Monday, December 7, 2015

The War on Walking: Nova Scotia's ludicrous pedestrian fines

Nova Scotia's crosswalks and intersections are once again in the limelight, once again for all the wrong reasons.

Last week, the Nova Scotia legislature passed Bill 133, which, passed a series of changes to the Motor Vehicle Act. Among other things, it increased the fines in Nova Scotia for breaking the rules related to crosswalks and pedestrian signals to almost $700 (and higher for subsequent offences).

On the face of it, this might seem reasonable. Halifax in particular has been suffering from what seems like an epidemic of crosswalk accidents and other car-pedestrian collisions, with advocates calling for better enforcement of the law. Education campaigns don't seem to have worked. Surely increasing the fines will help with enforcement?

Indeed, that's what the Minister of Transportation seems to think. He says the increased fines are "not about punishment ... , it's about deterring these actions" and that the changes are about shared responsibility and are designed to "save lives". All of which seems reasonable on it's face.

But once you start to dig down, the law looks less reasonable, and less likely to be effective at saving lives.

Bill 133 increased certain fines by making all violations of s. 125 and certain violations of s. 93 of the Motor Vehicle Act into Category G offences, which carry fines of $697.50 for a first offence, $1,272.50 for a second offence, and $2,422.50 for a third offence.

As I've explained elsewhere, Section 125 contains a broad range of rules relating to whether cars or pedestrians have the rights of way in crosswalks and elsewhere. Section 93 deals with the rules for traffic signals, including pedestrian lights. Any violation of the right of way rules in section 125, or a violation of section 93 where a person fails to yield the right of way or, as a pedestrian, proceeds other than when authorized to do so, now carries the nearly $700 fine.

The problem is that these sections include a wide range of offences, some of which are much more dangerous than others. The pedestrian who enters the crosswalk a second or two late (on a flashing hand), even if there is no traffic coming, gets the same fine as the pedestrian who carelessly steps off the curb directly in front of a car. The car that fails to stop at an unmarked crosswalk because they didn't see the person waiting gets the same $700 fine as a car that turns on a red light into a pedestrian-filled crosswalk. The fine is in no way proportional to how dangerous the activity is, or whether or not someone gets hurt.

It's particularly problematic when you start to compare the new fine to other violations of the Motor Vehicle Act, as this table does:

Blowing through a red light or a stop sign will only cost you $180. Texting while driving is $237.50. Speeding by any amount more than 30 km/h, or passing a schoolbus that is unloading is only $410. The "jaywalking" fine of $700 is now comparable to the minimum fine for drunk driving. These are some of the most dangerous driving behaviours, but somehow, the law treats them as less bad than the pedestrian that forgets to push the crosswalk button, even if there is no traffic.

Reality is that the increased fine is not going to deter bad behaviour.  Nova Scotia already had some of the highest fines in the country for intersection violations at $180 and crosswalk violations at $410, compared to fines ranging from $110 to $172.50 in Toronto, Calgary and Moncton. Yet we still had an abysmal rate of crosswalk safety. If the risk of someone getting killed isn't deterrent enough, an increased fine isn't going to change things.

This also ignores research which suggests that the certainty of punishment, and not the severity of punishment, is more likely to deter people. In other words, a lower fine can be just as effective if not more so, as long as you enforce it more often. The more likely people are to get caught, the more likely they are to change their behaviour. Increasing the punishment without changing enforcement does little to nothing.

Yet, if anything, increasing the fine means the law is actually less likely to be enforced. Police were already reluctant to fine drivers or pedestrians for intersection or crosswalk violations when the fines were $180 and $410 respectively, except when someone got hurt. Police will be understandably even more reluctant to administer a $700 fine to people who have committed relatively minor infractions

As I've said before, what's needed isn't increased fines, it's better enforcement of more reasonable fines. Police in Nova Scotia should be instructed to carry out a series of high-profile crosswalk and intersection enforcement blitzes, similar to those used for drunk driving. Fines should be handed out to both pedestrians and drivers that flout the law.

We also need to take a hard look at how we design and maintain our roads, intersections, sidewalks and crosswalks in Nova Scotia. Poor visibility, signals that aren't synchronized or don't work properly, faded lines, poor clearing in winter, and arbitrary and dangerous sidewalk and road closures cause unnecessary delay and frustration for drivers and pedestrians alike, and contribute to some of the "bad behaviour" that we see on our streets. Higher fines don't solve these problems, they are just one more barrier to walking.

