A traffic collision changed their lives. But they believe justice still hasn't been served
Ontario needs tougher laws to deter dangerous driving, victims, survivors and advocates say
Shona Siddiqui remembers frantically trying to call her younger brother on a January afternoon three years ago. Her sister had told her about an accident in North York. Soon after she learned not only was her brother the victim, but that he was killed.
"I couldn't believe it," Siddiqui recalled, her voice faltering.
"So I started dialing his number. I'm saying, 'No, you're not gone.' And of course, there was no pick up and it just started becoming really real."
Asim Siddiqui was hit by a dump truck turning right on Lawrence Avenue West. Siddiqui says her brother waited for the pedestrian signal and was crossing at a marked crosswalk. The driver fled the scene but later pleaded guilty to a failing-to-yield charge that comes with a fine.
As the number of traffic fatalities rise in cities like Toronto, Siddiqui and other advocates are pushing for tougher penalties for drivers who seriously injure or kill someone. A private members bill has been proposed but there are no guarantees it will become law.
The driver who struck Asim Siddiqui was also charged with careless driving, but that was dropped after he pleaded guilty to failing to yield to a pedestrian.
According to the Highway Traffic Act, the penalty for the failure to yield is a fine of $300, unless it's in a designated community, in which case the fine is $600.
"What is to prevent people from doing that with those sorts of consequences?" said Ray Lacina, Shona Siddiqui's husband.
Advocates say any charges that are laid are almost always under the Highway Traffic Act, not the Criminal Code, and penalties are minor.
"And if by chance they are found guilty or convicted, it's usually a small fine that's handed out," said lawyer Patrick Brown, a road safety advocate and a partner at McLeish Orlando Lawyers LLP in Toronto.
Brown says that's hard for victims families to accept.
"When they see the justice system respond in that way, it's just further victimization of these people," said Brown. "It really has to change."
There is also frustration among those who survive a collision.
Majd Zakout, 34, was riding his bike home in 2018 when he was hit by an uninsured truck driver making an illegal left turn.
"It wasn't easy for me to reconcile that I was able to survive war and then almost killed in Toronto in a cycling accident," said Zakout, who is a Palestinian born in Jerusalem.
Zakout was rushed to hospital with a broken arm, ankle and injuries to his hip, waist, back and neck. He also suffered a brain injury.
He had to undergo several surgeries and months of rehabilitation. The recovery has been both physical and mental: Zakout still hasn't conquered his fear of riding a bike.
"It was a hard and long process, reaching where I am now and I continue to make daily improvements."
But the charges against the driver never moved ahead. Zakout inquired about a court date, but was told it was cancelled. Months passed and he didn't hear anything. His lawyer, David Shellnutt, later learned it was rescheduled but Zakout never received a subpoena to testify in court.
"The prosecutor, despite having a signed statement that the driver was driving uninsured and had injured somebody, decided to toss the case on site," Shellnutt said.
Shellnutt said he often sees charges downgraded or dismissed altogether.
"We need to set an example that if you injure somebody on the road by acting carelessly, recklessly or dangerously, it's going to have significant consequences because it will certainly, on the injured person, have consequences for life."
Protecting Vulnerable Road Users Act
Brown, the lawyer and road safety advocate, has joined other activists in crafting Bill 54, also known as the Protecting Vulnerable Road Users Act, introduced by NDP MPP Jessica Bell.
Bell said the penalties would be "a licence suspension until the driver takes a driver education course, community service and the requirement to go to court and hear a victim impact statement."
She said all parties voted for the bill in December at second reading, but it requires a third reading to become law and has been referred to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy.
CBC News asked the Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney if she would support the bill.
"Road safety is a goal that is shared across party lines. Our government shares the same concerns as the NDP when it comes to protecting vulnerable road users," her office responded in part in a statement.
The ministry highlighted its Moving Ontarians More Safely Act, introduced in April 2021, which aims to crack down on high-risk driving with stiffer penalties for stunt driving, street racing and aggressive driving offences.
Zakout, who was in law school when he was hit and is now a working lawyer, said his main concern isn't punishing the driver but "to ensure that the same thing won't happen to someone else."
"We trust [the Crown] to do their jobs, and they haven't delivered in this case."
Siddiqui said she wants to read her victim impact statement to the driver in court — something she's been told she likely won't be able to do, though a spokesperson for the Crown told CBC News it intends to ask the court to allow it.
"It's essential for me to let the driver know … what the impact has been for us," said Siddiqui, referring to the loss of her brother.
"He was a light in our lives and we lost that."
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