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Why don’t traffic laws apply on private property in Ontario?

My family hosted a wedding at a community hall and we booked a school bus to transport guests so no one would have to drive. During the evening, the bus driver hit two parked cars. Ontario Provincial Police were called to the scene and took a statement but said they could not lay charges as it was private property. The officer said unless the driver was in the act of committing a crime or impaired that he could not lay a charge. He did not administer a breath test to the driver. Since the hall property is owned by the town, would it not be public property? Moreover, why don't traffic laws apply on private property? – Tom

If that parking lot driver had crashed a wedding in any other province, he could have been charged for breaking traffic laws. Ontario's the only province where the rules of the road only apply on actual roads.

"The Highway Traffic Act isn't enforceable on private property," said Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Peter Leon.

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Ontario's Highway Traffic Act (HTA) generally applies only on highways – and that doesn't just mean Highway 401. Under the act, a highway is "a common and public highway, street, avenue, parkway, driveway, square, place, bridge, viaduct or trestle, any part of which is intended for or used by the general public for the passage of vehicles."

That doesn't include parking lots, even those owned by the government. And because Ontario parking lots aren't considered roads, you generally can't be charged with breaking the HTA.

That also means you can drive a vehicle without a licence, insurance or registration on private property.

"People who live out in rural areas have a farm vehicle – if they drive it on farm property without a licence, it's not an issue," Leon said. "If they drive across the road, now you need to be licensed and it needs to be registered."

Technically, you could go to a parking lot or other private property and drive a vehicle you're not licensed for – like a motorcycle, school bus or even an 18-wheeler.

We asked Ontario's Ministry of Transportation (MTO) why the HTA doesn't apply on private property.

"In terms of the Highway Traffic Act, the ministry does not provide legal interpretations or opinions of it to the public," the MTO said in an e-mail statement. "Every situation is fact-specific, so it is not possible to set out every instance where the Act would or would not apply."

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Ontario is the only province where the rules don't apply on private property. In Quebec, some driving laws apply on private property and others – like the distracted driving law – don't.

But, that doesn't mean drivers can do anything in Ontario parking lots and get away scot-free.

"If I'm driving erratically in a snow-covered parking lot and I strike a parked car because of my carelessness, the HTA doesn't apply – but the criminal code does," Leon said. "The criminal code applies everywhere."

In that case, a driver could be charged with dangerous operation of a motor vehicle under section 249 of the Criminal Code of Canada. The maximum penalty is five years in jail. It's not a charge police give lightly, Leon said.

"You have to be driving in a manner that puts other people in extreme risk," Leon said.

Other possible criminal charges include failing to stop at the scene of an accident and impaired driving.

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If someone crashes into you in a parking lot, the accident has to be reported – either by calling police or going to a collision reporting centre – if the damage is more than $1,000, Leon said.

And you should call police if someone is injured, if it's a hit-and-run, or if a driver seems impaired.

"If you as a citizen feel you can smell alcohol or think the driver is acting like they're impaired, I would suggest calling 911 and say you've been in a collision and believe there's a driver involved who has been impaired," Leon said. "I'd suggest getting the licence plate and if they drive away, don't follow the vehicle."

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