Suspensions fail to stop lethal driver

Sep 09, 2008 04:30 AM
Tamsin McMahon
Waterloo Region Record

Gloria O'Neill, who is still under a 10-year driving ban after killing a pedestrian, drives a Lincoln Continental in her Toronto neighbourhood Aug. 29, 2008. Suspended multiple times, O'Neill has gotten around the law in the past by applying for multiple driver's licences under various legal names.


From her apartment overlooking a Ministry of Transportation driver's centre, Gloria O'Neill seems to mock the system that has tried to keep her off the road.

The Toronto woman has been involved in at least 15 collisions, often in rented or borrowed cars. Her licence was suspended as far back as 1978, at age 21. In 1984, it was suspended again. Still forbidden to drive, she got a new licence under a different name. When that was suspended, she got another one.

Five years ago, after she dragged a pedestrian to his death in a crosswalk, a court banned her from driving for 10 years.

Recently, she declined repeated interview requests, saying she has consulted psychiatrists to cope with the trauma of the fatal crash.

"I'm trying to get over it," O'Neill said when reached by phone. "I have a life and I'm trying to get on with it. I just want to live my life."

Not long after, with five years left on her driving ban, O'Neill got behind the wheel of a Lincoln Continental registered to her husband. On Aug. 28, two Waterloo Region Record journalists watched as she drove the shiny red car out of her Toronto garage and disappeared down the street.

Every year, thousands of people whose licences are suspended or revoked ignore that fact and drive.

In 2006 alone, suspended drivers caused more than 1,300 collisions in Ontario, killing at least three and injuring more than 600, an analysis by the Record of provincial collision data has found.

"A lot of these people are pretty devious," said former OPP Sgt. Cam Woolley. "They will just keep driving borrowed cars, buy junkers, switch licence plates, have no insurance. And they'll do it over and over again." On May 27, 2002, Salvatore Visicale, 46, was running errands when he walked into the intersection at Wilson and Lexfield Aves. to pick up a yellow T-shirt from the middle of the crosswalk.

According to court documents, Gloria O'Neill, who lives near Keele St. and Rogers Rd., was driving a silver Mercedes Benz toward traffic stopped at a red light, two blocks east. She had borrowed the car from her landlord, telling him she needed to visit her daughter.

"I thought, 'It's only a couple of blocks away,' " her landlord, Vincent Scozzari, later told a Toronto court. "What could happen?"

Witnesses were shocked when she pulled into the left-turn lane, drove through the red and down a hill on Wilson toward Lexfield.

Any reasonable motorist would have had ample time to spot Visicale in the crosswalk, experts in collision reconstruction testified.

"He tried to jump out of the way," said Juan Carlos Molina, who saw the Mercedes strike Visicale, killing him instantly. He was dragged under her car for 26 metres.

As bystanders rushed to help, she sped off at up to 100 km/h, nearly hitting another motorist head-on.

When O'Neill returned to the scene 10 minutes later at the urging of her landlord, police arrested her after learning she was out on bail for an outstanding fraud charge.

O'Neill was eventually found guilty of dangerous driving causing Visicale's death. She was also convicted of perjury for lying at her bail hearing about her criminal record and multiple suspensions.

"Nothing, it seems, will prevent Ms. O'Neill from doing what she wants rather than what the law permits," said Justice Harry Laforme as he sentenced O'Neill to three years in prison and banned her from driving for 10 years. He noted her "history of dishonesty, the nature of her criminal activity and her insistence upon driving regardless of what the courts order."

In March 2004, O'Neill was out on parole, after serving nine months at Grand Valley Institution.

Salvatore's wife, Amy Visicale, and other family members who did their own digging and alerted police to O'Neill's multiple driver's licences, were shocked at her record.

"If she was an innocent person that made a mistake, I could understand," Amy said. "Accidents do happen. But she had a record. She's been in prison before. She wasn't supposed to be driving."

O'Neill's case caused little public stir. She was one of nearly 140 drivers to kill a pedestrian that year.

Every day, police say, they catch people driving without valid licences, sometimes just minutes after turning their licences over to the courts. The OPP alone caught more than 5,800 banned drivers last year.

York Region police began Operation Disqualified in 2004 to monitor prohibited drivers, using court lists. This year alone, they caught 50 drivers under driving bans and 890 under suspension.

Despite the potential consequences fines of up to $5,000, plus imprisonment up to 6 months if caught more than once suspended drivers have proved to be predictable, usually driving their own cars to and from work.

"That person probably thinks to themselves, `What are the odds that today is the day the cops are watching?'" said Det. Peter Fleming, who helped start the program. "Really, the odds are almost microscopic."

Those who knew O'Neill described her as well-dressed and well-spoken, according to parole documents. The same documents paint her as a drug addict, hooked on antidepressants and heroin after suffering serious injuries in a 1995 car accident. She claimed she kicked her drug habit in prison.

But it was her driving record that surprised Justice Laforme. Despite many tickets and court judgments, she had rarely paid a fine. She twice declared bankruptcy to escape thousands owed to creditors, including a vehicle leasing company.

Her licence was first suspended in 1978, said Crown attorney Helen Song, who prosecuted O'Neill. It was suspended again six years later when she didn't pay a court judgment to the victim of a crash.

In 1995, according to parole documents, O'Neill rolled her car on Highway 401, breaking her back in two places. She was charged with driving while under suspension and got 15 days in jail.

At the time of the collision that killed Visicale, O'Neill was under two driving suspensions. One licence used the name Meyer, the other Cloutier both real names at different points in her life.

She was able to apply for new licences using identification with old married or maiden names, Song recalled. Ministry records show O'Neill obtained a third driver's licence in the name O'Neill in June 1998. Then came more than a dozen accidents and eight convictions.

Four collisions involved rental cars. The last happened two weeks before the crash that killed Visicale.

In 2005, the Ontario auditor general issued a scathing report on gaps in the driver licensing system. Among other problems, gym membership cards were being used as identification to get licences, and people were showing up in the system with duplicate licences.

In a follow-up report last year, the auditor general said the ministry had "taken some action" on the recommendations," including limiting the types of ID deemed valid.

But it is still researching how to stop people from driving while suspended. And nearly five years after legislation was passed letting the province automatically check whether someone renewing a plate has valid insurance, it's still talking with insurers about how to do it.

It hopes to introduce technology next year that would compare photos of new applicants to those in the system to keep suspended drivers from getting a second licence.

Amy Visicale has grown cynical about a system that can't keep a dangerous driver off the road. Not even after killing someone.

"Of course people aren't afraid to do it," Amy said. "They're not scared by the consequences and if they get a really good lawyer they don't have to serve any time. It's disgusting. They're killing people. I don't know what could be worse."