EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
As Ontario police rolled out automated licence plate readers this year, an odd thing came to light.
The devices are able to read plates in bulk, running the numbers against police and Ministry of Transportation (MTO) databases and, in February of 2023, OPP officers patrolling Hwy. 403 in Mississauga found their readers caught more than one expired plate a minute.
That same month, Ottawa police said they'd seen a "dramatic increase" in expired registrations and also expired driver's licences. In May, Hamilton police rolled out the automated cameras and found too many drivers with expired plates for officers to be able to write tickets to them all.
In February of 2022, Ontario got rid of the fee to renew vehicle registration and plate stickers.
A few months earlier, in November of 2021, the province stopped mailing paper reminder letters to remind people that car registrations, health cards and driver's licences would soon expire, in most cases. The move saved $29 million a year.
Importantly, though, the requirement to register a vehicle stayed in place, while the traditional reminders to drivers — a letter from the MTO and the date on the physical sticker — ended.
Confusing the issue more, registration had been put on hold for about an 18-month period during the pandemic.
Recently, it's become clear that the lack of reminder letters has led more and more Ontarians to let important documents lapse: out of sight, out of mind.
How many people across the province now have driver's licences, health cards, or vehicle registrations that have expired without them knowing about it? That isn't knowable to anyone, including the government.
Renewals fell as population rose
But it's clear the number isn't trivial: across Ontario average monthly driver's licence renewals in 2022 and early 2023 were just under 97 per cent of what they were in 2019 before the pandemic, though the province's population has grown by 7 per cent over that time.
Similarly, monthly average car registrations in 2022 were 82 per cent of their 2019 number, though, again, Ontario's population has grown.
The data was released as a result of three separate access-to-information requests by Village Media.
Expired documents can lead to nasty surprises: tickets, fines, or finding during an already-stressful hospital visit that you'll be billed for treatment.
But they can also mean something much more dangerous: learning after a serious accident that your expired licence means you don't have valid insurance.
Expired car registrations can lead to fines of up to $1,000 for the driver. In a twist, some Ontario drivers with expired registrations have found themselves with tickets in the $500 range from Quebec after travelling there.
Letting a health card expire can complicate already-stressful medical situations.
London Health Sciences Centre spokesperson Steve Robinson wrote in an email that a patient with an expired health card would be treated but then sent an invoice for the cost of their care. However, if they then renewed their health card and showed it to the hospital, the bill would be withdrawn. That's consistent with another response from Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.
As well, people with expired health cards aren't eligible for the Northern Ontario Travel Grant, may be denied an appointment with a specialist, and may have to pay up front for medical testing.
"The innocent driver who may have been driving unaware that she was uninsured may truly be screwed."
The most serious problem, however, has to do with driver's licences. It's not the fine of up to $1,000 for driving with an expired licence, though that's important.
One condition of auto insurance is that the holder continues to have a valid driver's licence. If the licence has expired long enough, the insurer could deny coverage after a serious accident, explained Anne Marie Thomas of the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
"An insurance company would look at the length of time the license has been expired," she said. "if you forgot to renew your license last month, that's going to be looked at very differently than if you forgot to renew your license, and you've been driving around without a license for two years."
An insurer renewing a policy won't necessarily pick up on an expired licence, she said.
With a new client, an insurer will pull the driver's licence information, history of tickets and so forth from the MTO, and an expired licence will be obvious.
But the insurer doesn't necessarily repeat the process, so it's possible for a driver to renew their auto insurance without either them or the insurer realizing that they no longer have a valid licence.
"A lot of insurance companies do it on a random basis. Every insurance company will run it when you apply for a new policy. They may not run it every renewal."
If a driver without valid insurance — which could be someone who is paying for insurance but isn't covered by it due to the lack of a valid licence — gets into an accident, they are legally barred from suing the other driver.
"So you've let your license lapse inadvertently, but because it's lapsed, you've reached statutory conditions and you're not insured. Because you're not insured, the Insurance Act stops you from making any claim at all for your own injuries against the at-fault driver," explained Kingston personal injury lawyer Edward Bergeron.
All that the uninsured driver has to fall back on is the provincial Motor Vehicle Accident Claims Fund, which has a maximum payout of $200,000.
The ban on suing applies even if the other driver is clearly to blame, said Toronto personal injury lawyer Patrick Brown.
"Let's say they're not at fault for the crash: they’re hit by a drunk driver. Because they don't have a license, then they do not have insurance. And under the law, if you don't have insurance, you lose your right to sue."
Both lawyers pointed out that dealing with serious, life-changing injuries can cost many times the fund's maximum payout.
"The innocent driver who may have been driving unaware that she was uninsured may truly be screwed," Bergeron said. "Imagine that person with a spinal cord injury."
"I deal with some of those cases," Brown said. "And I must say, when you know that there's not enough funds available to someone, and especially in situations where there just isn't sufficient insurance or people aren't licensed, you see just how horrible and significant it can be to that family. In bad cases, all income stops coming into the household."
"You just see all the pieces fall out from underneath them. It’s really horrible."
Another situation involves a non-driver, like a pedestrian or cyclist, being injured by an uninsured driver. Some may have access to insurance, but others might not.
They will also have access to the Motor Vehicle Accident Claims Fund, but beyond that, they're left with taking the driver to court, which might or might not be helpful depending on whether the driver happens to have anything worth seizing.
"They could sue the driver. If the driver had assets, well, then you can go after that, but for the most part, a lot of these drivers have no assets," Brown said.
Sudbury NDP MPP Jamie West favours bringing back paper reminders. The public has been distracted by the pandemic, he argues, and the provincial government didn't draw much attention to the change.
"Thinking that people will just keep track of it really doesn't make sense," he said. "If you're going to phase it out, then you phase it out slowly over time, or you do a large media campaign."
"The old system is very ingrained in a lot of people who are doing it one way," he said. "I think the notification would be helpful. And I really think the onus is on the government to let people know."
West said that his wife found that her licence had expired when she tried to use it as ID to board a plane.
Like the lawyers, West also pointed to a situation where a driver may find out the hard way that they're not properly insured.
"The insurance company never says, 'Let me get this for you," he said.
"You're on the hook for the damages, because you technically don't have insurance because your license expired for that amount of time," he said. "And it creates a real situation where people feel like they're being punished through no fault of their own, because the rules changed on them, and they weren't aware of the rules changing."
Drivers can sign up for text or email reminders, but West argues that this misses many without good internet access, or who don't spend large amounts of their time online.
"I don't think people understand the significance of it, to tell you the honest truth," Brown says.
The MTO did not respond to questions this week about the data.
"It is important for Ontarians to keep their government products up-to-date and renewed on time," ministry spokesperson Colin Blachar wrote in response to questions on the topic in April.
"We’ve made it easier, faster, and more convenient for people to renew their licence plate online, any time, anywhere at Ontario.ca/Renew. For those Ontarians who must complete their transactions in person, customers can visit ServiceOntario.ca/locations to find a location near them and to check hours of operation."