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Law society should clean up dubious legal ads

Posted on 08 February 2017 by admin

For years, Ontario lawyers were barred from advertising their services. Crass commercial pleas, it was thought, would reflect badly on the profession and undermine trust in the legal system. This prohibition was eventually – and reasonably – deemed an impediment to the public’s right to know what legal services are available and, in 1987, the Law Society of Upper Canada changed the rules to allow for ads as long as they were factually verifiable, accurate and generally preserving of the public trust.

Or, at least, that was the idea. Since the rule change, according to a Star investigation, the world of legal advertising has become a “wild west,” with firms regularly making false or misleading claims or otherwise flaunting the regulations. Meanwhile, the law society, which is supposed to regulate the profession, appears to be doing little about it.

With trust in the legal system and other institutions on the decline, these truth-bending advertisements threaten to compound the problem. It’s time the law society took another look at the rules and how they’re enforced.

One issue is the touting of dubious awards and other unsubstantiated accolades in legal advertising. The current rules caution against any one firm stating it is “qualitatively superior” to another. Yet, as Star reporters Kenyon Wallace and Michele Henry discovered, dozens of firms, particularly ones specializing in personal injury, regularly break this rule.

Another web address, www.bestpersonalinjurylawyertoronto.com , led directly to the Preszler injury firm’s site. Contacted by the Star, a representative of the firm said Preszler does not own the URL and, in any case, he added, “I don’t think the name of a domain suggests that somebody is better than the other.” But how else, one wonders, can bestpersonalinjurylawyertoronto.com be read?

The law society is currently reviewing the rules around advertising and is expected to report back with recommendations later this month, possibly including an outright ban on the use of awards, real or imaginary, in ads. Given how widespread this practice is – the Star found 25 examples with a perfunctory Google search – and how many of the awards appear to be invented or paid for, that would be a good start.

A second issue is enforcement. Between 2011 and 2015, the law society received 604 complaints about problematic advertising – 304 of which were initiated by the regulatory body itself. Yet not one lawyer has been disciplined. Most of the cases have been resolved through compliance, such as changing the offending advertisements. With this the law society seems content, telling the Star that better enforcement is not likely to be among its upcoming recommendations.

That’s a mistake. Lawyers should not be allowed to lie to or mislead the public with impunity. Serious or repeated transgressions should lead to some form of discipline.

Going back to an outright ban on legal advertising would be misguided, but neither can lawyers be allowed to mislead the public and undermine trust in the crucial institution they represent. The law society has a responsibility to impose more stringent rules and to discipline those who break them.

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Canada must stand strong in wake of attack on mosque

Posted on 01 February 2017 by admin

More than a million Canadians are Muslim, and in the wake of the horrific shooting at a Quebec City mosque many of them will be living in fear. They need to know that their fellow citizens are standing with them, not just in words but in deeds.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other political leaders found eloquent words on Monday in condemning the attack and expressing solidarity with Canadian Muslims. Trudeau called it a “terrorist attack… an attack on our most intrinsic and cherished values as Canadians, values of openness diversity and freedom of religion.”

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume also did the right thing by standing firm with the city’s shaken Muslim community. Couillard insisted that Canada and Quebec must remain “a beacon of tolerance” in a world that increasingly seems to be losing its head.

That’s all fine, but the fact is alarm bells have been ringing for a long time, warning of a rising climate of hate. The last thing Canada needs is to content itself with patting itself on the back for remaining an island of kindness in a hostile world.

Investigators are just starting to unravel the motivation for the attack, which they say involved a single shooter, a young Quebec City man named Alexandre Bissonnette.

But it has escaped no one that the shooting comes as hostility towards outsiders in general and Muslims in particular has reached fever pitch in many countries. The Trump administration’s crackdown on refugees and immigrants from selected Muslim countries sends a powerful message of fear and danger that will have toxic effects far beyond the borders of the United States. And of course, politicians throughout Europe have been fueling similar sentiments for years.

Closer to home, the signs of a darker mood have also been there for those willing to see them. Even as the Trudeau government opened Canada’s doors to refugees from Syria, that was far from the whole story in this country. In fact, hate crimes directed at Muslim-Canadians more than doubled over the past three years, while such crimes were actually down overall.

