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Back to Archives | Back to July 2009 Contents 

Ontario Provincial Traffic Safety Program

By Julian Fantino, Commissioner, Ontario Provincial Police, General Headquarters, Orillia, Ontario, Canada

ince the full implementation of the comprehensive Provincial Traffic Safety Program (PTSP) in 2008, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) has seen a significant reduction in deaths and injuries on OPP-patrolled highways. These encouraging results have been obtained in Ontario primarily by using existing resources more effectively, although the OPP did receive some traffic safety enhancement funding in 2008 from the Ontario provincial government.

OPP Enforcement Strategies

The first step in developing the PTSP was to identify the major contributing factors to traffic deaths and injuries in the jurisdiction and then to design a focused program to address them. In Ontario, the OPP concentrates on what the service calls the “Big Three”—excessive speed, occupant restraint, and impaired driving—and addresses them using the following strategies.

High Visibility: The more visible police officers are, the greater the deterrence for both traffic and criminal offenses. Whether engaged in a traffic stop on patrol or simply positioned for operational readiness, OPP officers and vehicles are highly visible.

The return to the distinctive black and white color scheme makes OPP patrol cars instantly recognizable, and the renewed Aircraft Enforcement Program (AEP) is part of the visibility effort as well.

Professional Traffic Stops: All OPP officers are expected to contribute to the reduction of deaths and injuries on Ontario roads whether or not they are assigned to highway safety and whether they are on duty or off. Officers are taught to be relentless in their response to high-risk driving behaviors, but they are also trained to deal patiently with members of the public and to make sure motorists understand why they are stopped. Frontline officers are an effective way to communicate a safety program’s strategic goals because they deal directly with the public.

Looking beyond the Plate: All frontline officers are trained to look beyond the initial violation and initiate appropriate action (figure 1). This is especially true in detecting and removing impaired drivers from Ontario highways.

Figure 1: OPP officers are trained to look beyond the plate.
Photo by OPP/Ray Kolly

It is unacceptable that alcohol is still listed as a contributing factor in 18 percent of the fatal crashes on the province’s highways, trails, and waterways and that drunk driving remains the leading cause of criminal death in Canada. There is no excuse for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but some members of the general public still are not getting this message.

Cultural Change: Any police agency determined to have an impact on traffic safety must develop a culture that seeks relentless enforcement and improvement. It is easy for police agencies to get complacent about traffic safety; it is not a sought-after assignment, and traffic mishaps seem to happen regularly no matter what the police do. In most police services, traffic safety is where the rookies start, with the brightest and best quickly moving on to other assignments. But improvements in traffic safety can have a bigger impact on the public than most other police initiatives. Police can save lives if officers make traffic safety a priority.

A few years ago, the OPP restructured to create a Highway Safety Division with its own headquarters and commander. The creation of this division finally gave traffic safety the status and the attention it deserves within the OPP.

Partnership and Stakeholder Involvement: The OPP recognizes that broad stakeholder consultation and the development of partnerships are essential to the delivery of traffic safety initiatives. The main goal, as always, is to save lives and reduce injuries.

Data Integrity: The OPP now places a strong organizational emphasis on the need for data integrity when investigating and reporting collisions. Accurate reports ensure that traffic hot spots are identified. Greater accountability for data integrity supports the methodology and the effectiveness of the PTSP.

Focused Planning: All planning for the PTSP is conducted based on an intelligence-led approach and is focused on saving lives and reducing injuries. The OPP sets targets and objectives with a results-driven policing model and then ensures they are aligned with priorities at the command, region, and detachment levels.

Technology and Workable Laws

Although the PTSP provides the OPP with a focused structure for reducing collisions on Ontario highways, the effective use of technology and workable laws are also very important. The OPP purchased a state-of-the-art, fixed-wing, single-engine aircraft in 2008 and added it to its aviation services. The Cessna 206 has an impeccable safety record and will soon have digital downlink capabilities and a dual camera sensor—infrared and daytime video—installed.

The Cessna’s arrival signalled the reestablishment of the OPP’s AEP, which had been discontinued during a budget crunch in 1981. The primary function of the new plane is traffic enforcement on Ontario’s 400 series highways—major routes leading north, east, and west out of Toronto to cottage country and beyond, where police officers often witness the most dangerous and irresponsible driving (figure 2). Depending on needs, the plane is also regularly scheduled for traffic enforcement duties in all other regions of Ontario.

