Blocking a driver from changing lanes? Bolting off a light to make a left turn? Congratulations, you could be charged with stunt driving
Originally published: May 9, 2016
You might remember when Ontario introduced its infamous stunt driving laws in September 2007. There was a lot of outcry in some sectors that the law essentially made a cop the judge, jury and executioner, right there by the side of the road. I may (cough) have been one of them. Do 50 km/h over the speed limit, and you get automatic impoundment of your car for seven days, a $2,000 fine and a week-long suspension of your licence. And that was just the start of the fun. By the time you added in demerits (six) and other circumstances, you could be up to $10,000 in fines and jail time.
The “50 over” part was of course what grabbed easy headlines; there was always more to the law than that, and it’s why variations of it have been picked up in other parts of Canada like Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Manitoba. There are differences within the respective laws, but the spirit is similar. Alberta continues to monitor according to speeding and careless driving laws, though tiny Prince Edward Island has a section on what qualifies as stunt practices.
Call it whatever you like; speeding, street racing, aggressive driving, stunt driving, dangerous or reckless driving – critics are correct that existing laws cover most of what is included under many stunt wordings; some, like reckless driving, fall under the criminal code. But the intent was to give officers a tool that addressed an increasing practice on our roads: people using them as racetracks. It’s hardly new; Jim Stark and Danny Zuko were sending up sparks on screen long before The Fast and the Furious made its debut. What has changed is increasingly sophisticated cars, and a lot of unsophisticated drivers trying to replicate their onscreen heroes.
The stunt law wasn’t about using a hammer to kill a flea; it was about using a hammer to pound in a very large, stupid nail. The charge covers things like weaving at high rates of speed, crossing into oncoming traffic for longer than it takes to complete a pass (playing chicken), blocking someone from changing lanes, and more. In Ontario, if you bolt off a light and make a left ahead of oncoming traffic, that’s stunting. Someone in your trunk? That, too. The speed is the instigator of the charge in most cases, but it is surrounding behaviour that backs it up. I agree with critics of the law that speed alone shouldn’t merit the roadside hook; according to Greg Schweiler at Trafficstop.ca, people charged with stunt driving are gambling so much on pleading not guilty they will gladly plea out to 49 over and have the charge reduced to Section 128 of the Ontario HTA – speeding. He acknowledges that courts rightfully view 50 km/h over in the city far more harshly than they do on the highway. Don’t look for much leeway there.
My initial concerns back in 2007 were that cops would be gleeful at the chance to get any car doing 151 km/h on our highways onto a tow hook. They’d be making the call for kicks. Actually, the wording of the law (and cops don’t make the laws) says they “shall” seize the car for impound if it’s doing 50 km/h over the speed limit. Not “may.” Shall. Because those speeds are often accompanied by the characteristics inherent in street racing – weaving, blocking, lifting and squealing tires – I’m okay with getting them off the street and letting them have their day in court. Toronto Police Services Constable Clint Stibbe tells me virtually every ticket is fought in court, too, with varying results. He clocked a woman doing 101 km/h in a 50 zone; she was late getting her kid to school, who was in the back seat. The bigger concern here isn’t being played out on the highways; it’s the idiots who are using your local streets as racetracks.
I profile other drivers as surely as airport security profiles fliers. I’ve taught my sons to pay attention to signs drivers give off if they’re about to get aggressive: creeping at crosswalks, eyes clapped only on the traffic signal, ready to blast out of the blocks like some Olympic sprinter. Yes, you get to be first – but too bad you didn’t notice a pedestrian step off the curb. I don’t trust polite drivers who wave others through stop signs, long after they legally should have gone themselves, or if you’re looking at your passenger as you talk to them, or if your driver’s seat is reclined so far back you look like you’re sitting in your La-Z-Boy after eating too much dinner at grandma’s.
You’re not in control if you have your dog on your lap. Actually in some jurisdictions this falls under the stunt laws, like in PEI where it is not permissible for “any person or thing to occupy the front seat of a motor vehicle in such a manner so as to impede the driver in the free and uninterrupted access to and use of the steering wheel, brakes and other equipment required to be used for the safe operation of the motor vehicle.” This means you can’t have Fifi on your lap, or a watermelon, or your date.
Do laws like this really change anything? I knew a man who viewed those speeding billboards much as he did menus; it was the cost of driving as fast as he wanted, and he had the wallet to do so. The extended fear of the punishment being so much more than a speeding ticket – stranded by the side of the road, impound fees, insane insurance rates – has provincial police saying it is definitely making a measurable impact. Some argued it was not constitutional, including a judge. But back in 2010, the Court of Appeal for Ontario in R v. Raham upheld the constitutionality of Ontario’s stunt driving provisions. This decision was not appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Office.
There will always be some, like the 18-year-old from Kleinberg, Ont., who two years ago was busted doing 240 km/h on Highway 407. Hard to think the law meant much to him, when he’d posted a picture of his Nissan GT-R on Twitter the week before under the caption, “bring on the tickets.”
He forgot about the bus pass.