Quebec, in particular, has seen a growth in anti-Muslim feeling and a troubling inconsistency in the public response to it. Some politicians there have cynically stoked fear of Muslims or failed to condemn it when it reared its head.

It’s good to hear Couillard speak out strongly, but Quebec needs all its political leaders and opinion-makers to be firm on this. They should take the mosque attack as a dire warning to stop using issues like the niqab as a wedge to score cheap points with voters. As Couillard noted, words can have real impact in the real world.

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Donald Trump is out to write the script for his new reality show

Posted on 26 January 2017 by admin

President Donald Trump.

As improbable as it still seems to read those words, or to write them, they are reality. The one-time businessman took the oath of office Friday and is now the most significant political figure in the nation, and the world.

In a bleak inaugural speech laced with populist and nativist themes, the president said he would not let the country down. “We will face challenges. We will confront hardships. But we will get the job done,” he said.

Since the election, Americans and people worldwide have sparred over how the public should view the new president. Many insist Trump’s communication style and ideas are so far outside the mainstream he should be treated as unqualified and illegitimate.

We saw evidence of the widespread unease about Trump Saturday, when millions of Americans, most of them women, poured into streets and parks across the nation and the world. Their message, delivered in the best tradition of American dissent, was clear: President Trump should not be normalized.

Many of us are understandably worried Trump threatens long-standing democratic norms: free expression, the protection of minority and individual rights, the importance of debate and compromise. Much of his campaign and parts of his transition have amplified that fear.

But declaring this a failed presidency before it even begins won’t help our country. Like every president before him, Trump deserves a chance to succeed, and Americans should commit to giving him the opportunity to do so.

Part of our reasoning comes from principle. Like it or not, Trump is now the president for all of America. The nation faces enormous challenges: health care, wealth inequality, education, job creation, foreign relations. If Trump fails, we do, too.

If President Trump thinks he’s getting a fair shake, he may moderate his rhetorical approach and carefully consider different views on public-policy questions.

If not, a siege mentality likely will consume the White House, and he will do whatever he wants.

Of course, Trump may do whatever he wants, regardless of the circumstances. That means our willingness to give the president some running room has limits.

Trump’s endless tweet-storms are at best pointless and at worst dangerous. Twitter battles must stop. Governing America is serious business, not a 140-character rant delivered in the middle of the night.

Trump, to his credit, has pushed back against some of this extremism, promising to be a president for all Americans. If he can accomplish that goal, he’ll deserve our applause.

Similarly, if Trump can reverse the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs without seriously harming foreign trade, that’s a win for America. If he can boost the farm economy, or bring growth to troubled inner cities, or stop the plague of violence that threatens police and minority communities, he will have helped his country.

We hope he can.

To be clear: We will take President Trump at his word. The suggestion we shouldn’t take his statements literally is absurd — how else are we to understand him? Guess?

And when he makes demonstrably false claims, he isn’t being “colorful” or “populist.” He’s lying.

The president’s words and actions will be judged by media and people.

If President Trump succeeds, you’ll know it.

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Stop deportations under defunct rule

Posted on 19 January 2017 by admin

Canada would be lucky to have Gina Bahiwal.

Since arriving here in 2008 the university-educated social worker from the Philippines has worked tirelessly as a farm labourer, housekeeper and McDonald’s employee to support her family back home — and still found time to fight relentlessly for migrant workers’ rights.

Now, in a cruel irony, the temporary foreign worker is being deported out of Canada under the so-called four-in-four-out regulations that she fought so successfully to revoke.

According to the rule, migrant workers had to leave after four years and could not return to Canada for another four. Though the policy was quashed by the Trudeau government in December, Bahiwal and other foreign temporary workers whose work visas had expired before that date were not grandfathered.

Her deportation would be a loss for this country. Canada’s new Minister of Immigration, Ahmed Hussen, should halt it before it occurs on Sunday — and reconsider the fates of other workers still in the country whose visas expired under the now defunct rule.

“Every victory that we have accomplished, from banning recruitment fees to ending the four-in-four-out rule, is attributed to the activism of Gina,” said Chris Ramsaroop of Justicia for Migrant Workers. “She is a leading force for a more compassionate, fair and inclusive society.”

