Only a quarter of bad car crashes result in charges and even fewer see drivers get jail time.
That's according to data provided by the Winnipeg Police Service and buttressed by court records, and it reveals a growing frustration among senior traffic officers tasked with investigating some of Winnipeg's worst collisions.
St. James resident Bev Bungay, whose long recovery from a 2012 crash kicked off the Free Press's traffic series last week, was hit while crossing Portage Avenue at the light. Bungay broke 11 bones and spent nearly a year off work, but the driver who hit her at close to 70 kilometres per hour was never charged.
Often, the driver flees the crash scene and is never located, which is what happened when cyclist Rebecca Ward was hit by a motorist on Academy Road a year ago. As Ward told the Free Press earlier this week, the motorist stopped briefly, saw her badly broken leg wasn't life-threatening and then drove off. Police later asked for the public's help identifying him, but never could.
Among the dozens of Winnipeggers who shared their crash stories in recent weeks, remarkably few resulted in consequences to the driver at fault.
Collision experts in the WPS central traffic unit investigated 150 crashes over the last five years, typically the ones where death or serious injury resulted. Charges were laid in only about 28 per cent of those.
The Free Press analyzed 30 crashes investigated by the central traffic unit in 2011, expecting any court proceedings would be complete by now. Sixteen people died in those 30 crashes.
But, only a quarter resulted in charges under the Criminal Code or the provincial Highway Traffic Act. And, only three cases so far have resulted in jail time for the driver, ranging from one year to 30 days. Three more cases haven't made it to trial, nearly three years later, illustrating how slowly the wheels of justice roll.
Sometimes, said Winnipeg police Staff Sgt. Rob Riffel, a crash genuinely is an accident. Sometimes the driver at fault dies. But in many more cases, police struggle with the limits of evidence and well-established case law that make it tough to lay charges, Riffel said.
"If you're going 20 or 30 kilometres over the speed limit and you crash and kill someone, that's not an accident. Some consequences should come from that," said Riffel, a 17-year veteran of traffic enforcement. "We're finding that's not the case, and it's very frustrating for us."
At issue is the need, embedded in centuries of common law and in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to prove criminal intent -- that someone is morally blameworthy and knew what they were doing was criminal. In practice, it can be a difficult test to meet in crash cases. In most instances, it requires proving the accused person's driving was a marked departure from how a reasonable person would drive in the same conditions.
Prosecutors, in deciding whether to bring a case to trial, must also ensure it's in the public interest to do so, which is not hard for a driving offence involving death or serious injury. And, they must be sure there is a reasonable chance of conviction, which is trickier in crash cases, especially since top courts have consistently ruled one stupid move or a moment of inattention doesn't cut it. The Crown must prove a pattern of bad driving in the minutes leading up to a crash.
And, it doesn't really matter how bad the crash's consequences are, said Crown prosecutor Chris Vanderhooft. What matters in court are the driver's actions.
"The consequence, which are often tragic and terrible for families, isn't really what we make our decision based on," said Vanderhooft, who handles a lot of dangerous-driving cases. "The consequences aren't what drive the decision. We're looking at what we can prove in terms of the actual conduct."
One thing that gave police and Crowns slightly more latitude was a change, made a decade ago, that buttressed the provincial Highway Traffic Act. The act was amended to give police and Crowns two years rather than six months to lay a charge in a crash where a death occurred, allowing for more time to do some of the highly technical crash reconstruction and lab work. And, it allowed for up to two years of jail time if a violation of the HTA caused a death.
Still, as several high-profile cases have proven recently, meeting the Criminal Code test can be a high bar.
"In my experience, in more cases than not someone's done something wrong. Whether it rises to a criminal level or not is another story," said Riffel. "We all go, 'Well, wait a second. They killed somebody.' You have to dial yourself back a little."
Winnipeg already has a fair number of photo enforcement cameras, though Winnipeg police say they'd love more. They'd also love the ability to deploy them on more streets where speeding is a problem -- Kenaston Boulevard, Regent Avenue, even some residential roads in Waverley West where homeowners have complained about dangerous driving. Here are some other, more radical enforcement ideas
$1,000 fines for texting while driving
Ontario is planning to start levying fines of up to $1,000 for distracted driving, as well as docking motorists three merit points. Manitoba's fine is $200, which most people consider a minor annoyance that won't break the bank. Manitoba is watching Ontario's hefty fees with interest.
Public shaming in San Francisco
A San Francisco man, the brains behind a campaign called TWIT (Texting While In Traffic) Spotting, has bought nearly a dozen billboards where he posts photos of drivers caught texting in the car. There are privacy concerns, more so in Canada than the United States, but it's still remarkably easy to find people fiddling with their phones behind the wheel.
A no-speeding probationary period
Young males drive the most aggressively. They make up the vast majority of traffic-caused trauma cases at Health Sciences Centre. They dominate court cases involving dangerous and careless driving offences. And MPI data always shows that male drivers aged 16 to 24 are responsible for the largest batch of collisions. Could the province create a long, hard probationary period, where drivers could see their licence suspended for months or even a year if they get a speeding ticket before turning 25 years old?
-- with files from James Turner