Rules of the Road: That put a dent in my day...

Rules of the Road is a new column (that we’re testing the asphalt with) intended to educate motorists on the legal ramifications, as simply as possible, when common incidents occur. They should not be construed in any way as providing actual legal advice and you should contact a lawyer if you are unclear of your rights.

Cue: Morning Mood by Edvard Greig...

It’s summertime. A nice weekend day. You wake up, and on this lovely sunny, warm, and slightly windy day, you ponder what to do with your time. For some, it’s getting behind the wheel of your garage queen to finally go for that drive you’ve been dreaming of all winter and Spring. For others, it’s about tackling that long-list of errands that’s been building for years the past week. Perhaps you’ll be driving to the local shopping centre, grocery store, fitness centre (HA!), or other facility where you will leave your beloved chariot to wait patiently to take you on your return journey.

Whatever your day plans, windy days (among other factors) often result in something that can figuratively put a dent in your day. But it won’t stop there. No, it’ll also put a dent in your wallet or in the case of yours truly, my soul. I’m talking, of course, about a nice, not-so-shiny, and often deep-cut dent in your car.

A few weeks ago, I went indoor rock climbing at Downsview Park in Toronto. It was a windy day – in fact, windier than most. I parked properly: centred between the lines, near the back of the lot, and about 50 feet from where some hooligan left some skid marks. I knew the dangers, I tried to mitigate my potential for door dings, and yet, after a few hours, I returned to my (father’s) faithful Corolla to see the Great Depression. Or maybe it was the Grand Canyon? Its title is perhaps not as relevant as the message I’m trying to convey here; a dent in someone’s car is not just something you can buff out, it really, really sucks.

This is not the first dent on the Corolla’s door, either. It was, in fact, the fourth on the same rear-driver’s side door. Oddly, and perhaps fortunately, it’s the only door with a ‘ding’ on it. Therein lies the issue – it occurs far too often, and whether it is the wind that takes it, or just the initial vigour exuded by the occupant of the vehicle who feels that he or she must extricate him or herself from the vehicle with, the result is a costly one.

Though it pains me to admit, “It happens”. “It” has been featured in movies such as Forrest Gump, and “It” has become the livelihood of many a street T-shirt vendor. But “It” should not happen. But what happens if “It” does?

So if you should find yourself in a position where your door just so happens to run away from your hand and contact the nice, shiny (or perhaps thoroughly rusted and scratched) door of the vehicle parked beside yours, here’s what you need to know:

First, please, please don’t try to rub off a dent. Dents cannot be rubbed off, even if you happen to be an alien and Steven Spielberg is directing the visual effects. What you should first do, whether aloud or internally, is accept responsibility for your action or omission that led to the damage.

And it is your responsibility.

The Highway Traffic Act places a duty on a person in charge of a vehicle in the case of an accident to remain at the scene, render all possible assistance, and, upon request, provide your identity and insurance information. The Province also requires all incidents to be reported to Police when they include damage in excess of $1,000. You are not, however, required to be perfect in estimating how much the damage caused will cost to repair.

Crafty lawyers will realize that the Highway Traffic Act only covers public roads, and not private parking lots (if that is where your door ding has occurred). So, if your accident doesn’t happen on a “highway” (defined in the Act to include “a common and public highway, street, avenue, parkway, driveway, square, place, bridge, viaduct or trestle, any part of which is intended for or used by the general public for the passage of vehicles and includes the area between the lateral property lines thereof”), the Highway Traffic Act doesn’t apply and you have avoided the risk of receiving a charge under the law.

...or have you?

The Federal Government has those crafty lawyers beat. Section 252 of the Criminal Code of Canada has its own definition of “Failing to stop at [the] scene of [an] accident.” In particular, it removes any reference to the location of where the damage occurs, and makes it an offence for any person who in charge of a vehicle that is involved in an accident with another person or a vehicle, or even cattle (yes, cattle), to not stop, give his or her name or address.

The punishment? Whereas the Provincial laws (the Highway Traffic Act) will slap you with a fine, the Feds can give you up to 5 years in prison. For a door ding? Unlikely. But do you really want to take that chance? I am happily covered by Volcano Insurance.

There are also civil remedies that can require your attendance in Small Claims Court (for damage up to a maximum of $25,000.00).

So what should you do if your door acts like a deviant child, gets away from you, and causes damage to an adjacent vehicle? The first step is to try and ascertain the owner of the other vehicle. If you can’t, leave a note with your real name and contact information (unlike the number you likely gave to that guy at the bar last night).

Think you’ll get away without paying? Perhaps. But remember, Big Brother is always watching you these days, as this driver eventually found out the hard way. Even then, she was fined $500, ordered to pay for the damages caused, and was placed on driving probation including an inability to drive between 7pm and 7am for a period of six months.

If the damage is more than your piggy bank can hold, your mandatory insurance policy (you do have insurance, don’t you?!) will indemnify you for the damage if you have purchased the collision coverage. The law, and more importantly, your insurance policy, both require you to report all damage to your insurer. A failure to do so is considered an act of fraud and could result in your insurer denying coverage when you need it most.

Now wouldn’t you agree that leaving a note is simpler?

What if you’re a passenger in the car? Then the owner of the car you’re in is legally responsible, but can take you to Small Claims civilly for indemnification. So trying to pull that one is likely to backfire on you.

And if you come back to your vehicle and find an irritatingly fresh dent and no note, your insurance company will provide coverage (again, assuming you have purchased the collision coverage option), but you may have a deductible that exceeds the cost of the repair.

So let’s all collectively agree to open our doors more carefully, shall we?