While Bahiwal could apply for re-entry to Canada after deportation it would be difficult. She would need a rare authorization from the minister because she has overstayed her welcome which ran out in October 2015.

But there is still hope. In the spring of 2015, before forming government, Justin Trudeau said the Harper regime’s four-in-four-out rule was “yet another example of a government that lacks compassion and a flexible reasonableness around . . . some very vulnerable people.”

He now has a chance to prove how compassionate, flexible and reasonable his own government can be when it comes to the vulnerable. He can start by revoking Bahiwal’s deportation order and then look beyond.

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Economic challenges test Trudeau’s promise of more progressive path

Posted on 11 January 2017 by admin

Justin Trudeau came to power on the promise of more active government after a long period of austerity. Investments to stimulate growth, improve long-term economic prospects and fix our tattered social safety net – these were among the campaign commitments voters endorsed in 2015.

How would Ottawa pay for this new activism? Trudeau offered a welcome alternative to the longstanding orthodoxy of endless cuts and annual balanced budgets. The government would run deficits of up to $10 billion per year for three years before balancing the books in 2019.

Ah, the best-laid plans …

By December 2015, the Parliamentary Budget Office was warning that demographic factors and sagging commodity prices likely meant that the government would come up far short. By the middle of last year, Finance Minister Bill Morneau had abandoned any talk of a timetable for erasing the red ink. Now a new Finance Canada report projects a very different fiscal future: annual deficits through to 2050.

Trudeau’s promise of more active government without increasing taxes for most people clearly held political appeal – and most economists at the time said there was indeed both need and room for more public investment. So what is a self-proclaimed progressive government to do when the need remains, but the room has disappeared? How far does it back off its vision – and with what consequences?

That things have not worked out nearly as the Liberals predicted will of course be used as a club by small-government devotees to try to beat away Ottawa’s more progressive aspirations. Claims of fiscal mismanagement are already emerging from predictable corners. “In only one year, [the Liberals] have proved without a shadow of a doubt that they have no control of public spending,” said Conservative finance critic Gérard Deltell.

Not really. First, the factors darkening the economic outlook are largely beyond Ottawa’s control, and are certainly not the doing of a one-year-old government. Second, the fiscal situation is not as bleak as the critics claim.

To consider the sustainability of deficits in isolation from growth is misleading. As a share of the economy, the projected deficits are expected to max out at 1.1 per cent through 2050 – hardly disastrous. Moreover, federal debt is expected actually to decline as a share of GDP over the coming decades.

Nonetheless, it is no doubt true that the government can’t fund its progressive vision by racking up debt indefinitely; without the expected surpluses on which Trudeau pegged his promises the government will have to confront some very difficult choices.

Early signals suggest Ottawa may retreat. In response to the new projections, Morneau reiterated his commitment to “prudence” in health-care spending. That’s reason to worry. The provinces rejected the feds’ offer of a new funding formula that would decrease Ottawa’s already insufficient share of rising health costs, offloading risks to the provinces and ultimately to citizens. This also bodes ill for those hoping the upcoming federal budget will contain significant new investments for a range of pressing needs, from a national housing strategy to addressing infrastructure shortfalls.

There is, of course, another way – one the government seems open to exploring, but with no apparent enthusiasm. Namely, taxes.

The first: collect what’s owed. Canada currently loses tens of billions of dollars annually through tax evasion. Even if we could recoup a small portion of that, it would put a significant dent in our fiscal challenge. The second: deliver on the promise to review tax loopholes, many of which overwhelmingly benefit the rich with no obvious public utility. Morneau has vowed to find a plausible, if modest, $3 billion in savings by capping and closing the worst of these breaks. But under industry pressure, he’s done almost nothing.

In Toronto, we have seen up close the consequences of ignoring the revenue side of the tax-and-spend equation. The new Finance Canada report makes clear that Ottawa faces the same harsh choices of unwelcome and costly cuts or politically challenging tax increases. The choice this government makes will test its promise of a more progressive path.

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Just stop texting and driving

Posted on 05 January 2017 by admin

It can cost you your life, never mind a bundle in fines or even a jail sentence. But the allure of texting, perplexingly, continues to distract Canadian drivers.

