Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A thumb on the scale

Over the weekend, someone put up a poignant protest at the courts: a white bicycle protesting the lack of justice for cyclists in Ontario courts. While I agree that Canadian courts have, in recent years, treated cyclists appallingly, I would go much farther than this. It seems to me that in virtually all cases where anyone, whether cyclist, pedestrian, or motorist has fallen victim to homicidally bad driving or roadside violence, someone, somehow, has put an obliging thumb on the blind lady's scales in favour of the errant motorist. Two young men kill a taxi driver by speeding on a downtown Toronto street at an estimated 30 to 90 km/h over the speed limit. They plead guilty of dangerous driving causing death, an offence which carries a maximum penalty of fourteen years in prison. They get a sentence of one year under house arrest, followed by an 11 pm to 6 am curfew, which their parents can override by giving them a note. Toronto drivers kill fourteen people un a little over three weeks, including one woman who runs a red light, kills a woman and very nearly kills the infant in a stroller. The police lay only provincial driving charges. An ex-politician tries to shake a cyclist off his car, battering him to death, and a prosecutor sees no prospect of conviction. A driver in Quebec hits a group of cyclists from behind, killing three; the police have yet to lay charges. A homicidally reckless, possibly drunk driver hits a car with his cement truck in Calgary. He kills five people, including three children, and virtually wipes out a family. The court awards a sentence of eight years, of which the defendant will serve five and a half. While heavier than most sentences for driving-related offences, this falls far short of the life sentences usually imposed for homicide, particularly in cases of multiple homicides with violence.

Not all of these cases represent the same level of leniency, and you could argue that in some of these cases, the courts have simply served justice based on the facts. But I challenge anyone to look at the overall record and maintain that the same trail of mayhem committed with guns or knives would elicit a similar response from the police and courts. The evidence that the legal system in this country treats the same harm very differently when delivered through a motor vehicle seems overwhelming, and it also appears equally clear that in too many cases, air bags, seat-belts and crumple zones do much less to mitigate the harm done by recklessness than car companies would like us to believe.

Some councillors and others have taken to whining that Toronto has embarked on a "war on the car". It seems clear to me that homicidally reckless drivers have long ago declared war on all of us: pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. So far, dangerous driving has killed more North Americans than al Qaeda and the Islamist movement, the Communist party (all communist parties), the government of Hideki Tojo, and the national socialist german worker's party. Combined. Maybe the time has come to stop mourning our dead, and instead to do something serious about the deaths.

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