Deadly highway crashes up dramatically: OPP
TORONTO - Fatal crashes on Ontario highways are up dramatically in 2007 compared with the same time period last year, and that number is bound to increase by the end of the long weekend, a traditionally deadly time for drivers, say Ontario Provincial Police.
The OPP say they're making big strides in addressing the issues that lead to fatal crashes, primarily drunk driving, speeding and failing to buckle up -- but critics say the province could be doing more.
The number of people killed on OPP-patrolled highways is already at 191 for this year, compared with 153 in the same time period last year, said OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino. He added speed was involved in about 25 per cent of this year's fatalities.
On June 18, two young men were arrested after a truck driver was killed on Highway 400. The men were allegedly racing at speeds over 200 kilometres an hour. Two days earlier along the same stretch of highway, 11 people were injured in a four-car pileup that police say was caused by street racers.
Fantino says the OPP is looking at "best practices'' across North America to try and prevent similar accidents in the future.
The commissioner was in Ohio recently to see how police planes are being used there to catch dangerous drivers. In addition, Fantino has asked the government to amend legislation so any driver going 50 kilometres an hour over the speed limit would automatically be considered a street racer and have their car impounded for seven days. He has also publicly supported roadside suspension of driver's licences.
But safe driving isn't solely the responsibility of the police and the province, said Fantino.
"It's a shared responsibility,'' he said. "People have to take more responsibility for what they do, and so many of these things are preventable. They're not accidents -- they're a caused occurrence.''
OPP traffic Sgt. Cam Woolley says the OPP is working to educate the public about responsible driving, which he says too many people treat as a victimless crime.
"Whether the police catch you or not, physics is enforced all the time, and there's a death penalty for speeding,'' he said.
"We're trying to make street racing and speeding uncool.''
And the campaigns seem to be working, he added.
"When I joined the OPP 29 years ago, drinking and driving was somewhat socially unacceptable, and then the tide turned and people would no longer accept the preventable deaths and injuries from drunk drivers,'' he said.
"I've seen the same thing slowly starting to happen with speeding. Society's starting to see these things as the crimes that they are.''
Of course, education has to work hand-in-hand with enforcement, and Woolley fully supports Fantino's calls for more stringent penalties for dangerous driving.
"Right now if we catch somebody really speeding, they end up getting a ticket to come to court in the next year, year and a half maybe, and the courts are so overloaded it might fall through the cracks or they'll get a deal,'' said Woolley. "There's really not any significant deterrent.''
To Woolley, the most effective deterrent is increased police presence, and that's why the OPP has started to use data analysis to focus their efforts on so-called "hot zones,'' or high-collision areas. Partly as a result of this new approach, the OPP has already laid 33,000 more traffic-related charges this year compared with the same time period last year.
But critics say there's always more the OPP and other police services could be doing to prevent traffic fatalities.
Canada Safety Council spokeswoman Suzanne Robillard says the obvious solution is the use of photo radar -- a radar gun that takes photos of speeders' licence plates.
Photo radar was introduced in Ontario by Bob Rae's NDP government in 1994, but it was scrapped just under a year later by Mike Harris's Conservatives.
Premier Dalton McGuinty has said his government won't re-introduce it, as it's considered too politically unpopular.
But Robillard said a Canada Safety Council poll found that two-thirds of respondents support photo radar on Canadian highways.
"So it seems like it might not be such a bad political move. There's a lot of people that see the use and the benefits of having photo radar,'' she said.
Whatever the government decides, Woolley says it will be hard for the OPP to do much more without more funding. And he says the public will need to show their support for a crackdown on dangerous driving before that funding can be politically viable.