Figure 2: The OPP's Cessna 206 patrols
Ontario's Highway 400. The Aerial
Enforcement Program currently has
a 100 percent conviction rate.
Photo by OPP/Ray Kolly

On holiday weekends, when the roads are congested and irresponsible drivers start to take greater chances, an aerial view is particularly helpful. The aircraft observer can easily spot dangerous drivers over a large area and radio descriptions to the more than 300 trained officers on the ground who make safe interceptions. The 40 trained aircraft observers use a Robic stopwatch to monitor and determine vehicle speeds; there are hash marks painted on the highway every 500 meters (roughly one-third of a mile) on the road for this purpose.

During the initial stages of the relaunched AEP, OPP officers were trained by members of the Ohio State Highway Patrol using the principles and methods that have served the patrol so well for over four decades. Operating costs for the plane are about $150 per hour of flying time, exclusive of capital costs and the costs of the pilot and the observer, since they would be assigned to duty elsewhere if not to aircraft traffic enforcement.

Drivers have been cited for almost 7,000 traffic violations as a result of this program. Impressively, there is currently a 100 percent conviction rate on AEP charges.

Curtailing Stunt Driving and Racing

Police executives do not make the laws in their jurisdictions, but they can play an important role in explaining needed changes and suggesting new laws to improve public safety.

In September 2007, Ontario introduced section 172 (1) to its Highway Traffic Act. This section has become known as Ontario’s “stunt driving law,” but it actually covers racing, contests, and any stunts that irresponsible drivers may try with a vehicle. This includes intentionally lifting the front wheel of a motorcycle off the pavement; intentionally accelerating so fast that a vehicle’s wheels lose traction; racing; weaving in and out of traffic; and a whole range of other irresponsible driving behaviors that are specifically defined by this law.

In the case of speeding, anyone found to be driving at 50 kilometers per hour or more above the posted speed limit is deemed to be driving “at a rate of speed that is a marked departure from the lawful rate of speed” and is charged under section 172. Motorists charged under this law have their vehicles towed and impounded and their driver’s licenses suspended for one week—and the suspension happens right at the roadside.

From the implementation of section 172 to March 2009, a total of 11,437 drivers were charged under this section, with the OPP responsible for citing 8,580 of the offenses. The AEP was responsible for 150 of those charges.

Provisions such as section 172 are saving lives by getting dangerous drivers off the roads immediately, although it remains surprising how many people continue to speed at such a high rate or try other stunts.

Combating Distracted and Impaired Driving

In 2008, Ontario passed legislation banning the use of cellular telephones and other handheld electronic devices while driving. Although these provisions are not yet fully enacted, in the near future drivers will be facing up to a $500 fine for using handheld devices instead of concentrating on driving.

Both the Ontario and the Canadian governments recently introduced new legislation aimed at providing police services with more tools to get drug- and alcohol-impaired drivers off the road. Some of the questionable defenses drivers have used in the past against charges of impaired driving have become less effective because the rules of evidence have now been clarified.

Ontario officers can now use a standardized field sobriety test at the roadside if there is a reasonable suspicion the driver is impaired by a drug. If the driver fails the test, a drug recognition expert at the police station will conduct an evaluation and, if the expert determines that a certain class of drugs is causing impairment, a sample of body fluid will be taken by a qualified technician or a medical practitioner.

Ontario has also had a sophisticated graduated licensing system in place since 1994. Several useful restrictions, including zero tolerance for alcohol consumption, are placed on young drivers until they qualify for a full license.

OPP data indicate that young drivers are significantly more likely to be involved in fatal collisions than are other demographic groups. Research also indicates that Ontario’s graduated licensing system has significantly reduced the loss of young lives on the province’s highways.

Encouraging Statistics

A combination of workable traffic laws, enhanced public education, a focused highway safety program like the PTSP, and full support from frontline personnel has produced some remarkable and encouraging results in Ontario, including the following:

  • There were 322 highway traffic deaths on roads patrolled by the OPP in 2008, compared with 451 in 2007. This represents a reduction of 29 percent, or 129 lives.

  • There were 11,472 crashes resulting in personal injury on roads patrolled by the OPP in 2008, a decrease of 2,567—or 18 percent—compared with 2007. The 2008 statistic in this category is also 19 percent less than the five-year average.1

  • OPP officers checked 4.8 million vehicles for seat belt and impaired-driving infractions in 2008. This represents an increase of 41 percent over 2006, the last full year before the OPP implemented its PTSP.

