Monday, May 11, 2009


We've just had the annual meeting of the Ontario Safety League and things were booming. The room was crowded in the new facilities, Transport Minister Jim Bradley praised us, OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino dropped in to press some flesh, and we were awash with smiles.
I thought back only a few years ago when four of us huddled in the winter gloom and wondered just how we were going to keep the doors open. And now the OSL is back from the wake. Most days there's some incident that calls on the expertise of the OSL. And now the United Nations has asked it to advise internationally.It's all due to the leadership of Brian Patterson, now familiar to everyone through his media pronouncements, and Steve Pengelly, who was head of the premier's office and is now running the Ontario Bar Association.
And of course John Legge as the faithful lawyer. The Legge family have been central to safety advocacy in Canada, with Bruce Legge, famous in military circles, and Laura Legge, first female head of the Law Society of Upper Canada, giving decades of service and lots of blunt advice.
The OSL has always been blessed with directors of wide-ranging experience, from deputy Toronto fire chief to hospital chaplain to Insurance Bureau of Canada head to newspaper editor.But it really had sunk to evil prospects, until a stout handful led by Patterson and Pengelly soldiered away. And so a venerable association that had been around for 90 years was saved for the vital work of reminding, goading and showing all Ontarians how to live longer without maiming themselves, whether in vehicles, homes or boats.
I've had a ringside seat as a director, which some times was a bit onerous because my instincts as a newspaper man encouraged me to rush to the keyboard with an exclusive story. But I held off because solving the problems, for example ending the under-the-counter sale of drivers' licences and air brake shenanigans, was more important than a one-day news wonder. The OSL has done some quiet but tough advocacy to the provincial government on such vital matters as driving school competency and the real threat that it would be easier for a terrorist to steal a 18-wheel tanker and crash it under a skyscraper than to steal an airliner and cause another awful Sept. 11.For a comparative outsider, I did play a safety role with two Canadian institutions, Elmer the Safety Elephant and the RIDE program. Both began with the Metro Citizens Safety Council. I helped bury that organization when the big Metro council withdrew its funding, a stupid thing to do when our members included a judge and police commission chairman and Ontario's chief coroner. Our accomplishments were considerable despite the low budget.
In 1957, the promotion genius of the Toronto Telegram, Bas Mason, brought a Walt Disney artist to Toronto for a weekend and he drew the first Elmer the Safety Elephant. The Tely found its Elmer program to be so wildly successful that it couldn't afford to keep running it, since so many schools wanted the Elmer flag to fly if they had a perfect accident record or to have an Elmer show up to lecture the kids about his rules.
So the citizens safety council took it over, and later its ownership passed to the OSL with other council programs. But Elmer has proven such an icon that various outfits, from other safety groups and even insurance companies wanted to use Elmer for commercial purposes.
I was enlisted by the OSL in the fight to keep Elmer pure because I brought unique history credentials as a former Tely editor who had also been a safety council member. And the OSL won.
The old safety council also produced a world first with the RIDE program. Few know that its original name came from Reduce Impaired Driving in Etobicoke. Two dedicated Toronto cops came to the council with the idea of trying this RIDE program as an experiment in the western suburb with just two cruisers. In order to demonstrate public support for the radical idea of stopping a car for no other reason than to ask if the driver had been drinking, the police wanted the council to buy two roof signs for, I think, $280. (Not much money, you might think, but this was the 1960s.)
I worried about the police using the stop as an excuse to fish through the vehicles. The police promised that wouldn't happen. So I moved the motion for the council to pay for the roof signs.
It proved so popular, and the expected public resistance never did flame into furious rebellion, so the project was expanded to all of Toronto. And we thought and thought and the E in "Etobicoke" became the E for "Everywhere," so we could still use the original signs, name and publicity.
But all this is in the distant past. Along with the controversy over other safety measures. Bradley has served as an MPP for 32 years, which ties him with Bob Runciman as dean of the Legislature, and he recalled in his speech the other night when many people opposed mandatory seat belts (including one of the transport ministers.) Now it is such a given that Bradley told of hopping into a van back in his St. Catharines constituency and the two kids told their mother who was driving that she shouldn't move because "that man" isn't wearing his seat belt.
The kids' safety seats also began with considerable controversy. I won a couple of safety awards for championing the idea in my column when many complained about even needing one to bring the new baby home from the hospital.
Now there is a new OSL board chair, Brian Lawrie, who also has left his mark on Toronto history as founder of POINTTs where you can hire a civilian advocate to represent you on traffic charges. This was also controversial when Lawrie began. If he hadn't been a veteran cop, he never would have won.
Lawrie had been on the Toronto force but he began in London, England, walking a beat in that famous uniform. He's a cop to the core, and recalls his first day when he was strolling the street trying to get it just right, like the veterans. There was a crowd clustered on the sidewalk and he pushed through officiously, not trying to let it show he was a rookie. There was a woman passed out, with another leaning solicitously over her. She told Lawrie she thought it was a heat stroke. So he leaned over to inspect and that big Bobby helmet fell off and smacked the woman right in the face. He was mortified. Then he saw to his horror a big purple bruise forming. As he leaned over again, his helmet slipped again and he grabbed it at the last moment. And the voice of an old gent drifted out of the crowd, suggestingd Lawrie had better watch it before he killed the woman.
Ah yes, Lawrie has a lifetime of experience in saving people from themselves, And so the OSL has another good leader. It needs them as it takes on this advisory role for UNESCO and to help keep the record intact of Ontario having the safest roads in all of North America.
That's something to boast about, and it's all due to the provincial transportation ministry and the advisory OSL stewardship.
There's more to be done, of course, but not everyone on the OSL agrees with my ideas. I would like to see the speed limit on the super 400 series of highways set at 120 instead of the 100 that just encourages scofflawism. And I think we must be tougher on tractor trailers.
It will be interesting in a couple of decades (I doubt I'll be around) to see what safety innovations of the next few years will last as long as Elmer, RIDE and mandatory seat belts have. Just think of all our neighbours who are still around because of them.

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