The officers on Shaw bag dozens of drivers every day. The yearly total is probably in the thousands – Shaw Avenue has become a police ATM machine. That got me thinking about my experience with the law in Toronto.

As the son of a career army officer, I was programmed to accept authority. As a child, I thought of police as guardians – they worked the beat, protected the neighbourhood, and investigated crime. Or so I thought.

My faith began to erode about 15 years ago, when my wife and I experienced the first in a series of break-ins. Thieves kicked in the door of our garage and made off with my titanium racing bike and my mechanics tools. Considering we’d lost more than $15,000, I thought an officer would come to investigate. Such was not the case. The police took a phone report and told me to call our insurance company.

That first break-in was followed by four more. We were in the crosshairs of some determined criminals. And the police never came to our property once. I pleaded with them to fingerprint my garage, since there was an excellent chance that the thieves were repeat offenders whose prints would be in the system. The police said they didn’t have time.

Our insurance was cancelled, forcing us to pay exorbitant rates for facility-pool coverage. That stung. Then I got a ticket for going straight through the intersection on Shaw between 7 and 9 a.m. The restriction sign was hidden by trees, and I didn’t notice it. The officer said he had no discretion, and wrote me a ticket for $110.

Somewhere around this time, we noticed that the volume of parking tickets seemed to be on the rise. It wasn’t my imagination. In 1989, the city issued 803,723 parking tickets. By 2010, the number had risen to nearly 2.8 million. In early 2008, a green hornet started ticketing our second car in the alley behind our house. where we’d parked since 1994. According to our survey, the spot was on private property.

I called the city. After being passed from department to department, I finally reached a supervisor. He showed up at our house a few weeks later. According to his measurements, my car was indeed on private property, but a few inches of it projected into the city’s part of the alley. He said he’d advise the enforcement officers to back off. It worked. But not for long – the deluge of yellow tickets soon started again. We decided to sell our second car.

When I launched my driving column in 2009, I found myself with a new problem – my test cars needed a covered parking spot. I put them in my garage and borrowed parking spaces from friends for our family Honda. But there were times when nothing was available, so I paid for temporary street permits.

After paying for one permit, I was amazed to find a ticket on our car the next morning. I checked the ticket – I had listed the first three letters of our plate number as BXF instead of BFX. I was being fined $30 (plus payment surcharges) for a typographical error.

When it came to revenue-related enforcement, the city spared no effort. Green hornets patrolled my neighbourhood every day, and everyone I knew was getting tickets for offences that were clearly calculated to raise revenue. Several friends got bagged for speeding at a spot where the limit drops unexpectedly as you come off the Don Valley Parkway. Several others got ticketed for failing to put their renewal stickers on their vehicle documents as well as their plates.

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