By Nicole Hunt
Nearly a month after Ontario’s controversial street racing law came into effect, auto clubs across the province are calling for a review amidst concerns that the law could be abused by police.
Although the new law has been lauded by politicians and police across the province, with some calling for even tougher penalties, others have argued that it gives police officers too much power at the scene.
“There is no appeal. The officer is judge, jury and executioner at the roadside,” says Jim Cowan, director of the Specialty Vehicle Association of Ontario (SVAO), which represents about 90 auto clubs and businesses across the province.
“If an officer believes that an infraction has taken place, whether it has or not, he decides whether the vehicle is going to be impounded.”
Drivers charged under the new legislation, effective Oct. 1, face an immediate seven-day license suspension and vehicle impoundment, and can be fined anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. Drivers who are convicted could see their license suspended for up to two years for a first offence and 10 years for a second offence.
Ottawa police have suspended seven drivers and seized their vehicles after they were caught speeding 50 km/h over the speed limit or performing stunts.
“Our intention is to apply the law to the fullest, and drivers will suffer the consequences,” says Const. Alain Boucher of Ottawa Police Services.
Cowan says that the power given to front-line police officers leaves the law open to abuse and could lead to discrimination and unfair targeting of owners of modified vehicles.
“I know the intent is to make the road safer. The Ministry of Transportation can intend what they want, but that stops with one shoe on the pavement and the other on your front bumper.”
Police deny this claim, saying modified or specialty car owners who drive safely would not be targeted.
“The target is drivers who exceed the speed, use these vehicles for stunts and cause mayhem on our roads,” says Boucher. “I haven’t heard any complaints, haven’t seen officers using this excessively. They use it in the proper way, as far as I understand.”
Boucher says that while Ottawa does have minor problems with street racing, it is not as prevalent in the city as in Toronto, where police have reportedly seized nearly 300 cars this month.
The SVAO is pushing for a review of the new legislation, meeting with members of Parliament and MTO officials in an attempt to make the process more clear and transparent. So far, Cowan says, there has been no progress.
Many cities, including Ottawa , offer legal, off-street racing that some street racers may now find more attractive considering the severe penalties they face.
Charles Payne, director of the Motorsport Club of Ottawa, which hosts racing events twice a month in the Scotiabank Place parking lot, says the off-street races offer a safe substitute.
“They’re an alternative to street racing. It’s a safe, controlled environment where everything’s insured and we don’t have to worry about pedestrians or anything else. We try to provide a safe environment where people can go out and have some fun with their cars.”