A Toronto driver is far less likely to get a ticket for any of these risky moves now than they were a decade ago, according to exclusive new data obtained by the Star.
The Star’s analysis of the data — a month-by-month tally of relevant Highway Traffic Act tickets issued in Ontario between 2009 and 2018, as recorded by the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General — comes weeks after the Toronto Police Service confirmed its officers have ticketed far fewer drivers in recent years. The cops released their numbers, which revealed a sharp decline in traffic enforcement since 2013, in a successful call for the police services board to reinstate a dedicated traffic enforcement squad that was disbanded that year.
The provincial database reveals in new detail just how stark that decline has been: roughly 140,000 fewer speeding tickets last year than a decade earlier; 44 per cent fewer careless driving charges; a 7,000-ticket drop in charges for making an unsafe left turn at an intersection, a 93 per cent decline.
In total, Toronto police issued roughly 234,000 fewer tickets last year than in 2009, a much steeper fall in both number and percentage than for any other police service in the GTA and Hamilton. Police ticketing fell 66 per cent in Toronto, 19 per cent in the other services combined.
Simultaneously, tickets from red-light cameras in the city of Toronto have spiked in recent years, but not enough to make up for the drop in old-fashioned police citations.
Meanwhile, as enforcement has fallen, Toronto streets have seen significantly more collisions — and deaths. City data shows that collisions rose steadily in the last seven years, with 2018 marking the highest total since the early 2000s. Last year also saw the most pedestrians and cyclists killed in the city since at least 2005.
In an email responding to the Star’s questions about the decline in ticketing, Toronto police traffic services Supt. Scott Baptist said “many factors have contributed to these lower enforcement levels.”
Since 2008, police have put less emphasis on enforcement volume and focused more on “intelligence-led” tactics aimed at changing people’s behaviour — for example, distracted driving campaigns — that don’t necessarily result in more tickets, he said.
Police also got a new records system in 2013 that allowed for provincial offences tickets to be issued electronically, Baptist said. It “took time for officers to become familiar with and endorse, which contributed to a marked decline in total enforcement levels.” This new system also lets officers issue “electronic warning notices” at times, instead of tickets, Baptist added.
Toronto police also went through a hiring freeze, he said, and “prioritization of resources has also contributed in some situations.”
The decline in tickets was seen even for behaviours that police have highlighted as causes of traffic collisions in recent years, such as drivers using their phones behind the wheel or pedestrians jaywalking near a marked crosswalk.
Police issued nearly 14,000 fewer tickets for using a hand-held device while driving last year than at the service’s peak in 2011, a 61 per cent decline. (The law banning the use of smartphones while driving took effect late in 2009).
Tickets for pedestrians crossing near but outside a marked crosswalk fell more than 80 per cent in the last 10 years.
Tickets for passing a streetcar’s open doors have also dropped. Police gave out fewer than 70 tickets in 2018, down from about 200 in 2009.
A similar decline in enforcement also appears in separate records of Criminal Code traffic violations — serious offences such as dangerous driving and impaired driving, which are not under provincial jurisdiction. Last year, for the first time in 20 years of Statistics Canada data, Toronto police charged fewer drivers with a criminal traffic offence than both York and Peel regional police, despite the fact both serve a far smaller population.
Overall, the Toronto Police Service charged fewer drivers with a criminal offence in 2018 than in any year since amalgamation.
A Star analysis last month found most of that decline could not be attributed to the closure of the traffic enforcement squad in 2013 and instead came as regular officers across the city laid fewer charges.
Chief Mark Saunders presented a report to the police services boardlast month arguing that a sharp drop in the number of provincial offences tickets (a total that includes citations under any provincial law, including the Highway Traffic Act, the Liquor Licence Act and more) and subsequent rise in collisions was caused by the closure of the dedicated enforcement team.
In response, the board approved funding for a new traffic enforcement squad — two teams of three officers and a supervisor, covering a morning and evening shift each weekday.
Dubbed the “Vision Zero enforcement team,” it is a slimmed-down version of what existed in 2013, to be funded with $1 million annually.
By comparison, Peel Regional Police employ 81 officers dedicated to the day-to-day enforcement of the Highway Traffic Act, according to spokesperson Const. Akhil Mooken. Peel police issued about 10 per cent fewer tickets between 2009 and 2018, the same period that Toronto police enforcement fell by two-thirds.
