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Reprinted with permission by the author

Time to put your foot down

Saturday August 19, 2000

Jonathan Chevreau
Financial Post

It was the first day of my vacation and I was driving the family's new Volvo S70 to a resort near Peterborough, Ont., about 120 kilometres north of Toronto.

After nearly 30 years with a clean driving record -- mostly with older cars that shook near the speed limit -- the speedometer on our first real luxury car effortlessly swept past the 100 km/h posted limit.

We'd just left a church event where we had said goodbye to a popular minister. Maybe I was preoccupied and going a little fast, but so were most of the other drivers that fine day in July. Maybe I didn't realize how powerful the Volvo is.

With just a few kilometres to go to the resort, a policeman flags me down. I give him my papers. After checking with his computer systems to see that I'm not wanted for other offences, he slaps me with a ticket for $265 and four demerit points. Warnings, it appears, are a thing of the past.

The fine hurts but I put the cheque in the mail. Too much hassle to argue it out in court, I reason. Only later, as I discuss the incident with various people, do I realize I've made a big mistake.

Traffic enforcement is only superficially about safety and justice. Posted limits and speed enforcement are, really, about money. Tickets are a cash cow for the provincial ministries of transportation, especially when about one-third of drivers caught speeding instantly cough up, as I did.

"Deliberately setting the speed limit too low, and then sending out cops to sneak behind motorists, is highway robbery disguised as traffic safety enforcement," says the author of a Web site entitled Fight Your Speeding Tickets. "[In a traffic court], the robber is the plaintiff and the victim is the accused."

Another third of speeding drivers ignore the tickets outright, while the remainder fight them in court, with the help of organizations such as X-Copper and Pointts. These outfits -- which operate, for now, in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario -- are staffed by former police officers. Speeding tickets are big business for them too. "We win or it's free!" is the slogan of X-Copper founder David Matheson.

But the biggest beneficiary of the system are Canada's insurance companies, which are just itching to find any excuse to drive up premiums on drivers with good driving records.

Anectodes from drivers suggest enforcement has been beefed up over the past two years. And if you are caught, it does not take much to lose a five- or six-star rating and see your premiums hit the stratosphere. A handful of violations in two or three years can result in insurance rate hikes of 15% to 400%, says Brian Lawrie, president of Pointts Advisory Ltd., which has been operating for 16 years.

When I sent my cheque in the mail, I didn't fully realize the financial consequences of convicting myself. And apart from the fines and higher insurance rates, there is the possibility of losing the right to drive to work or take my daughter to soccer.

When you're handed a traffic ticket, you have three options. Two of them -- plead guilty or plead guilty with an explanation -- mean you're agreeing to a conviction and sending a cheque. The third, not guilty, is a request to argue your case in court. Pleading "not guilty" does not mean you're claiming you didn't commit the offence; it just means you are putting the burden of proof on the Crown.

When you are pulled over by a police officer, it's futile to argue at the road side. The place to argue is in court, preferably with an agent from Pointts (which stands for provincial offences information and traffic ticket service), X-Copper or a similar service.

But, as I learned, once you plead guilty and your cheque clears, it's too late to fight. Pleading guilty with an explanation may net you a lower fine, but it still costs you the same number of demerit points as a guilty conviction. And as the penalties pile up, so does the punishment.

The provinces and the insurance companies use various "demerit points" systems. When drivers accumulate 15 points, their licence is suspended for 30 days. Demerit points remain on your driving record for two years from the date of the offence. And how are these points tallied? Well, going 16 to 29 kilometres over the speed limit gets you three demerit points, rising to four for 30 to 49 kilometres over the limit (my infraction) and six points for 50 kilometres or more over the limit. Careless driving will net you six points and failing to remain at the scene of an accident racks up seven points.

Since you can also lose two points for such peccadillos as not wearing a seat belt or even "unnecessary slow driving," or four points for tailgating and three points for failing to observe stop signs or stop lights, it's not hard for an otherwise solid citizen to hit the danger zone on insurance rates.

Even a single four-point "serious" infraction can result in insurance companies invoking a 50% surcharge at renewal time, says Eve Patterson, manager of regional services for the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

The definition of serious can vary. Some insurance companies may view five- or six-point infractions as the trigger; if they do, you may lose your preferred category as well.

As stated on the Insurance Bureau of Canada Web site, to stay at the top six-star level -- and pay the least for your car insurance -- you can have no more than one minor conviction in a three-year period. Otherwise, you drop to a lower classification, and pay 15% to 20% more at the five-star level.

The insurance companies have their own underwriting rules based on the number of violations or accidents in the last six years, says Brian Donleavy, information officer with the Financial Services Commission of Ontario. "If you've had more than two accidents in the last six years, the companies just won't give you a policy."

At that point, you have two choices: the non-standard market, with firms like Kingsway Financial or Pafco Insurance, or the Facility Association, an insurance pool for high-risk drivers.

The bottom line is that traffic infractions hit you where it hurts -- in the pocketbook. I'll close with the friendly advice the officer gave me on the road side:

Use your cruise control set at exactly the speed limit if you want to be absolutely immune. Technically, even one kilometre over the limit is an infraction, Lawrie advises, but in practice it's unlikely you will be pulled over if the general traffic flow is 10 km over the posted limit. X-Copper founder Matheson -- who, ironically, got a ticket for speeding in a construction zone the day of our interview -- believes you can push it to 18 kilometres over before the police act.

That's playing with fire, in my view. For now, I'll be puttering along in the right lane near the posted limit. Wave as you speed past me on the left.


Web sites that provide information about the penalites linked with speeding and how drivers can fight them.

- Insurance Bureau of Canada

- Pointts, The Traffic Ticket Specialists

- X-Copper Legal Services

- Fight Your Speeding Tickets (a page dedicated to helping people fight speeding tickets)