Preliminary statistics from the first few months of 2009 indicate that the number of deaths and injuries on Ontario highways continues to decline compared with 2008 numbers, so there are still gains to be made.

It is impossible to calculate the emotional costs of needlessly losing a loved one to a preventable motor vehicle collision, but the economic costs of traffic-related deaths can be calculated. A 2007 Transport Canada study, using 2004 data, estimated the total social economic costs—for example, traffic delays, health care, tow trucks, police, fire and emergency services, and lost productivity—to be $18 billion annually in Ontario alone.2 Using the fatality and injury costs calculated in the Transport Canada study, the encouraging Ontario statistics from 2008 represent savings to the provincial economy of $2.3 billion compared with 2007. A police force with this kind of information can make a forceful case when arguing for more resources or better laws.

The OPP has signed a memorandum of understanding with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto to conduct joint research into the health costs related to motor vehicle collisions. The OPP will use these data in its results-driven policing model to focus priorities and to educate the public.

A reduction in motor vehicle collisions can be achieved through a number of means, including improved highway and vehicle design. Some have even suggested that high gas prices and a slow economy reduce the number of vehicles on the roads and lead to a corresponding drop in collisions.

Sorting out the influence of various causes of collisions is difficult, but the OPP is convinced that the presence of a highly visible, engaged traffic officer is one of the most effective methods of mitigating high-risk driving behavior. Coupled with education and public support, effective law enforcement ultimately leads to a significant reduction in serious injuries and fatalities from collisions.

Future Directions

Although 2008 is viewed as an excellent year for traffic safety in the OPP, there is still more work to do. Too many lives are still being lost or ruined due to preventable collisions throughout the province. Some future directions under consideration by the OPP include the following.

Viewing Collision Data Holistically: Traditionally, contributing factors such as weather patterns, highway engineering, driver condition/behavior, and vehicle design have been the basis of collision analysis. In the future, a more scientific approach will be explored, to include both community and commuter consultation, shifting demographics, and economic effects—positive and negative—as well as broader stakeholder involvement. This methodology will be applied to areas of the province that are still experiencing unacceptably high levels of fatal and serious injury collisions.

Using Technology More Efficiently: In Ontario, 90 percent of goods and services are delivered using the highway network. Road closures and delays have a direct impact on the provincial and the national economy. The OPP has committed to a faster reopening of highways after crashes by using special teams with advanced equipment and enhanced investigative and clearance techniques. By working closely with Transport Canada and other police services, the OPP is sharing best practices and the encouraging 2008 results. Other technology-based traffic safety devices will be investigated and explored for the purpose of improving the overall strategic approach to saving lives.

Mapping Collisions and Predictability: Another exercise will enable the OPP to plan strategically where and when resources should be deployed. The Ohio State Highway Patrol has been a leader in this area, using Web-based data not only to inform members of the patrol but also to inform and educate the public. The patrol’s partnership with Ohio State University’s Statistical Consulting Service to produce crash predictive models provides an unprecedented amount of quality information for traffic safety enforcement.3

Exploring Proven Traffic Safety Principles: The OPP recognizes that educating and informing police services through organizations like the IACP is essential. Sharing best practices and innovative approaches to traffic safety with all stakeholders is the key to success. For example, most aspects of the PTSP could easily be implemented in other jurisdictions to reduce the carnage resulting from motor vehicle collisions.


Demonstrated leadership and professionalism at all levels of the OPP encourage each member of the service to champion proactively the principles of traffic safety. Not only will there be enhanced levels of service to the public, but there will also be a reduction in the number of senseless tragedies on Ontario’s highways, trails, and waterways. To be effective in any jurisdiction, a message of consistent and professional traffic enforcement must be conveyed in a clear and understandable manner, from the commissioner or chief down to the frontline constable or officer.

The Ontario Provincial Police was the first-place winner in the International Law Enforcement category of the IACP’s 2007–2008 National Law Enforcement Challenge for its initiatives in traffic safety. ■


1Highway Safety Division, Ontario Provincial Police, “2008 Annual Report,” 16. Readers can obtain a copy of this report by contacting Jim Mcdonnell at 705-329-7582 or via e-mail at
2Keith Vodden et al., Analysis and Estimation of the Social Cost of Motor Vehicle Collisions in Ontario, Final Report, Ministry of Transportation, Ottawa, August 2007, i, (accessed May 6, 2009).
3For more information on Ohio State Patrol public education and Web-based collision information programs, readers can visit



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 8, July 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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