It's a new era of guns, drugs and road rage
By Eric Volmers
CAMBRIDGE - Sergeant Bill Neale remembers when families would picnic on the grassy islands in the middle of Highway 403.
Gun running, drug smuggling, road rage and aggressive driving were rarely part of the caseload for OPP officers when he first started patrolling the province's highways out of Burlington in 1971.
Times have changed.
In March, Neale pulled over a car on the 403 for speeding and caught a whiff of marijuana smoke. He searched the driver and found nothing. Searching the 17-year-old female passenger, he found a loaded Uzi hidden in her dress.
``When I started in 1971, we would get a call about a gun maybe once a month,'' Neale says. ``Now it's almost a daily occurrence.''
Drivers, he says, ``are getting into fistfights on the side of the road. We've had people taking baseball bats to each other. No one has died yet from backing on to the highway while fighting, but it will only be a matter of time.''
Policing attitudes have also changed with the times.
``In the past we were thinking this is just a highway, not a community,'' Neale says. ``We have had to change our thinking. This is a community. People spend a lot of time on these roads.''
More than 500 officers cover the OPP's Greater Toronto region, a 50,000-square-kilometre piece of Ontario that includes 643 kilometres of highway and 800 kilometres of secondary roads. Eight detachments patrol through Downsview, Caledon, Aurora, Burlington, Port Credit, Whitby, Niagara and Cambridge.
At its heart is the 90-kilometre 400 series, among the busiest networks of freeway in North America. More than 350,000 motorists a day pass through the Keele Street interchange, a 16-lane-wide stretch on the 401 that has rush hour traffic 24 hours a day.
With the increase in congestion throughout southern Ontario comes an increase in aggressive driving, road rage, violence and fatalities.
In April, the OPP launched Focus 2000, a community-based program where various zones were flooded with extra officers for one week.
On the May 24 weekend, 40 extra officers targeted Aurora, charging 54 people and taking 75 trailers heading to cottage country off the road because they were not hitched properly to vehicles.
In Caledon, where there has been an increase in fatalities in the past year, OPP officers focused for a week on seatbelt enforcement and drivers who disobeyed traffic signs.
In October, Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo will get special attention during the week-long Oktoberfest celebrations.
It's the first step in changing how people view highway driving, says Superintendent Jay Hope, regional commander for Greater Toronto and the man behind Focus 2000.
``We need to redirect the resources, innovation and imagination we are using thinking about crime and put some of it into investigating (how fatalities happen on the road).''
Sergeant Peggy Gamble heads up the force's aggressive driving team based out of headquarters in Aurora.
``It's a different approach to policing and you need more officers to do it,'' says Gamble.
``It's almost like dealing with a domestic dispute on the road. You have to get the two people thinking rationally.
``The officers have to be quite cordial to get the information out. If any charges need to be laid, that has to happen afterwards.''
Gamble heads a team of 48 officers who specialize in aggressive driving and increasing incidents of road rage, which the OPP defines as ``random acts of violence or aggressive behaviour carried out by frustrated or over-stressed drivers.''
But tracking the apparent rise is tough since incidents of road rage are usually buried in assault or dangerous driving statistics. As of yet, there is no specific offence for road rage.
From March, 1998, through March, 1999, Gamble's team launched the ``Road Rage Intervention Tool,'' which combined education with direct intervention.
Police stopped 1,251 people who were showing signs of road rage, although what those signs were was not defined. Of those, 364 were charged with highway offences such as careless driving, unsafe lane changes, following too closely, speeding and passing off the roadway.
But while there is no hard proof that road rage is on the increase, frontline officers have no doubts.
``We have more people, less room for those people and we've got more people in high-stress jobs,'' Gamble says.
``All these things tend to trigger incidents. In the '90s and into 2000 as a society, we accept a certain amount of aggression. Back in the 1970s and '80s, when you gave a motorist the finger, it was terrible. It happens so often now it's become normal.''