In fact, disturbing results of a poll released by the Canadian Automobile Association indicate some 33 per cent of respondents admit to having texted while stopped at a red light in the last month, alone.

It has to stop. As Jeff Walker of the CAA says, the effect of texting at a light lingers well after the light turns green, making it a dangerous driving habit. He rightly points out that it is socially unacceptable to drive drunk, “and that’s where we need to get with texting.”

Still, people continue to text and drive even though it actually causes more deaths than impaired driving.

Indeed, the Ontario Provincial Police reported in March that distracted driving was the cause of more deaths on provincial highways than any other factor for the third consecutive year, contributing to 69 in 2015. Worse, the province reports there is a distracted driving collision every 30 seconds.

So far, increased penalties haven’t stopped the people from texting while driving. The fine for distracted driving is a minimum $490 that a judge can increase to $1,000, plus three demerit points on conviction.

Nor have Ontario government commercials last summer that showed a young driver taking his eyes off the road for a second to check his phone. He is violently T-boned in a collision he could have avoided if he’d been watching the road. In the next frame he’s in a wheelchair for life.

It all adds up to one simple message: Stop driving and texting, already.

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Heroes and zeroes of 2016

Posted on 29 December 2016 by admin

Let’s face it: 2016 had way more than its share of appalling news.

It began with Donald Trump beating on his Republican rivals like so many cheap piñatas. Amazingly, appallingly, it ended with … Donald Trump, days away from taking the oath as the 45th president of the United States.

It was the year of Brexit and Ghomeshi and Pokémon. And, tragically, it was the year the world stood by and watched as an ancient city and its people were pounded into dust by the bombs of a murderous regime. Aleppo joined a long list of martyred cities, alongside such tragic names as Guernica and Sarajevo.

In Canada, it was a more hopeful year. Justin Trudeau strode the land, his bright shiny government floating on a wave of popularity, the New York Times hailing Canada as newly hip under its dynamic young leader. Everything was going swimmingly – until suddenly it wasn’t with hard questions about cash-for-access and election reform.

List carbon fee separately on household natural gas bills

The Wynne government seems set on using energy bills as a political tool, displaying the numbers it wants voters to see at the top and burying the ones it doesn’t.

Despite a wave of criticism, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault have repeatedly refused to ask the Ontario Energy Board to separately list a new carbon fee on household natural gas bills.

They disingenuously argue that Queen’s Park has no authority to overturn the OEB’s decision over how the gas bills will be presented, and the board has already ruled the fee can be buried.

The truth is that while they may not be able to overturn the board’s problematic decision, they can at least ask that the fee be presented separately on consumers’ bills. It’s hard to believe the OEB would turn them down.

The fee, estimated to be about $5 a month on the average gas bill, should be listed separately for two very important reasons.

The first is democratic. The government should be transparent about how much its climate plan is costing Ontarians. It seems more than happy to list the tax rebate it recently offered consumers on their electricity bills. Surely whether or not a given number is likely to be politically popular should not determine where on the bill it appears.

The second is that the carbon fee is aimed at changing consumer behaviour to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not clear how the charge can have any effect if Ontarians can’t see it.

The government’s intransigence is confounding. The fee is part of Ontario’s promising $8.3-billion cap-and-trade system of carbon pricing to fight climate change. The program, which starts in January, is expected to bring in $1.9 billion annually, which will be re-invested in essential green initiatives, while capping currently unfettered corporate emissions.

It’s perfectly clear that there can be no serious progress on climate change without putting a price on carbon. The Wynne government showed leadership by taking this step. It should stand proudly by it, not pretend it away.

The latest to push for the fees to be listed separately is the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which rightly argues not flagging the charge undermines the effort to fight climate change.

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Find emergency shelters for the homeless

Posted on 21 December 2016 by admin

It should be no surprise that it’s cold outside. It is, after all, mid-December in Toronto. Winter officially starts on Wednesday.

That’s why it’s so surprising and disturbing that the city has been scurrying once again in the midst of extreme cold weather alerts to find enough emergency beds to shelter homeless people.

Perhaps a little planning might be in order?

We should not have to wait until December to realize that no one in Toronto should have to suffer, and perhaps die, out in the cold because there aren’t enough emergency shelters. Nor need we wait until the city is in the middle of a polar vortex to plan for enough geared-to-income housing so that people don’t end up on the street in the first place.

