Starting next Tuesday, drivers in Ontario face stiff new penalties for distracted driving:
As part of the new Bill 31, which was introduced by the Liberal government and will come into effect Sept. 1, drivers can be fined $1,000 (up from $280) and receive three demerit points should they be caught by police.
It’s intended to be so restrictive that motorists put down their phones and end what Staff Sgt. Mitchell called a distracted driving “epidemic” on our roads…
Transportation Minister and Vaughan MPP Steven Del Duca congratulated lawmakers on passing the bill unanimously and said it was about time we recognized the risks inherent to distracted driving.
He added he has two daughters, one eight and one four and he hopes they will be safer as a result.
Del Duca further noted the rules are justified considering distracted driving is now as big a problem in this province as impaired driving.
Del Duca is, if anything, understating the case. Statistics from 2013 showed that there were actually more fatalities from distracted driving than from drunk driving in this province. Multiple studies have shown that the average driver’s reaction time when using a cell phone is significantly slower than if they are drunk or high. (Also, for those who like their evidence anecdotal, Mythbusters “confirmed” it by getting drunk and driving around.)
So clearly, the government has an interest in deterring people from distracted driving. That interest is well backed up by thoroughly documented evidence from multiple reliable sources, including the government’s own statistics. This is a clear example of evidence-based policy-making.
It’s also a policy that will make cops across the province a lot of money.
It’s an open secret that police departments have quotas for their traffic cops, whatever they may choose to call them. Revenue from ticketing is a major source of revenue for police departments, and this is a practice which has predictable class-based effects. While wealthy folks can afford to hire a lawyer to fight the ticket and avoid the demerit points, or pay it without experiencing any hardship, poor folks often aren’t even able to afford the day off work to contest the charge, never mind the financial burden of an unexpected $1000 bill. For somebody who’s barely getting by, such a ticket means a massive drop in their standard of living. (For a fantastic round-up of this dynamic from an American perspective, see this post by Bill Black at Naked Capitalism.)
It’s also quite striking that we only see this type of evidence-based criminal law reform in cases like this, where police departments stand to profit from the changes. For instance, decades of evidence clearly demonstrate that the War on Drugs (which, again, has a disproportionate effect on poor communities and communities of colour) is a complete and total waste of time. Prominent voices, including world leaders, Nobel-prize winning economists, and the friggin’ World Health Organization have been publicly calling for an end to drug prohibition for years.
If you want to talk about a ripe target for evidence-based reform, you’d have to look long and hard to find a cause more deserving of attention than our preposterously punitive drug laws.
One major problem with this, however, is that police departments’ funding levels are to a large extent dependent upon drug crime. In the Toronto Police Services’ Business Plan for 2014-16 (PDF, p. 18), for instance, the department says it aims to decrease the violent crime rate and the property crime rate, and then, in the same section, says it aims to increase its arrests for drug offences. That is, it aims to increase the drug offence crime rate.
It has dedicated funding for this purpose – it has, in fact, a whole drug squad, which includes undercover officers, drug-sniffing dogs, people whose jobs consist entirely of finding and busting grow-ops and meth labs. All of that would become completely unnecessary if we were to make an evidence-based reform to our drug laws – police funding would by necessity decrease.
So it’s no surprise that while police departments are extremely supportive of new extremely punitive (read: lucrative) fine schedules for distracted driving, they’re still die-hard Drug Warriors, and evidence be damned. Even on the super-middle-of-the-road question of marijuana decriminalization, Canadian police chiefs come down on the side of no, thanks; they’d rather shift to a system of – surprise! – ticketing. The chiefs argue that it would be a good compromise, as it would allow casual users to avoid criminal records if they were caught possessing pot, while at the same time freeing up courts for more serious expenses.
But it would also result in a new revenue stream for departments.
The extraction of massive amounts of money from the communities that they police has become such an essential component of police department funding that it’s now difficult for lawmakers to contemplate reforms which would reduce this cash cow.
Of course, that’s only one reason for the unconscionable continuation of the drug war. A lot of powerful constituencies benefit from its continuation, including politicians, intelligence agencies, prison operators and contractors, and of course drug traffickers and cartels. There’s a lot of money to be made from keeping drugs on the black market, and in keeping the prisons full. I don’t want to reduce this whole complex issue to just police departments looking to hang on to their vice squad funding.
But it’s a factor, and one that can’t get called out often enough.