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driving concerns

Why on Earth do we need provincial driving laws? Why can't we have one license and one set of laws for all the provinces? You travel to another province on vacation and you end up with a nasty surprise because the laws are different. It makes one wonder if the law is about safety or just another government cash cow! - reader comment

Why can't we have nice things, like consistent traffic rules from Victoria to St. John's?

"The [Constitution Act of 1867] assigned that matter to provincial authority," said Benjamin Berger, law professor and associate dean of students at Osgoode Law School. "Authority over highways and traffic has been assigned to provinces under Section 92.10, which is about local works and undertakings."

When deciding how to unite the colonies into four provinces - Ontario, Quebec Nova Scotia and New Brunswick - that would hopefully stay united, the fathers of Confederation agreed that certain powers, like education, should stay with the provinces.

It's called the division of powers.

So, 149 years later, you can be charged for texting in a Tim Hortons Drive-thru in Alberta but not in Ontario, you can't be in the left lane in Quebec unless you're passing, and flashing green lights don't mean you're clear to turn left in B.C. and the Yukon.

"Over time, Section 92.10 was understood to include traffic," Berger said. "The federal government has some authority - it can pass criminal law - but the provinces have basic jurisdiction over highways through history and judicial interpretation."

Besides Criminal Code sections banning impaired and dangerous driving, Ottawa has responsibility for the "standards and regulations regarding new and imported vehicles, tires, and child seats," Transport Canada spokesman Daniel Savoie said in an e-mail.

"The provincial and territorial governments have the responsibility and jurisdiction for driver licensing, vehicle registration, rules of the road, vehicle repairs, and road design, building and maintenance," Savoie said.

The provinces handle auto insurance, too.

So the provinces set their own rules, but are there any national or international standards they have to follow? Not really.

Ontario's Ministry of Transportation (MTO) said it "endeavors to create and apply regulations, policies and guidelines that meet the needs of drivers throughout the province, and are consistent with other jurisdictions throughout North America."

We're not totally alone in this. In the United States, each state sets its own rules - at least 19 states require you turn your headlights on with your windshield wipers. And while the EU isn't a country, each member state sets the rules - France requires every driver to carry a breathalyzer (but there's no fine for not doing it).

But for Canada, does this still make sense? If one province makes you honk before passing, shouldn't they all?

"That question gets asked in all sorts of regulatory areas - is it sensible to have 13 different sets of regulations?" Berger asks. "These are fair questions that arise as society changes and the division of powers stays stable."

While there's nothing in the constitution stopping the provinces from getting together and setting similar traffic rules, changing the constitution to allow a national traffic code wouldn't be easy.

Big changes require opening up the constitution. Any changes would require agreement from Parliament and at least seven provincial legislatures representing at least 50 per cent of the population.

"it doesn't allow for a lot of fiddling," Berger said.

Matt Bubbers drives the new Volkswagen Alltrack, an all-wheel-drive wagon that can take you everywhere an SUV can.