“In addition to officers dedicated to Traffic Services, each of the service’s front-line officers enforce traffic when not responding to calls,” added Allison Sparkes, Toronto police director of corporate communications.
“The Toronto Police Service, as the largest municipal service in the country, manages an extremely high volume of priority calls, emergency and crisis calls on a daily basis, in addition to providing extensive traffic service and enforcement. Calls are complex with time on calls in Toronto having increased by 2.5 per cent in recent years.”
She added: “The service is committed to traffic education and enforcement as both are necessary to improve roadway safety for all users.”
In the years since Toronto police began charging fewer drivers, the city has issued many more tickets through its red-light cameras, which it administers on behalf of the province, not the cops.
Tickets from those cameras have gone up in recent years. In fact, there were more red-light camera tickets issued by the city in 2018 than all relevant Highway Traffic Act tickets issued by Toronto police.
Red-light cameras take pictures of cars caught running reds. The citations are sent to the address where vehicles are registered, which means the owner, not the driver, gets the ticket. Therefore drivers caught by a red-light camera are not given demerit points.
There are 149 cameras installed throughout the city in a program that dates back to the first provincial pilot in 1998. An expansion was approved in 2017 as part of the city’s Vision Zero efforts.
According to the city, the cameras are not meant to replace police officers on the ground, but rather complement their efforts.
“Cameras are installed at locations with the highest incidence of right-angle (T-bone) collisions. Red-light cameras can be used in locations where it can be operationally challenging for police to do enforcement due to space limitations,” wrote spokesperson Hakeem Muhammad in an email.
“Support from the Toronto Police Service is an essential component in the city’s multi-pronged Vision Zero Strategy. We continue to collaborate to enhance road safety in Toronto and are confident the police’s new traffic enforcement team will increase the Toronto Police’s ability to deter dangerous and distracted driving,” he added.
Police agree that the red-light cameras were never supposed to replace officers.
At the same time, Baptist noted, the red-light camera enforcement program has been “exceptionally effective and efficient in enforcing red-light violations at high-collision intersections, ultimately leading to reduced collision numbers in affected intersections.” (According to city data collected between 2008 and 2014, intersections with the devices saw fewer injuries and deaths.)
The Toronto police’s landmark 2016 modernization plan, titled “The Way Forward,” recommended a continued shift toward technology to make work more efficient and free officers up for high-priority calls.
“As we have often stated, technology offers many effective and efficient alternatives to traditional police enforcement practises,” Baptist said.
“That said, certain driving behaviours and offences are best addressed, at least currently, by traditional police enforcement methods.”
In other words, human officers are absolutely still needed.
“Consider the driver who makes an aggressive lane change, or one who runs a stale amber light. These offences are examples where the evidence surrounding the manoeuvre is required to be provided to the court to either prove the offence or not,” Baptist added.
Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University in Kingston, said much of the decline in tickets comes from the fact Toronto police, like police across the province, are short-staffed and need to triage calls.
There is a “disproportionate” amount of bad driving generally in Canada, particularly in urban centres, he said, “because we do relatively little and relatively lax traffic enforcement.”
That’s not because police don’t want to enforce the law, “but because the business model that we have for policing simply doesn’t allow police to spend a lot of time on traffic enforcement.”
As for the new traffic squad, Leuprecht said a million dollars for a few new officers is a “drop in the bucket.”
Technology, like the electronic devices Australia has been using to detect texting while driving, could play a role in “complementing” officers, he said. Leaving traffic enforcement to a separate municipal traffic police, as is the case in some European countries, is another option.
“I’m not saying we have to do that in Canada, but we have to have an informed public conversation about what is it we want our police services to do,” he said.
Where the Star got its data
Where does this information come from?
Toronto police publish a large amount of information as open databut have not released a detailed breakdown of tickets issued to drivers under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act.
The Star instead obtained these records in an electronic database from the province’s Ministry of the Attorney General, which collects the information on behalf of the courts.
The database includes the monthly total of tickets issued by any agency in the province between 2009 and 2018 for all charges under the act’s sections on speeding and violating the rules of the road. It also includes charges for using electronic devices while driving, among a few others.
The database does not include offences from some other sections, such as rules for commercial vehicles, driver’s licences or equipment violations.
It also does not include any tally of Toronto police tickets for city bylaws, such as parking tickets, nor any record of warnings issued to drivers.
Like most police services, Toronto police separately submit annual records of more serious Criminal Code traffic offences, such as impaired driving, to Statistics Canada.