But we do.

The city has known there is a shortage of shelters for the homeless for years. A 2013 survey found there were 5,000 homeless people in the city, but currently there are only 4,300 beds. And Toronto’s wait list for subsidized housing stands at a stunning 172,087, forcing some people onto the streets.

Mayor John Tory says he gets it. “In the end, shelters are no place for any citizen of Toronto to be for more than a night in an emergency,” he says. “We need to provide proper housing for people.”

So why, then, were the city’s shelters for women, youth and families all filled past their capacity rate of 90 per cent last Thursday. Shelters for families were completely full.

And why was it left, once gain, to homeless advocates to take to the streets and march through a snowstorm to focus attention on what they call a lethal lack of emergency beds. “We are abandoning people,” said Cathy Crowe, a longtime activist and street nurse.

She is calling on Tory to open the armouries at Fort York and Moss Park as shelter spaces until more suitable emergency spots can be opened. They have been used four times in the past, “sheltering hundreds and undoubtedly saving countless lives,” Crowe points out.

The mayor does not consider the armouries “adequate” or “appropriate” for emergency shelters, his office says. Instead, the city is working to open shelter spaces in “more appropriate places for vulnerable people,” such as vacant schools.

Whatever the solution, the city needs to find it fast. As Crowe points out, the impact of sub-zero weather on the body is “devastating” when people are hungry, dehydrated and not dressed properly.

Indeed, two years ago on Jan. 13, 2015, fire tore through a makeshift hut in Scarborough where Grant Faulkner, a homeless man, was sleeping. He died tying to stay warm with a propane heater.

We don’t know whether the father of three was sleeping outside because he was turned away from a shelter. But we may get some answers at the end of 2017 when a coroner’s inquest into his death will be held and may shine a much-needed spotlight on the crisis of homelessness.

In the meantime, while the pressure is on Mayor Tory to resolve the immediate crisis, in the long term homelessness must be addressed by Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

The federal government, which abandoned its role of financing rent-geared-to-income housing in 1993, should get back into that field, and the province should do more to help out, too.

It doesn’t just make sense from a humanitarian perspective. In addition to misery and deaths, advocates estimate it costs $7 billion a year not to deal with homelessness by providing affordable housing, a substantial portion of which is related to hospitalization and incarceration.

Tory must act quickly to resolve this year’s emergency shelter crisis. Then he must plan ahead with the provincial and federal governments to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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Crack down on epidemic of violence against pedestrians

Posted on 15 December 2016 by admin

Toronto is in the midst of a quiet epidemic of violence against pedestrians, and it’s time for political leaders to take it much more seriously.

On a single day last week, 15 pedestrians were hit by vehicles. One woman was killed.

Police are sounding the alarm that Toronto is on its way to having the worst year for pedestrian deaths since 2002. By Dec. 1, 42 people had been killed, and the toll continues to mount. And deaths are just the most shocking part of the harm; many non-fatal injuries can be life-changing.

It’s high time we changed the lens through which we view this damage. It’s time to stop brushing them off as mere “accidents” that must be accepted as the inevitable price of moving around in a big city. It’s time we saw them instead as a preventable kind of violence, and adopted policies aimed at eliminating them.

That will take both public education and determined political leadership, and so far both are falling short.

Public education tends to involve lecturing pedestrians. We’re told to wear bright-coloured clothing and keep alert to avoid being struck on our own streets. Good practical advice as far as it goes, but ultimately it shouldn’t be up to pedestrians to dodge cars.

Political leadership, too, must be stronger. Mayor John Tory and Toronto councillors deserve considerable credit for bringing in the city’s first-ever road safety program last summer and embracing the goal of “Vision Zero” – reducing road deaths and injuries to zero within five years. The plan earmarks $80 million over five years for a so-called targeted approach that involves such measures as reducing the speed limit from 50 km/h to 40 km/h on about 20 streets deemed as being “high-risk.”

That isn’t good enough. An analysis by Ben Spurr and William Davis of the Star found that just six of the 42 pedestrians killed between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1 of this year were struck on streets where the speed limit will be reduced as part of the city’s safety plan. Six more were in areas scheduled for “safety audits.” But the great majority happened in other parts of the city.

