http://www.thestar.com/news/investigati ... -travelled
BANCROFT—They come here by the carload: would-be Toronto drivers, chauffeured to the edge of Algonquin Park by Toronto driving schools that, for a fee, help them take their road tests on some of the loneliest byways in Ontario.
Once fully licensed by the lone examiner in this town of three stoplights and 3,500 people, they return to Toronto, merging with drivers who’ve passed their tests on some of Canada’s most congested streets.
Some of the would-be drivers who end up here in the “mineral capital of Canada” even bring their cameras, snapping photos of a small town they’ve never been to before and will likely never return to after they pass their road tests.
It’s impossible to overstate just how quiet the streets of Bancroft, population one-thousandth that of Toronto, actually are. Located 250 kilometres northeast of Canada’s largest city, Bancroft is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest four-lane highway, and rush-hour traffic is something residents know about only through CBC radio reports from elsewhere.
“It’s definitely a quieter drive around here,” says Shane Malloy, who works in one of the town’s two movie rental shops. “There is only one main street. I guess that’s what brings them up here — every day.”
Malloy is at least partially right.
Beating the system
A Star investigation has found that a number of Toronto-based driving schools are taking advantage of Ontario’s graduated licensing system, packing prospective Toronto drivers into four-door Toyotas and, for $200 a head, driving three hours into the Canadian Shield (passing by or near five DriveTest centres along the way) to towns such as Bancroft, where instructors coach their students on known examination routes and where drivers pass at more than twice the rate of their counterparts in the GTA.
Why is this happening? That depends on whom you ask.
The instructors say long wait times at Toronto test centres force them to go to such lengths to get their students licensed. But drivers who fear they wouldn’t pass their tests in Toronto say their instructors sell them on an easier road test outside the GTA.
Meanwhile, the owner of at least one Scarborough driving school says his instructors do it because they can make a lot of money by taking students out of town and coaching them through the exact routes used by rural examiners.
The math isn’t hard. If an instructor fills a Toyota Corolla with four students at $200 a pop and makes the long drive to Bancroft, he or she is guaranteed $800 in profit (minus the tank of gas needed for the trip), whether the students pass or not.
Brian Patterson, president of the Ontario Safety League, says the practice is cause for concern.
“No reputable driving school would need to do that,” says Patterson, whose organization tries to reduce preventable deaths and injuries on Ontario roads through increased driver education.
“Reputable driving schools train people to an effective standard so that they could pass their tests anywhere in North America when they are done.”
But the Ministry of Transportation sees nothing wrong with what these driving schools are doing. It’s not illegal to shop around for a road test (people have done that for years), and the ministry insists that standardized testing requirements have put an end to the idea that some road tests are easier than others.
“Regardless of where you take your driving test, there are manoeuvres that must be part of every road test administered in the province,” the ministry said in an email.
“Whether you take your test in North Bay or metro Toronto, all applicants must demonstrate an ability to move safely through intersections, maintain a safe driving speed and safely change lanes.”
But if all tests are created equal, says Patterson, then “the disreputable companies that promise an easy ride and take student drivers out of Toronto should be looked into aggressively by the ministry.”
The ministry doesn’t police such activity, however. In fact, it encourages driving schools to take advantage of the system to help speed along the licensing process and limit delays in cities like Toronto that have up to a 42-day queue for a road test.
And so there’s a steady flow of Toyota Corollas filled with Toronto student drivers departing the city before dawn, heading east on the 401, then veering north for another two hours all the way to Bancroft or other small towns.
Malloy, a long-time employee of the Movie Gallery — located in the same building as the Bancroft DriveTest centre —notes that the same Toyotas topped with Toronto driving school signs have been bringing students to Bancroft almost every day for the past four years.
“It really doesn’t seem to make sense. They’re not going to be driving up here... I’m not sure passing your test up here prepares you for driving in Toronto.”
Charging extra for an easy ride
“Don’t need to test on Freeway for G Test, Flexible Test Sites in Cities or Towns,” reads the website for Scarborough’s Evergreen Driving School. (The “G test” is the final hurdle to getting an Ontario licence that allows you to drive a car, van or small truck alone on any road at any hour.) Evergreen is one of four ministry-approved driving schools that the Star watched take a carload of would-be drivers from Toronto to Bancroft.
