Street-racing law

Street-racing law Overreach on speeding

The only surprise in the fact that a small-town Ontario judge has declared the province’s street-racing law unconstitutional is that it took this long for a court to reach such an obvious conclusion. The law, which came into effect two years ago in the emotional wake of a series of fatal accidents caused by flagrantly irresponsible drivers racing their modified vehicles, always inhabited a grey area.

Section 172 of Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act prohibits citizens from driving their cars “in a race or contest, while performing a stunt or on a bet or wager.” If a police officer suspects a driver of doing so, he or she can immediately seize the suspect’s licence and vehicle; upon seizure, the licence is automatically suspended for one week and the car is impounded for the same length of time. Pending conviction in court, the driver faces a minimum fine of $2,000 and can be imprisoned for up to six months.

Regulations define “stunt” as, among other things, driving at speeds of more than 50 kilometres an hour above the limit. With few exceptions, this one type of “stunt” has become the one and only way Section 172 is enforced, effectively turning a law to prevent street racing into a law to punish lead feet.

Such was the case of the grandmother in her sixties who accelerated to 131 kph to pass a semi-trailer truck in an 80-kph zone on a highway near Kingston. Upon overtaking the truck, she decelerated to 110 kph, but it was too late: She had been clocked by a police officer as doing more than 50 kph above the limit. Her car was impounded, her licence seized, and she was lumped in with the Vin Diesel wannabes who soup up their Subarus and race them down busy roads in a haze of testosterone and nitrous oxide.

Ontario court Justice Geoffrey Griffin overturned her subsequent conviction, saying the law violates Section 7 of the Charter, which specifies no one can be deprived of “life, liberty and security of the person except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” Since speeding is an absolute-liability offence, a person caught speeding is guilty regardless of intent or any mitigating factors, and imprisonment can result from a charge to which there is hardly any defence.

It’s a welcome ruling. In the two years since the law came into effect, as many as 15,000 otherwise law-abiding Ontario drivers caught driving excessively fast have been no less harshly treated than the deliberate, premeditated and entirely negligent street racers who see public roads as private playgrounds. The Crown plans to appeal, but the Ontario government should instead amend the statute and separate the overenthusiastic grandmother on her way to see her newborn grandchildren from the scofflawswho brought about this overreaching legislation in the first place.

From Monday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2009 02:57AM EDT