After spike in collisions, Toronto police chief proposes new traffic enforcement team

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Admitting that a steep reduction in Toronto police traffic enforcement has helped boost the number of crashes on city streets, Chief Mark Saunders wants to restore some of the officers dedicated to stopping bad drivers.

Safety advocates who have been demanding Saunders and Mayor John Tory get serious about enforcement in the wake of an alarming jump in the number of Toronto pedestrians killed by drivers — 34 so far this year — call his proposal a start but not enough to really help end the bloodshed.

A report by Saunders for the police services board proposes creation of a “Vision Zero enforcement team” — two shifts, each with three officers and a supervisor, on weekdays, aimed at crash-prone areas identified by data, at an annual cost of $1 million funded by the city.

The officers, working overtime on top of regular hours, would focus on drivers who are speeding, distracted, aggressive or impaired. Aggressive driving includes following too closely, running red lights, speeding, street racing, driving too fast for road conditions and passing improperly.

“It has been well documented through numerous studies that enforcement is a key component to achieving a reduction in deaths and injuries caused through preventable collisions and poor driving behaviour,” the report states, recounting Toronto’s enforcement history.

Between 2003 and 2012, police and the city ran a “Strategic Targeted Enforcement Measures” team — traffic officers “highly visible, pro-active and focused on high collision locations, community safety zones, high speed areas and other locations where the public was at risk.”

“This team strategically deployed its resources throughout the city and were effective in changing driver behaviour,” with a 125-per-cent increase in provincial offences tickets. In the same period, the total number of collisions on Toronto streets dropped by almost one-quarter.

The team was disbanded in 2013 amid staff reductions that continued under the police “modernization” program. Between 2013 and 2018 the number of tickets issued dropped from about 400,000 to just over 200,000, compared to a peak of 700,000 in 2010, according to the report.

After the team disbanded, the number of collisions started rising again, from less than 60,000 to almost 80,000 last year.

“Ultimately, as enforcement volumes decreased, collisions have increased,” Saunders’ report states. “The Service does not currently have a complement of officers that are solely dedicated to enforcement duties on a daily basis,” and traffic services officers are deployed citywide for tasks including collision investigations and reconstructions.

Asked Sept. 30 on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” about enforcement concerns, Saunders seemed to downplay the impact of fewer officers watching for bad driving, suggesting technology holds the most promise for making streets safer.

But his new report states only three tools — red-light cameras; photo radar in school and safety zones to be introduced after the Ontario government passes required regulations; and automated “stop” signs on school buses — yield tickets enforceable in court.

“The need for police officers to be assigned to conduct strategic, data-driven enforcement remains high,” states the report written in response to a request from city council and bound for police services board on Nov. 21 and then, if approved, to a city committee and 2020 budget talks.

Councillor Josh Matlow, who has long called for increased traffic enforcement, welcomed Toronto police “recognizing that their level of enforcement, which is virtually none, needs to be raised.”

But he called the proposed enforcement team “a small handful of officers for such a massive city,” unlikely enough to genuinely contribute to road safety under a multi-pronged “Vision Zero” road safety plan rebooted by Tory in June, with additional funding, after deaths continued to mount.

“I’m glad they are taking at least an incremental step but I’m skeptical that it’s enough,” Matlow said. I don’t want tokenism and I don’t want the police services board to check off a box and say we’ve completed something called Vision Zero.”

Jess Spieker, a cyclist whose spine was broken by a driver in 2015 and now belongs to advocacy group Friends and Families for Safe Streets, echoed Matlow’s concerns.

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“With a limited number of officers and only on weekdays, it’s something but so much more could be done,” including an “aggressive” redesigning of Toronto streets, with curves and “pinch points” to force drivers to slow, and reduce the need of police enforcement, she said.

Adam Cohoon, a member of pedestrian advocacy group Walk Toronto who uses a wheelchair, called Saunders’s proposal “a great start” but echoed the need for road redesign and added that Tory and city council need to also focus on the safety issues of sidewalk snow removal.

“A few extra officers might help a little bit but it’s not really going to solve our problems,” Cohoon said. “If they want to do a real European-style Vision Zero plan, that would actually help.”

Tory supports the proposal, his spokesperson Don Peat said, and “will want to make sure police deploy these officers along the streets identified by transportation staff — which is also part of the Vision Zero work the City has undertaken — where we know people are engaging in dangerous driving behaviours that are hurting people.”

David Rider

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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