“We have the right to do that,” says Harry Hua, president of Evergreen, which has 40 instructors.
Every week three of his teachers take students to Bancroft, where, according to data obtained in December 2008 through a freedom of information request, 77.1 per cent of divers pass.
In Scarborough, the pass rate is 52.7 per cent.
Hua concedes Bancroft is a long way from Toronto and says he prefers charging his students to take them to Lindsay — where drivers have a 69.5 per cent chance of passing.
“In Toronto it is too difficult to get the licence,” says Hua. “Sometimes it is more traffic. The more traffic the more caution. It is easy (for students) to get their licence up there (in Bancroft and Lindsay).”
Hua adds: “If you go to the outside of Toronto area, it is maybe 2.5 hours drive to get there and you can charge more money.
“In Scarborough, you can’t practise at the test centre. In small towns you can take your students (on the test route) before they test there. In Scarborough, they will charge me if I do that.”
Hua’s right. In Toronto, driving instructors are forbidden to coach their students on the exact route used by the examiners. The practice is considered cheating and warrants a fine of $130 because it violates a municipal bylaw.
But in small towns like Bancroft, such bylaws don’t exist and instructors are free to coach their students on the exact routes used by the examiner.
On the quiet roads of Bancroft
“This is my first time to Bancroft,” says Frank Zhang, a 24-year old accounting major from North York.
It’s Mon., March 29, and Zhang is one of eight students who have paid $200 to come to Bancroft to pass their G and G2 tests on roads that Zhang says are much more comfortable than the ones he’ll be driving when he gets back to Toronto.
Having just passed his G test, Zhang sits in the only McDonald’s for 90 kilometres with two other freshly licensed Toronto drivers. All three admit they came up here because they were worried they would fail if they took their tests in Toronto.
“The conditions up here are easier than in Toronto,” Zhang says. “In Toronto you could have a bus going by. You could have cars coming from all over the place. But here there are less cars.
“The coach was saying that he does this quite often.”
Outside the McDonald’s, standing in the DriveTest parking lot, Zhang’s coach, Wei He, says his students have the story wrong.
It’s not easier to pass in Bancroft, He says. It’s just easier to book a test.
“If I book a road test in Toronto, sometimes it’s a long-time wait,” says He. “The government is no good. Small towns, they can book.”
Having said that, He asks that he and his employer, New Concept Driving School of Scarborough, not be mentioned in this article.
Instructor He climbs into the passenger seat of his silver Toyota Corolla and begins coaching one of his students around Bancroft’s tranquil streets.
One left turn gets He and his student driver out of the DriveTest parking lot and onto a back road that parallels Bancroft’s main drag. Four right turns and another left, and He’s student is driving through the back lot of the local LCBO.
Four turns later and He’s student is heading southwest on Monck Rd. He signals for his student to take a left turn onto a dirt lane where, surrounded by pine trees and little else, he does a three-point turn before turning back onto Monck and heading back into Bancroft followed by a lone pickup truck.
Less than an hour later the same student cuts through the LCBO back lot, makes his way onto Monck Rd. and pulls a three-point turn on that same dirt lane. The student passes his test and returns to Toronto, newly licensed.
Were He to have been caught coaching a student on an examination route in Toronto, the instructor could have been fined the $130. But by bringing eight students to Bancroft today, He has averted the fine and made $1600.
The next morning, Qi Gui Wang of Inspiration Driving Institute, another Scarborough school, pulls into Bancroft with four students in his Toyota Corolla. By the end of the day all four students get their G-2 licence, allowing them to drive Toronto streets alone.
Having noticed that 12 of the 15 would-be drivers that the Star watched being tested in Bancroft over a two-day period were students from Toronto driving schools, the Star confronts Bancroft’s lone examiner in the parking lot of the DriveTest centre.
Though she refuses to give her name, as she walks back into the DriveTest centre she says that “the majority of people tested here are not from Toronto. You just happened to hit a funny day.”
The next day the Star returns and finds two carloads of students from two more Scarborough-based driving schools (Evergreen Driving School and Popular Driving School, both of Sheppard Ave. E.) parked outside the Bancroft DriveTest centre.
Together they have brought eight would-be drivers from Toronto. They are the only people the Star will see take road tests in Bancroft on this day