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Eleanor McMahon was prepared to forgive the man whose careless driving had killed her husband. It had been an accident, she reminded herself in her grief - a tragic, stupid error in judgment, but still an accident.

On a clear afternoon in June of last year, Ontario Provincial Police Sergeant Greg Stobbart, 44, was pedalling his black custom-made Aquila bicycle up a hill near Milton, Ont., training for a triathlon the following weekend.

Michael Dougan, a 31-year-old driver for a local construction company, pulled his dump truck into the oncoming lane to pass, just as two cars appeared at the crest of the hill. He swerved back to avoid them, travelling at roughly 70 kilometres an hour, and his side-view mirror smacked into Sgt. Stobbart's head, catapulting him off his bike and into a ditch.

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The policeman's helmet could not save him. In addition to the head injuries, the impact broke both his legs, shattered his pelvis and sliced through a major artery in his abdomen.

He survived long enough for Ms. McMahon to hold his hand in the hospital.

They had been married for only four years, after being set up at a party by a friend; Sgt. Stobbart had started a new job at the Caledon OPP detachment the week before - they had moved there from the Ottawa Valley, partly because Sgt. Stobbart had worried too much about Ms. McMahon commuting to work 150 km into the capital.

Just that week, he had warned her to be careful biking on Tremaine Road: He had had a close call with a dump truck.

And then, suddenly, she was giving permission for a blind stranger to get her husband's eyes and facing an empty house.

If she made room in her thoughts for Mr. Dougan, they weren't vengeful, even when he was convicted of careless driving. After all, she knew he had to live with Sgt. Stobbart's death on his conscience.

But at his sentencing on Sept. 17, she learned the backstory: In 10 years, Mike Dougan had racked up a long list of traffic violations - including five for driving with a suspended licence - and $14,000 in fines. Two months after the accident that killed Greg Stobbart, he was charged with following too close to another car after getting into a second accident, a classic pattern in aggressive driving.

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Ms. McMahon was stunned: Why had Mr. Dougan been allowed to keep driving - and for a living - when he consistently broke the rules?

Given Mr. Dougan's driving record, the Crown asked for 30 days in jail. He was given 100 hours of community service and two years' probation, along with an order to take a driver's education course and a one-year licence suspension. He is now appealing that conviction.

"My husband's accident was so preventable and so senseless that I had to do something," she says. "Surely to God, we can do something that allows the police to stand up to these people and say, 'I'll be taking your keys and licence now, and your driving days are over.' "

Taking action

Since the hearing, Ms. McMahon, a communications consultant and former press secretary to prime minister Jean Chrétien, has begun pushing for new legislation in Ontario to deal with dangerous driving.

She isn't alone in her concern: A poll released this week by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation found that 51 per cent of Canadians believe that the legal consequences for aggressive driving should be equal to the penalties given a drunk driver.

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Drivers on the country's increasingly congested highways report the impression - shared by their peers across the Western world - that tailgating, horn-honking, red-light-running road maniacs are on the rise. And yet few admit to being members of their ranks.

In studies of traffic accidents, excessive speed has been a factor in nearly 20 per cent of fatal crashes and injuries. A Quebec study found that one-quarter of traffic injuries at intersections were caused by running a red light. Speed can make the difference between life and death - the chances of a person dying in a collision are four times greater for vehicles travelling at 120 kilometres an hour, compared with cars moving at 100 km/h.

But aggressive drivers are notoriously hard to catch - until their high-risk behaviour literally smashes up with another vehicle on the road. They cause more accidents than simple speeders. And when you take away their licences, the majority of them keep driving.

In some cases, the behaviour escalates or includes driving drunk: By the time many impaired drivers get caught behind the wheel, they already have a long list of traffic violations. In other cases, the violence spills outside the car - road rage is so prevalent in the United States that a report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety cautioned drivers that you "are playing Russian roulette if you raise a middle finger to another driver."

Research suggests that aggressive driving will only rise, fuelled by frustrating traffic congestions and the next batch of young drivers who sat in the back seat as children watching their parents explode at the wheel. A growing number of experts say that the police need more powers to stop them in their tracks and that society has to learn to not laugh at road rage.