It’s clear that a more determined approach is needed. During a meeting with the Star’s editorial board last week, Mayor Tory made clear he recognizes that the problem is pressing. He acknowledged the current high number of road deaths is “profoundly unacceptable.” And he said “it shouldn’t take anybody to get killed” to get action from the city.

For one thing, the city should take another look at lowering speed limits generally, not just in local areas where community councils can take action. Last year, for example, the community council in the old East York area reduced the limit on all roads in its jurisdiction to 30 km/h. But that kind of action depends on public pressure in particular neighbourhoods, and safety should be a right for everyone, not just those where activists can get results.

There’s no doubt lower speed limits save lives, but reducing speed on the roads won’t be universally popular. When the city’s chief medical officer made that recommendation in 2012, then-mayor Rob Ford attacked him personally, calling the idea “nuts, nuts, nuts.” Hopefully the current epidemic of road deaths has changed the political climate.

A comprehensive and ambitious road plan will involve more than looking at speed limits.

It would include addressing tough issues like road design, which has traditionally focused on moving vehicles as quickly as possible rather than ensuring the safety of all users.

It would include changing street signage and ramping up enforcement of traffic rules, such as the prohibitions on impaired and distracted driving (i.e. driving while texting or talking on a phone).

And it would include changes in areas outside the city’s jurisdiction, such as penalties for drivers who injure or kill pedestrians.

That was thrown into sharp relief this week when the woman convicted of careless driving in the death of a 42-year-old mother of three, Erica Stark, was given a $1,000 fine, six months probation and a driving ban of just one month. At the moment, drivers involved in such incidents don’t have to appear in court, provide any explanation of what happened, or even provide cellphone records. More can be done.

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Trudeau insists election reform still on table

Posted on 08 December 2016 by admin

 As they launched their annual holiday R.I.D.E. program, Ontario Provincial Police laid an astonishing 104 impaired driving charges.

And in York Region, where the deadly Muzzo crash occurred, the number of impaired driving charges was actually up significantly this year to more than 1,400 by mid-November, compared to 1,255 in all of 2015.

Marco Muzzo was sentenced in to 10 years in prison for impaired driving last March, you would have thought drivers would get the message: Don’t drink or do drugs and drive.

More to the tragic point, you would have thought the message delivered by the mother, whose three young children he killed along with her father, would have driven it home if their own self-interest didn’t.

“When you choose to drink and drive, you’re choosing to kill someone else’s babies,” Jennifer Neville-Lake said.

But that’s clearly not the case.

It has to stop. But it will clearly take more aggressive drinking and driving rules and enforcement to get the message across. Appeals to altruism aren’t working.

Indeed, Canada currently has the sorry distinction of ranking highest among wealthy countries for road deaths related to alcohol-impaired driving. It’s a factor in 34 per cent of motor fatalities here, compared to an average of 19 per cent elsewhere.

(It’s worth noting that impaired driving isn’t even the biggest problem. Distracted driving now kills twice as many people as impaired driving.)

And though the numbers of impaired driving charges for drugs and alcohol have dropped slightly in some parts of the GTA, they remain stubbornly high across the board and have risen in others.

By Nov. 28, for example, Toronto Police had laid 1,241 impaired driving charges, up from 1,218 in all of 2015.

Even slight declines in impaired driving charges by Peel Police and the OPP this year may not be good news. Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), believes declines represent a lack of enforcement rather than increased compliance with the law. “I’d have no problems with what Ontario is doing on criminal and licence suspensions if the death rate was falling with it,” he says. “And it’s not.”

But enforcement is difficult. Under current federal legislation police can pull drivers over and screen them for drugs and alcohol only if they have “reasonable grounds,” something studies indicate officers have trouble assessing. As a result, research indicates many Canadians continue to drink and drive believing there’s little chance they’ll be caught.

That could change if Ottawa introduces so-called “mandatory screening,” which MADD says is the “single most effective impaired driving countermeasure.” And so it should.

In the meantime, last weekend’s 104 arrests by the OPP should send out a “seasonal greeting” that impaired drivers will be caught. Sadly, it’s apparent that self-interest is the only reliable deterrent.

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