Road Watch tracks aggressive drivers

In the tight-knit community of Caledon, Ontario, talk among residents during the 1980s and ‘90s was not unlike anywhere else. However, after politics, the weather and spouses were mentioned, the conversation would invariably touch on the area’s notoriously high motor vehicle fatality rate.

“Every year sitting at the hockey rink in the winter; or at the ball diamond in the summer; or at the lacrosse rink, we’d all say, ‘Oh, my gosh isn’t that awful about so and so’…” recalls local resident and current Peel Regional Councillor Marolyn Morrison.

Caledon’s winding, hilly roads punctuated by wide-open spaces is a breeding ground for accidents.

By 1993, as the community was on its way to losing another 20-plus residents in collisions, it was thought the situation could not get any worse.  But it did. On Mother’s Day of that year, eight young people were killed in a three-car collision.

Shortly thereafter complacency was replaced by activism as the police, city politicians, county health officials and concerned citizens scrambled to stop the carnage. 

By January 1995, Road Wch Canada was founded. Marolyn Morrison is the current chair.  

Road Watch empowers motorists to report aggressive drivers by filling out a Citizen Report Form. Currently 40 communities throughout Ontario have adopted the Road Watch concept.

The Citizen Report Form – which is available at municipal offices, local police detachments and public libraries – documents the date, location, driver description and other details of the aggressive-driving incident.

Participants must also fill in personal contact information and sign the report.  The complainant’s name remains anonymous unless one chooses to pursue a detailed police investigation.  Residents submit completed forms in secure drop boxes.

Upon receipt, the local police force sources the registered vehicle owner’s address and sends an “information letter” signed by the local Traffic Sergeant. The letter implores the recipient to drive responsibly.  

If a second letter goes out for the same vehicle, a police officer will place a follow-up phone call.

When a third complaint is registered against a vehicle, an aggressive driver can expect a personal visit by the police. Laying charges is an option and an officer may monitor the vehicle’s future actions. 

Since Road Watch was introduced in Caledon, the number of fatalities in the area has ranged from a low of six in 1997 to a high of 16 in 2001. In 2002, there were eight fatalities.

Other jurisdictions across Ontario have adopted the Road Watch concept through a licensing agreement. 

York University in Toronto, for example, has also observed success after introducing a Road Watch program.   Although the campus is technically private property, and thus governed differently than a municipality, with 30,000 vehicles per day on campus, there’s no shortage of headaches.

“I read the reports on a daily basis and I see what the trends are.  We have definitely seen there has been a decline [of aggressive driving incidents],” says Richard Pilkington, operations manager, York Security Services. 

But measurability of Road Watch is sometimes difficult.  For example, the OPP’s Nottawasaga detachment adopted the program in 1996 after having four fatalities in 1995.  The area had no fatalities in 1996 and only two in both 1997 and 1998.  However, in both 1999 and 2000, there were nine fatalities and 10 in 2001. 

“The dynamics of the community has changed greatly,” says OPP Sgt. Dirk Cockburn.   “We’ve had a large volume increase in population; road traffic has increased greatly; we’ve had numerous new businesses coming in…The question might be, Where would we be at this particular stage without the program?  That’s a very hard thing to know.”

In fact, Road Watch is one piece of an increasingly complex puzzle of factors that have hammered away at the motor vehicle fatality rate in Ontario over the past 10 years.

“It’s hard to isolate one factor and say it did or didn’t [reduce traffic fatalities],” says Leo Tasca, team leader of special projects in Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation.  

The Ontario Road Safety Annual Report in 2000 (the most recent available) concluded that the province had the safest roads in Canada and the second safest in North America. 

Tasca says that graduated driver licenses, improved commercial vehicle safety, mandatory seatbelt laws, and tougher penalties for impaired drivers have all contributed to driver safety.

An example of this multi-faceted approach to driver safety is the recent partnership of Road Watch Canada, the Ontario Provincial Police and CARP, Canada’s Association for the Fifty-Plus to establish a driver education program called Drive Wise.

“Traditional policing enforcement is the key,” says Drive Wise instructor Sgt. Bob Paterson of the OPP.  “But you better start paying attention to education and awareness.  It’s a lot more economical to do that than investigating crash sites all over the province.”

Nevertheless, some drivers just don’t get it.  One Caledon resident killed in a traffic accident had a Road Watch warning letter in his pocket.