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Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders speaks about the past year and takes questions from the media during a year end press conference at the police headquarter on Dec. 27 2018.

Fred Lum

Toronto police are planning a ticket blitz on distracted drivers, a campaign that comes on the heels of stiffer penalties imposed by the provincial government.

The action comes amid mounting concern that the city’s road safety plans are not reducing the death toll quickly enough. Mayor John Tory says distracted driving is a big part of the reason the situation isn’t getting better, but one advocate said that resorting to blitzes is illustrative of the city’s flawed approach.

Starting Monday, police across the city will be paying extra attention to enforcing the province’s distracted driving laws, said police Superintendent Scott Baptist. They will be in both marked and unmarked vehicles, including bicycles. To improve their vantage point and catch people with phones and other devices in their laps, some police will be riding transit and relaying their observations to other officers who can write tickets.

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Drivers issued those tickets can expect to pay more, subject to enhanced provincial penalties that came into effect on the first of the year. Under the new provincial law, most drivers will receive a $615 fine and three demerit points on a first offence, if they don’t fight the ticket in court. If the person chooses to go to court, a guilty verdict can see the fine range from $500 to $1,000. Upon conviction, the driver faces a three-day licence suspension.

Subsequent offences would mean longer suspensions, more demerits and the possibility, if the driver goes to court, of higher fines.

Novice drivers face the same fines as other drivers but won’t receive demerit points. Instead, they will be hit with a 30-day licence suspension upon first conviction, rising to 90 days and then revocation on subsequent offences.

The penalties are some of the toughest in the country, although Manitoba goes farther by suspending a drivers’ licence before conviction.

“Distracted driving is a conscious choice, a choice that must change,” Supt. Baptist said on Tuesday. “Please, speak with your friends and family members, tell them you’ve heard about this campaign. Talk about the need for everyone to get off their phones when they’re driving. Our goal is to change this behaviour.”

The blitz comes more than two years after the unveiling of the city’s Vision Zero road safety plan, which aims to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries on the roads. Forty pedestrians and five cyclists were killed in collisions on city streets in 2018, according to a count by The Globe and Mail, making it one of the worst in recent years.

In a year-end interview with the CBC, Mr. Tory said the plan was “not working.” Distracted driving was one reason the collision statistics weren’t improving, he argued. On Tuesday, the mayor told reporters that “we know that these blitzes help to heighten awareness” of proper driving behaviour. “It must become a thing of the past, distracted driving, if we are going to achieve the objectives of Vision Zero,” Mr. Tory said.

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But Michael Black, who sits on the steering committee of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, questions whether the city ever truly adopted the Vision Zero concept, an approach pioneered in Sweden.

Central to the philosophy of Vision Zero is that people will make mistakes and do foolish things, and so the road system has to be designed to prevent them dying as a result. An example of this would be an emphasis on reducing speeds, so that if people do break the law and drive distracted they are less likely to kill someone.

“Vision Zero doesn’t put a major emphasis on law enforcement – the purpose isn’t to point fingers at behaviour, the point is to change [road] design in order to channel behaviour into desired directions,” Mr. Black said on Tuesday.

“It’s not that I’m against blitzes, but the police have this tendency to attach blame to street users in a way that takes the onus off of the city for its bad design choices."

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