Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders’ admission that daily enforcement of traffic laws ended years ago — and the number of collisions has since shot up — makes Heather Sim think of her dad Gary and the driver who fatally struck him.
“If this (enforcement) team hadn’t been disbanded in 2013, would the man who hit my dad have been ticketed before — maybe hit with a big fine, or change his driving habits, or lost his licence?” Sim said in an interview Wednesday. “Maybe he wouldn’t even have been driving that day.
“My dad could still be here.”
Gary Sim, a 70-year-old cycling advocate and retired accountant, was struck while riding on a sidewalk in the Rockcliffe-Smythe neighbourhood of west Toronto. Zivorad Simich, who made a last-minute veer into a plaza, received a $500 fine for making an unsafe left turn.
Sim’s daughter said she and other members of advocacy group Friends and Families for Safe Streets were “totally shocked” to learn, in a Star story about Saunders’ report going to the Police Services Board on Thursday, that routine enforcement they knew was inadequate had actually been gutted.
Between 2003 and 2012, police and the city ran a “Strategic Targeted Enforcement Measures” (STEM) team — “highly visible, proactive” officers ticketing drivers in high-collision locations, around schools and other areas where pedestrians and cyclists were most at risk.
Tickets issued jumped 125 per cent while the number of collisions dropped by almost one-quarter, the report states.
The team was disbanded in 2013 amid officer reductions that later continued under the police “modernization” program. By 2018, the annual number of tickets issued by officers plummeted to just over 200,000, from a peak of 700,000 in 2010.
“Ultimately, as enforcement volumes decreased, collisions have increased,” Saunders’ report notes. After the team disbanded, and police traffic services focused on crash investigations, collisions started rising, from less than 60,000 to almost 80,000 last year.
The report does not link enforcement to collision deaths and serious injuries of road users, but some city councillors and safety activists have long demanded an increase in what they call the one important tool in council’s “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate such road deaths.
Since 2013, according to police figures, more than 280 pedestrians and cyclists have died on Toronto roads, hitting a record high last year. Saunders’ report was triggered by city council requests for a review of traffic enforcement in light of such deaths.
The civilian-oversight police board endorsed the latest request in July 2018.
The chief proposes a limited one-year reinstatement of routine enforcement — a team of two shifts on weekdays, each with three officers and a supervisor working overtime, aimed at crash-prone areas identified by data. It would be funded with $1 million from the city’s Vision Zero budget.
Sim welcomed the move but called it too meagre for a massive city. She questioned Saunders and Tory rebuffing past calls for increased enforcement. They have argued that technology including red-light cameras and photo-radar, which could be on Toronto streets next month if the Ontario government approves it, will do a better job at curbing dangerous driving.
Saunders’ new report says technology has an enforcement role but “the need for police officers to be assigned to conduct strategic, data-driven enforcement remains high.”
Sims wants to know why the ticket and collision data weren’t examined one year after the end of STEM. “Why was this not looked at to see if there was a problem disbanding this team?” she said. “It just blows my mind.”
On Sept. 30 Saunders told CBC Radio that police research shows that in cities using technology to ticket drivers fatalities are reduced 25 per cent in some cases.
“Our officers do do enforcement right across the city, not to the same intensity as in the past. The (officer staffing) numbers aren’t there, for what we have, when it comes to that enforcement piece …,”, he said.
This week, police spokesperson Allison Sparkes said in a statement that “road and pedestrian safety are a priority for the Toronto Police Service.” She added that technology and the deployment of intelligence-led strategies for traffic matters are used throughout the city.
“With the goal of affecting driver behaviours, including aggressive and distracted driving, and educating all those who use our roads, we are proposing an extended 48-week project that will be dedicated to active enforcement,” she said,
The Star asked Tory about calls for increased traffic enforcement on Oct. 1. “We’ve placed a huge priority on getting the technology in place, because I still believe that in the vast majority of cases, it is better to use technology that’s very effective at stopping people from going through red lights,” he said at the time.
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Sign up for the Star’s Morning Headlines email newsletter for a briefing of the day’s big news.
“Frankly, it is a much better deployment of the time and resources of the police service to have them doing other things in the community and for us to use technology.”
Asked again this week, in light of the new report showing decreased officer enforcement and increased collisions, Tory noted STEM was disbanded two years before he was elected.
The mayor, a member of the police board, said he still believes technology to automatically issue tickets to drivers is key to helping improve driver behaviour and reducing collisions.
“We are not going to be able to have a police officer on every single street on every street corner every hour of every day, it’s not possible,” Tory said. “As a result of that we have moved, correctly in my view, to rely more, as we’re going to do, on technology — red light cameras, photo radar, and this kind of thing” he said, adding technology plus officer enforcement — an issue “we have reconsidered” — together will do the most good.
Councillor Josh Matlow has urged council to ask Saunders to review enforcement including in 2017, when Tory was among only five council members to vote against the motion.
Asked this week why he did so, Tory said he couldn’t recall the specific vote but neither the mayor nor council can make “operational decisions” for the police chief. Also, at council “there’s a lot of grandstanding that goes on where people are trying to score political points at a time of tragedy in the city.”
Tory voted for a similar Matlow motion in May 2018.
Matlow, asked about the mayor’s comments, forcefully rejected the “shameful” grandstanding accusation. None of his motions related to any single tragedy, he said, noting he has long called on Tory and Saunders to fully embrace Vision Zero and the traffic law enforcement component to reduce serious injuries and deaths.
Tory “represents (councillors) on the Police Services Board,” Matlow said. “I’ve gone to him time and time again, asking him to champion this (road safety) issue. When he voted against my motion, I asked him why and his response was, ‘Well, that’ll be taken as though we’re not doing a good enough job.’
“And my response to the mayor was ‘With all due respect, you’re not doing a good enough job.’ ”
Matlow is calling for the return of a fully staffed STEM team — a call that will be echoed at Thursday’s police board meeting in a joint submission from Friends and Families for Safe Streets and advocacy group Cycle Toronto.
Keagan Gartz of Cycle Toronto told the Star that “retracting STEM quietly in the name of police modernization only made sense if it was replaced with something. Replacing it with nothing was the opposite of what Vision Zero is supposed to represent.
“Ensuring that both police and drivers know the rules of the Highway Traffic Act, and enforcing dangerous driving rules, is the minimum standard we would expect of a billion-dollar (a year) police force,” she said.
Serious injuries and deaths on the roads are “essentially a public health crisis so can’t have less enforcement while we wait for technology.”