As for the changes to the Motor Vehicle Act, these were done with with very little public consultation.  The government should go back to the drawing board, and consult with the public and safety advocates, and come back with suggested changes to address safety issues in a fair and balanced way that is based on a real assessment of the danger that different pedestrian and driving behaviours cause, and an assessment of the actual effectiveness of safety measures. There's no question the current law isn't working. We need to dig a little more deeply to find out why, instead of papering over the problem with more bad laws.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Bill C-51: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Stephen Harper is on a bit of a roll. Capitalizing on recent events, his proposed anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51 seems to enjoy widespread popular support, at least according to one opinion poll. The Liberal Party have announced they won't oppose the Bill, and it seems almost destined to become law.

Nonetheless, a number of prominent Canadians, including former Prime Ministers, Judges and Justice Ministers, academics, and even some conservative commentators, among others, have expressed concerns about the Bill, including that it allows widespread sharing of citizens' private information within government, lacks sufficient oversight and accountability for security agencies, and potentially infringes certain fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech and protest rights.

I share many of these concerns, and want to focus in on two aspects of the Bill that I find particularly troubling:

First, the Act is is no way limited to stopping or disrupting terrorism. It allows government agencies to gather and share information in respect of "activities that undermine the security of Canada". It gives a broad, open ended list of such activities, which includes terrorism, but also includes "interference with critical infrastructure". The only thing it excludes is "lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression".

This allows our security agencies to spy and exchange information (with very little oversight) about Canadians who are taking part in all kinds of activities which are an accepted and important part of life in a democracy, including strikes, labour disruptions, and other types of pickets or protests, which are protected by our rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly

The carve out for "lawful" activities is simply not broad enough to protect those rights. There are all kinds of ways in which an otherwise peaceful protest can be deemed "unlawful" including a protest march that fails to get the proper municipal permits, or which inadvertently trespasses on private property. And there is often uncertainty about the lawfulness of protest activity. One group I work with spent two years prevented by a court order from protesting against a particular power project: the Court of Appeal ultimately threw out the order because it had no legal or factual basis. Still, during that time, their activities potentially fell under this new legislation, and could have subjected them to spying and other heavy handed measures. This kind of broad power will have a chilling effect on even the most peaceful protests, because of the possibility that any protest you take part in could be deemed unlawful, and result in Canadian security agencies spying or sharing private information about you.

The carve out for protest and advocacy is very different than the existing carve out in the Criminal Code, which exempts any advocacy or protest that isn't intended to cause serious harm or risk to persons or property. If the goal is to target terrorism, then security agencies should continue to be restricted to spying on those individuals and groups that are actually threatening real harm to Canadians and their property, not merely any group that happens to cause some inconvenience or disruption as part of a peaceful protest activity.To do otherwise is to subject law-abiding Canadians to the powers and scrutiny of a police state merely for exercising their constitutional rights.

Second, it creates a new offence for "advocating" or "encouraging" terrorist offences, whether they take place in Canada or abroad. The problem with this is that the definition of terrorist offences in the Criminal Code is already quite broad, and can include any kind of armed struggle, including one against an unjust government. As has been pointed out elsewhere, if this law had existed at the time, Canadians who expressed support for Nelson Mandela and the ANC during their armed struggle against the apartheid government in South Africa could have been considered guilty of "advocating terrorism". Similarly, anyone who expressed support for the Hungarian people in their uprising against communist rule in 1956 would have been guilty under this law as well. No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, the fact that you can no longer openly voice support for people who are fighting an unjust or despotic government without fear of being convicted is a gross infringement of freedom of speech.

There are a number of other problems with the bill, including the broader policing powers it gives to our security agencies, and the lack of accountability or oversight, which are discussed at length in some of the links provided above. At the end of the day, the overriding problem with the Bill is it actually undermines the very freedoms it claims to protect. Among the many things that make Canada such a great place to live is our freedoms: the ability to speak, to ask questions, to criticize our government, and to voice our support for others around the world who are struggling for those same rights. Those rights were hard won, and are the lifeblood of our democratic system. We shouldn't let the terrorists take those rights from us, and we shouldn't let our government take them from us either.