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opinion

I hope you didn’t notice at the beginning of this month on Canada Day when Ontario increased the powers of police against drivers beside the road. I hope you’re a responsible driver and it will never affect you. But it might, whatever you do.

Bill 282, the Moving Ontarians More Safely Act, or MOMS, became law on July 1 and it increased the penalties for people caught driving recklessly and speeding excessively. Good – we need this, because there’s been a lot more idiocy on Canadian roads since the pandemic locked us all down.

It’s a problem everywhere. Police detachments across the country reported spikes last year in the number of drivers caught at excessive speed, tempted by powerful vehicles on open roads. In Ontario, Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said police in Toronto charged 796 drivers with stunting during the final 10 months of last year, which is a 222 per cent increase over the same period in 2019.

“Driving is a privilege and those that threaten the safety of others have no place on our roads,” said Mulroney when she introduced the bill in April. No argument there. If you’re now found guilty of stunting in Ontario, you’ll be fined at least $2,000 and as much as $10,000, possibly sent to jail for up to six months, and your driver’s licence will be suspended for at least a year. A second conviction includes a minimum three-year suspension, and a third conviction will be a lifetime ban.

Shouldn’t speed limits be designed for the ‘85th percentile’ of drivers?

Is going 20 or 30 km/h above the speed limit a big deal?

Stunting includes all kinds of reckless driving but is mostly thought of as excessive speed, and the definition of that just changed with MOMS. It used to be any speed of 50 km/h or faster above the posted limit; now, it is also any speed that’s at least 40 km/h above the posted limit when that limit is below 80 km/h.

I have no problem with any of this. Throw the book at ‘em, I say, provided they have the chance to defend themselves to a judge in court.

But that’s the problem with the MOMS Act, and it’s a huge abuse of arbitrary power. Last month, if a police officer in Ontario pulled over a driver and charged them with stunting, that officer would also impound the driver’s car and suspend the driver’s licence, each for a week. All costs of towing and impounding and reinstatement were borne by the driver, whether later found guilty or innocent. That was a lot of ammunition for the officer beside the road.

Now, those powers have increased to an automatic impoundment of two weeks and an automatic licence suspension of one month. For a guilty driver, this may well be fair justice, but at this point, beside the road, it’s an awful lot of arbitrary power for a solitary cop against an unconvicted driver, and it’s unprecedented in this country. In Newfoundland, your car will be impounded for three days at your expense and your licence suspended for a week; in British Columbia, your car will be impounded for a week; in Quebec, you’ll get an automatic seven-day licence suspension.

Being charged with stunt driving in Canada is not the same as being charged with impaired driving, which also carries harsh penalties handed out beside the road. Impaired driving requires a breath test and a blood test and is close to indisputable; stunt driving can be a judgement call by the police officer. In Ontario, for example, it includes spinning your wheels and hard acceleration (defined as “a marked departure from the lawful rate of speed.”) In Alberta, it’s defined as any “activity on a roadway that is likely to distract, startle, or interfere with other users of the roadway.”

This wording allows the police to shut down illegal Fast and Furious-style race meets and individual street racers, which is the intention. It also allows Alberta police to charge me if I wave at another driver, and Ontario police to charge me if my vehicle slips on an icy road. If I stand up for a moment on my motorcycle to stretch my legs in Ontario, that’s stunting.

Hang on, you say – give the police some credit here. They need some teeth if they’re going to be effective at their very difficult and challenging job, and normally I’d agree with you. However, while the vast majority of my occasional run-ins with the police on the road have been courteous, professional and well-deserved (and I’ve had a completely clean licence for most of the last decade, and never been suspended), I’ve had a few unfair charges as well.

One time, I was charged with speeding on my motorcycle when I know for a fact I was not, and the officer’s radar gun picked up the faster speed of the large truck behind me in another lane. I had no defence and put it down to karma. Another time, I was charged with speeding by a cop who tailed me; again, I know I was not speeding but again, I put it down to karma. It’s hard to blame karma for an unreasonable 30-day suspension and thousands of dollars of towing and impoundment fees.

My point is, police officers can make mistakes, and sometimes they do. If it’s serious, this is why we have the courts and a legal system that declares you innocent until proven guilty. Unless you’re at the side of the road in Ontario, and the cop is in a bad mood.

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