Manitoba drivers who hit and kill a cyclist often end up simply paying a fine.
A Global News investigation found multiple cases where the driver was never criminally charged. Instead the person was charged under the Highway Traffic Act (HTA) and the offence often resulted in a few thousand dollars fine.
Leslie Freudenberg, 87, was an avid cyclist. But in July 2016, his passion got him killed. Freudenberg was struck by a piece of heavy machinery.
“He was riding his bike down a cyclist pathway and was crossing the street,” his son-in-law, Keith Johnson, told Global News. “A piece of heavy equipment was being transported down the street and didn’t have a full view for the driver. He didn’t even know that he actually hit my father-in-law.”
Freudenberg was killed instantly. The 34-year-old driver was never charged. Instead, PCL Construction, the company that owned the truck, is going to court for not providing a clear view to the driver. The Manitoba Justice department said the maximum penalty the company will face is a $2,000 fine.
“I guess the cruel nature of all of that is the fact that the family has never really been given the opportunity for closure at this point,” Johnson said. “We’ve paid the ultimate price in losing a family member that we’ll never get back.”
This scenario – a pedestrian or cyclist is hit and killed and the driver receives a light penalty – is playing out across the country. Global News has spoken to many families from coast to coast who are outraged that careless drivers aren’t facing stiffer fines after hitting and killing their loved ones.
Trudi Mason of Lethbridge, Alta. was cycling with her best friend when a truck hit the both of them. Mason’s friend died. Mason says the court process ignores the fact a person was killed.
The family feels Freudenberg’s death could have been prevented had PCL followed equipment protocol. Instead, the incident happened as the driver was moving the heavy machinery from one end of the street to the other.
“Les’ death hasn’t been taken seriously,” Johnson said. “It’s the worst slap in the face that we could ever experience. It just further denies any closure that the family has to put this behind them.”
Freudenberg’s tragic death is just one of many similar cases involving other cyclists around the province.
In 2008, Robert Carrier, 45, and Daniel Hurtuboise, 50, were killed while biking east of Highway 1, about 5 km’s east of Virden. The driver, Ian Edmond Gibbons, was initially charged with two counts of dangerous driving causing death and two counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
However, those charges were pleaded down to a Highway Traffic Act charge. Gibbons claimed he was distracted while adjusting his air conditioning. Eventually, he was fined $5,000… or $2,500 a life.
In 2014, Graeme Loader was killed by a woman driving an SUV on Highway 1. Jody Bone, 28, was charged with dangerous driving causing death and careless driving causing death. Bone was only found guilty of careless driving causing death and fined $4,000.
While the facts of each case are always different, legal experts told Global News, criminal convictions in cases like these can be hard for Crown attorneys because they are difficult to prove.
“It has to be a marked departure in the behaviour that someone has exhibited behind the wheel or of a normal, reasonable person driving, that leads to the death. That can be difficult to prove,” University of Manitoba Assistant Law Professor and former Manitoba prosecutor David Ireland said. “If they’re not likely to get a conviction that’s when the Crown starts pleading it down.”
Ireland said the lawyers and judges have to consider all aspects of the scenario.
“Most of us will have a momentary lapse of attention when we’re driving,” Ireland said. “People drive when they are tired, they aren’t paying full attention or they’re arguing with someone in the front seat. It’s then whether that behaviour becomes regulated under the Highway Traffic Act or criminalized under the criminal code.
Even when the law does allow for jail time in these cases, it’s clear the justice system is reluctant to send drivers who kill cyclists to jail.
“We have jail, we have probation, we have fines,” Ireland said. “It’s obviously the world’s worst tool box. We don’t have an awful lot we can do and jail is at the top of the ladder. Consequentially, the courts are told not to (send them to jail) if there is something else that can do the job of rehabilitating the offender.”
A Call for Action
There are approximately 180 cyclists hit by drivers in Manitoba every single year, according to Manitoba Public Insurance.
Cycling advocates are pushing for a change in legislation so the penalties reflect the reality that a driver has killed someone.
“It’s really sad and it’s something that we want to make sure is taken seriously. There’s frustrations on what the cost of that life is,” Bike Winnipeg’s Mark Cohoe said. “Making sure it’s possible to get negligent driving or dangerous driving applied to someone is critical.”
Cohoe said when a cyclist is killed and the driver only receives a small fine, it doesn’t fit the severity of the incident.
“Obviously that’s saying the legislation needs to be changed to get a (criminal) conviction,” he said. “There has to be ramifications for it. Obviously this is killing someone. They are never coming back to their relatives, their friends and family.”
Regardless of multiple requests, Manitoba’s Justice Minister Heather Stefanson refused an interview with Global News.
Instead, the following statement was released:
“All fatal traffic accidents are terribly tragic and unfortunate events. Our government takes road safety seriously and in instances where an individual is impaired, distracted, or driving recklessly, offenders can be prosecuted under the Criminal Code. When those factors aren’t present for a Criminal Code violation, they could be considered for a charge under a provincial statute.”
Global News sought out responses from 8 of 10 provincial governments regarding whether the justice system fairly deals with people who kill with their cars. Three ministers agreed to do an on camera interview.
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