The legislation Ms. McMahon is seeking would increase the penalties for high-risk drivers and give police unrestricted access to traffic records at the roadside. It would also allow police to seize vehicles on the spot if they are driven by chronically aggressive drivers. (These provisions are already in place in some provinces.)

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Some actions are already being taken to get dangerous drivers off the road. As of this weekend, Ontario police will have new authority to immediately impound the vehicles of drivers caught racing 50 kilometres or more above the speed limit - part of the province's move to deter street racing. In the most serious convictions, police can now permanently seize vehicles involved in street racing (to date, the province has crushed two cars modified to race) and a similar provision is being finalized for repeat impaired-driving offences.

In Ottawa, the Conservatives introduced changes to the Criminal Code that would make it easier for police to take blood samples in drunk-driving cases, though the legislation died when the House of Commons went on hiatus and will have to be introduced again. Other provinces now immediately impound for up to 90 days the vehicles of drivers caught with suspended licences - regardless of who owns the car.

Individual police forces have organized special units to target high-risk drivers. Alberta is currently attempting to have a repeat impaired driver declared a dangerous offender, the first case in Canada.

Various American states are also looking at increasing penalties for aggressive and suspended drivers. In Florida, lawmakers have considered a bill that would set minimum jail time for suspended drivers caught on the road - a proposal that followed the deaths last year of three police officers killed by people driving illegally. In August, a police deputy was shot in the head during a traffic stop by a man with 37 traffic violations and 14 licence suspensions.

In Canada, an estimated 70 per cent of people with suspended licences still drive and, according to a study conducted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), one in 14 crashes were caused by suspended drivers. But those are only the ones who are caught. In reality, the statistic is believed to be about 18 points higher, because unlicensed drivers are more likely to flee the scene of an accident.

The chances they will be caught are slim. Even when they are stopped, traffic experts, police authorities and victims groups say, it's often easy for them to avoid serious consequences in a legal system where technicalities and good lawyers see charges reduced or dismissed.

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Traffic-ticket companies, many of them staffed by retired police officers, boast near-perfect success rates in having violations tossed out or reduced on technicalities, usually without the accused even required to make an appearance in court - the trial takes too long to happen, the arresting officer isn't available to testify, the radar machine wasn't tested.

Drunk drivers also get an easier ride in Canada, argues Robert Solomon, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario. A British Columbia study found, for instance, that only 11 per cent of impaired drivers admitted to hospital were eventually convicted: In Sweden, the same statistic is 90 per cent.

Instead, Dr. Solomon observes, Canada has defence lawyers advertising their success rates for impaired-driving acquittals. "Do you think we would tolerate any criminal lawyers saying, 'So you've sexually abused a child, we can get you off on a technicality, no problem.' Would we tolerate that for a nanosecond?"

Part of the problem, says Bill Grodzinski, the Chief Superintendent of the OPP Highway Safety Division, is that high-risk driving doesn't earn public censure - whatever we say in polls, you can still joke about your speeding ticket at a dinner party. "We have to make aggressive driving as socially unacceptable as impaired driving and we're not there yet," Supt. Grodzinski says.

Lost children

For Muriel Carifelle, it could not be more serious. Last December, her daughter, Misty Chalifoux, and her three young daughters were driving to the new Wal-Mart in Slave Lake, Alta., so the girls could spend their allowance for finishing their chores.

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Not far away, Raymond Charles Yellowknee stumbled out of a nearby bar and stole a car that had been left running. The police were called and gave chase, and as they closed in, Mr. Yellowknee swerved across the highway and smashed full force into a passing Pontiac Sunfire. Ms. Chalifoux, 13-year-old Michelle, nine-year-old Trista, and Larissa, who was just 6, were killed, leaving behind their father and two baby brothers.

"It went from a house full of children," Ms. Carifelle says, "and now there was just total, total devastation."

Mr. Yellowknee, 35, had a dark history with cars - a raft of traffic violations, two previous convictions for impaired driving - and had recently been released from jail. He pleaded guilty to the charges stemming from the accident, including four counts of dangerous driving causing death. He has now become a test case for the province of Alberta, which is pursuing dangerous-offender status at his sentencing next month, which would significantly reduce his chances of ever being released from prison.

