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road sage

Last weekend, Finnish multimillionaire businessman Anders Wiklof was driving along a road in the Aland islands, an autonomous archipelago in the Baltic Sea owned by Finland, when “suddenly” the speed limit changed to 50 kilometres an hour from 70. Wiklof was going 82.

In Canada, he might have gotten a ticket for a few hundred dollars.

Wiklof, however, was speeding in Finland, a country with “sliding-scale penalties” for traffic offenses and tickets are linked to salary. The Finns turn speeding tickets into big bucks and take a bite out of the upper crust.

Wiklof received a €121,000 fine ($173,600).

He was sanguine about his fate, as only one of the richest men in Finland could afford to be. Wiklof is chairman of Wiklof Holding, a €350-million-a-year enterprise with businesses in many sectors including real estate, trade and tourism. He told local newspaper HBL, “I slowed down, you shouldn’t panic brake. But then the blue lights came after me … I really regret the matter and hope that the money is in any case used for healthcare through the treasury.”

While extremely high, Wiklof’s speeding ticket was not the biggest in history. That honour belongs to a Swedish driver who was fined the equivalent of US$1-million in 2010 for speeding in Switzerland (the only other country with sliding scale penalties for speeding). The 37-year-old Swede was driving a Mercedes SLS AMG at 290 kilometres an hour (170 over the limit). He said his speedometer wasn’t working.

This wasn’t Wiklof’s first offence. In 2013, he was fined €95,000 ($136,000) for driving 76 in a 50 zone. In 2018, he was fined €63,680 ($91,200) for another offence. Combined with his last fine (which was increased because of repeat offenses), that’s a total of more than $400,000 in speeding tickets from just one multimillionaire.

Sliding-scale fines are primarily a European phenomenon. They conflict with North American principles of the free market. Why should someone be penalized for having money? Why should someone be punished for making a good living?

That said, in Canada there is some momentum in their favour. In February, 2023, council members in New Westminster passed a motion put forward by Mayor Patrick Johnstone to seek, according to the New Westminster Record, “the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ support for the provincewide implementation of a means-tested traffic fine system, where fines would be calculated on the basis of the offender’s income.”

Likewise, last month a Brooklyn city councillor introduced a bill that would create a sliding-scale fine structure in New York City. Those who litter, double park or idle in their vehicles could receive fines weighted to the “respondent’s daily disposable income.”

Do sliding-scale fines really work?

It depends on the goal. Sliding-scale fines make it easier for lower-income earners to pay traffic fines. A $232 fine is a lot if you earn $1,000 a week. If you are wealthy, the sliding-scale fine system has no effect. Sliding-scale fines have not appeared to deter Wiklof. As with most systems, it will be the ever-shrinking middle class that would be hit the hardest.

Besides, sliding-scale fines are calculated by annual declared income, not capital gains. Thanks to Canada’s tax system, which has more holes than a wheel of Swiss Cheese, the richest Canadians do not have annual declared incomes that reflect their true wealth. In fact, it’s likely that many have very low or even zero declared annual incomes.

It’s important to recognize that a tax is not a fine. Taxes are paid to support the system of government. Fines are meant to be deterrents. A casual drive around any city or town reveals that speeding tickets are not much of a deterrent. Drivers speed all the time. A real deterrent would be the loss of a driver’s licence. The present system across every province is too lax. In order to lose your licence, you have to make an effort to speed and get caught and even then there are too many warnings and temporary suspensions.

There is one option, one that deters speeding, illegal parking, idling in vehicles and other related offenses: excellent and vibrant public transit, but that goes against a time-honoured Canadian tradition – refusing to fund public transit adequately. Speaking of other Finnish approaches to transit, Helsinki has an incredibly efficient public transit system. A single €3.20 ticket on the HSL gives a traveller access to bus, tram, metro, commuter train and ferry services. In Helsinki, in 2017, 77 per cent of morning city centre commutes were made using public transport. In the greater Helsinki area 21 per cent of travel was made on public transport. So, if we want to imitate the Finns, perhaps we should start there.

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