Father of beloved teacher Tom Samson, killed on his bike in 2012, says Ontario should have a minimum sentence for drivers who don’t stop.
Uri Samson gets up every day and puts one foot in front of the other. He goes to work, he cares for his wife, daughter-in-law and grandkids.
He trudges on despite a heart that was irreparably broken in November 2012, when his son Tom Samson — a father, husband, brother, Grade 2 teacher, chess player and musician — was killed on his bike by a driver who left the 35-year-old lying on the road.
“We put on a good face,” says his father, who works as a physiotherapist at the Heritage Nursing Home on Queen East near Leslie St.
But that good face stares into an empty distance.
“Yeah, I am broken,” says Samson, following one of the pauses in which his composure only narrowly wins the struggle against choking tears.
“I am physically OK, I function. But I feel that I am broken.”
The wound of Tom’s death bleeds again, though, each time Samson hears of another hit-and-run collision. There were at least three such incidents involving cyclists in the Toronto region in July.
Fleeing the scene knowing that you have killed someone carries a maximum sentence of life under the Canadian criminal code.
But there is no minimum penalty. That is at the discretion of the courts.
For Samson, it is an unbearable injustice. He wants lawmakers here to do what they have already done in Florida and apply a minimum sentence for drivers leaving the scene of a collision with a cyclist or pedestrian.
Named for a cyclist killed by a hit-and-run driver, the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act means that, in Florida, fleeing the scene of a collision that causes death is punishable by a minimum of four years in prison.
It’s the kind of penalty that Samson wants to see here, although he’s not sure what a fair sentence would be.
“What kind of society (do we) live in, when people hit somebody, they are aware that they hit someone, and they take off and they hide for two days?” says Samson, a former orchestral musician born in Romania.
“What kind of a person is this who hides? This is such an injustice, to the victim and the family of the victims, that this accident happens . . . Somebody is killed and the person is left for dead on the road.”
Toronto personal injury lawyer Patrick Brown believes that 95 per cent of the time, a person who leaves the scene of a collision with a cyclist or pedestrian is an impaired driver. They take off and sleep it off so they don’t make matters worse, he said.
“When people leave the scene of the accident and somebody’s been hurt, yes, I think most people assume it’s likely they’re impaired, nine out of 10 times,” he said.
There were 477 convictions for fleeing the scene of a collision under the Highway Traffic Act in 2013, the most recent available statistics, according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.
There were an additional 361 convictions that year under the Criminal Code of Canada for failure to remain at the scene of a collision.
“It really is a heinous and repulsive crime. You’re essentially leaving somebody at the side of the road, who in all likelihood needs medical assistance, and may very well die if you don’t do something,” said Brown, a cycling advocate who proposed the Ontario coroner’s Cycling Death Review published in 2012.
Failure to remain at the scene of an accident is a Highway Traffic Act offence that carries a fine of between $400 and $2,000, along with a potential six-month prison sentence.
“It’s a weak provision, but it might be a situation where nobody’s hurt,” said Brown, noting there’s a difference between bumping into the back of another car and peeling away for an appointment, and leaving a pedestrian or cyclist injured or dead.
In the latter case, police and prosecutors can bump it up to a criminal charge.
Both Brown and Samson compare fleeing the scene to impaired driving.
“It should be a penal sentence. If it’s your second offence for impaired driving, the minimum for that is 14 days in jail. Why shouldn’t it be at least 14 days in jail? Assume you’re driving, you’ve hit somebody, you’re impaired — for whatever reason, you’re taking off. Why shouldn’t that be similar to someone who knows impaired driving is wrong, that it can cause harm to people, and that you do it a second time and you get 14 days? In those circumstances, those people don’t even have to hurt somebody,” said Brown.
City council has asked the province to consider higher penalties in the Highway Traffic Act for drivers who injure or kill vulnerable road users. Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington are among the states that have passed vulnerable road user legislation.
“Fleeing the scene, that piece, should be a component of that,” said Cycle Toronto executive director Jared Kolb.
It’s not clear if the province is prepared to look at the city’s request.
“We are always interested in ways we can make Ontario’s roads even safer, and we look forward to hearing from the City of Toronto on their suggestions on how we can achieve this shared goal,” said Patrick Searle, spokesman for Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca.
He pointed to cycling and pedestrian safety measures the Liberal government has introduced, including fines of $300 to $1,000 and demerit points for drivers who door cyclists; the introduction of contra-flow bike lanes and the one-metre passing rule, which requires drivers to move over at least a metre when passing a cyclist.
But making it clear that in the eyes of the law it is never acceptable to leave the scene of a collision would be a step toward justice for shattered families like his own, he said.
A sentencing hearing is scheduled later this month for Miguel Oliveira, who in May pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to remain at the scene of an accident causing death near Davenport Rd. and Lansdowne Ave., where Tom Samson was killed.
Oliveira’s lawyer, Calvin Barry, told the Star that alcohol was not a factor in the early morning collision. Oliveira was driving a minivan on his way to work early that Friday morning. He turned himself in to police late the following Saturday.