If they succeed, he will be the first impaired driver to be declared a dangerous offender, a status typically reserved for people who have committed sexual and/or violent crimes. The closest similar case involved an Ontario man named Tim Allen, whose 20 impaired-driving charges earned him long-term offender status in 2003, which required close supervision for 10 years after his release from prison.

But there is no evidence that stiffer penalties make drivers more careful or reduce drinking and driving, says Gerald Wilde, a traffic-psychology researcher at Queen's University. A significant portion of impaired drivers fall into categories - alcoholics and binge drinkers 16 to 24 years old - for whom punishment is a marginal deterrent at best.

High-risk drivers are an elusive and audacious group - to nab suspended drivers, one police officer said wryly, you only have to wait outside the courthouse after they receive their sentence. Most of the time, they are stopped by police only when they commit another traffic violation.

Handing out tickets rarely works on the worst offenders. Last summer, Supt. Grodzinksi was driving an unmarked car outside London, Ont., when a fleet of sports cars raced past him on the highway at about 200 kilometres an hour, participants in the notorious Bull Run Street Race between Montreal and Los Angeles. The OPP managed to pull two cars over and lay the most serious charges available - careless driving and speeding over 170 km/h.

But they had to let the drivers carry on.

"We know they continued to drive like maniacs and, in the end, they were convicted in abstentia," Supt. Grodzinski recalls. "With this new street-racing legislation, those cars would have been in the back of a tow truck and they wouldn't have been partying all night."

Some police departments have taken matters into their own hands, specifically targeting high-risk drivers with suspended licences who are likely to hop in a car. York Regional Police has started Operation Disqualified, which creates a database of problem drivers (those who have lost their licences because of repeated violations) so that officers travelling in their neighbourhoods can watch for their cars, or recognize them if they are stopped.

A dozen of the most serious offenders - those with fatal collisions on their records - are placed under specific surveillance. In 2006, Operation Disqualified resulted in nearly 1,300 charges against illegal drivers.

But targeting drivers in that way is expensive for police forces - a similar program in Edmonton was stopped because of costs, though it is planned to relaunch in the new year.

Even impounding cars can be complicated - creating a burden, for instance, on innocent family members. (In the United States, where vehicle forfeiture is common, Andy Muire, chief executive officer of MADD Canada, says authorities have had to rent abandoned schoolyards to store the overflow of unclaimed junk vehicles.)

The law can be a blunt instrument - not all chronic speeders will cause accidents and not all impaired drivers will reoffend. Dr. Wilde suggests that the overall link between demerit points and accidents is very low, and evidence consistently suggests that slow drivers cause more collisions than fast ones.

In fact, a study released this month by the British Department for Transport found that only 2 per cent of accidents were caused by straight speeding. Most were caused by "losing control," being "careless, reckless or in a hurry" or travelling too fast for conditions - all behaviours characteristic of aggressive drivers. The trick is to identify the truly dangerous drivers before they kill someone - no easy task.

Seeking solutions

Technology may have an answer for impaired drivers, suggests Mr. Muire, who is currently sitting on a North American blue-ribbon panel on traffic safety with government agencies, police authorities and car manufacturers. The panel has set a 10-year goal for transdermal fingerprint technology that could automatically tell if drivers have been drinking the instant they grab the steering wheel, and then stop the car from starting.

It is similar to the technology found in the bracelet assigned by the court to actress Lindsay Lohan to monitor her drinking, although a car version would have to take a faster reading.

Right now, the technology is too expensive and cumbersome and gives too many false readings, but Mr. Muire suggests that eventually a transdermal sensor might virtually eliminate impaired driving. "I think we've gotten as far as we're going to get on behavioural change," he says. "We're never going to convince alcoholics not to drive and young people not to drink."

For Eleanor McMahon, meanwhile, the effort to raise awareness and bring tougher laws for aggressive drivers - legislation she hopes might some day be called "Greg's Law" - makes the days pass more easily.

"Losing Greg was like the elevator floor dropping out of my life," she told the court in her victim-impact statement.

Every day, she sees the empty place by the piano where her husband used to lean his bike, refusing, with characteristic laughter, to leave it in the garage. A triathlete herself, she has not taken her own bike on the road since that June day.

Tomorrow, in the spot where Greg Stobbart died, she will put up a memorial in his name, a bright yellow sign posted by the gravel shoulder reminding passing drivers to safely share the road with cyclists, and each other.

Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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