Street racing: thousands charged, few convicted

Statistics from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General show only about one-third of drivers charged with street racing are ever convicted, yet they still pay thousands in fines.

When Ontario passed new street racing laws last fall, they were hailed as the toughest in North America.

The legislation gives police the power to seize cars and licences on the spot if drivers are charged with street racing, or stunt driving.

As of May 20, 2008, police had laid 5,139 street racing or stunt driving charges since the law was enacted on Oct. 1, 2007.

But CBC News has learned that the vast majority of people charged under the new laws are never convicted of the crime.

George Papazov says he's a perfect example.

Last October, the 23-year-old got stuck in traffic on Toronto's Don Valley Parkway.

He wasn't far from his exit, so he crept slowly between the idle cars on his motorcycle. It didn't take long until he saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser. 

"First thing he said is, 'Your bike is gone for a week,'" said Papazov.

The officer seized Papazov's motorcycle and licence for seven days right on the side of the road.

Papazov was charged with stunt driving and his bike was towed — at a cost of almost a $1,000.

When Papazov got his day in court, the charges didn't stand up.  Papazov was found guilty of making an illegal lane change and fined $600.

OPP Const. Dave Woodford says what happens in court is not his concern.  "My concern is getting those people off the road."

Simply being charged with stunt driving cost Papazov more than $2,000 in non-refundable towing and legal costs.  He said he had to sell his motorcycle to pay the fees.

"Anything can be stunt driving," said Papazov.  "It gives the officer the power, on the spot, to decide if you're guilty or not."

More than 5,000 drivers have been charged since the law took effect but according to statistics provided by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General to CBC News, the conviction rate is only about 33 per cent.

As of April 1, 1,080 street racing cases had gone to trial, with 325 convictions.  According to the ministry, 526 cases were reduced to speeding, while 229 were either withdrawn, dismissed or stayed.

Most fines for those convicted ranged from $2,000 to $10,000, but some fines have been as low as $200.

Papazov says that means many drivers, like him, are paying for something for which they're never convicted.

But OPP Sgt. Cam Woolley says taking vehicles off the road is the entire point of the law. 

"Ultimately, we've seen an increase in safety and really the best thing about this law is [the] immediate consequences."