Canadian Laws on Impaired Driving

An Insight on Canadian Impaired Driving Laws

Even moderate drinking, which is defined as drinking more than two drinks in a day for men and more than one drink in a day for women, can affect driving performance. This level of consumption usually leads to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.03 percent for both men and women.

Even at low BAC, alcohol affects the driving performance, reducing the reaction time of the driver and making the decision-making process slower. The ability of a driver to divide his attention between two or more visual stimuli can be reduced even with BAC’s of 0.02 percent or less.

This article explores Canada’s regulatory approaches aimed at reducing alcohol-impaired driving in Canada, including laws lowering the legal limit of BAC’s for drivers and the penalties for impaired driving.

The following is an overview of the federal laws related to driving under the influence (DUI) offenses and penalties.

Criminal Code of Canada Includes Six Impaired Driving Offenses:

  • The operation or having care or control of a motor vehicle, while the ability to do so is impaired by alcohol or a drug. It is an offense to operate or have care or control of a motor vehicle, if the ability to drive is impaired by alcohol and / or drugs. If a person’s ability to drive is impaired, the amount of alcohol a person has consumed is irrelevant. Therefore, a person can be sentenced to impaired driving, although his/her alcohol level is below the legal limit of 0.08%.
  • The operation or having care or control of a motor vehicle, while a BAC is over 0.08%. This offence is solely based on the individual’s BAC. Even if the driver is sober and his driving seems to be safe, it is an offense to operate or have care and control of a motor vehicle if BAC is above 0.08%.
  • Driving with a BAC over 0.08% and causing injury or death. These two offenses were adopted in 1985 to ensure that drivers who cause death and injuries due to serious deficiencies in their driving suffer with serious implications. It is an offense to cause an injury or fatality, while BAC of the driver is greater than 0.08%. These offenses do not require proof that the accident was caused due to high BAC or impairment. Rather, the prosecutor should just prove that the defendant was over 0.08% BAC, and that he has caused an accident with death or bodily harm. The driver cannot escape liability, even if the accident was caused by something else, such as lapse of attention, poor road conditions or other factors.
  • Failure in providing a sample or taking part in standard field sobriety tests (SFST) and Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE) test without a valid reason. It is an offense for a driver to refuse or not comply with the request of a police officer for a sample of breath, blood, urine or saliva, unless the driver has a “reasonable excuse”.

  • Failure to provide a sample or to take part in SFST or DRE test and cause injury or death. In the past, by refusing to provide a sample, the defendant was able to prevent more serious consequences. The law was amended in 2008, which makes it a crime for drivers if they fail to provide a sample or do not take part in SFST and DRE, if they knew or should have known that someone is killed or injured in an accident. These offenses carry the penalty which is same as the penalty for impaired driving causing injury or death. This eliminates the previous benefits of denial.
  • Driving while prohibited by federal law or while having a suspended license. In 1985, Parliament created a separate criminal offense of driving while prohibited by federal law. This change was introduced to help combat the problem of offenders who continue to drive even if their licenses are suspended or when they are forbidden to do so.

Provincial Impaired Driving Laws

In addition to the application and prosecution of federal offenses under the Criminal Code, territories and provinces also have the constitutional authority on the highways and the licensing of drivers under their jurisdiction. This means that provinces and territories may legislate laws related to DUI.

The following is an overview of key territorial/provincial impaired driving laws.

Short-Term Administrative License Suspension Program

Contrary to the misconception that most of the accidents are caused by drivers who are well over the legal limit, about 20% of accidents are caused by drivers with BACs below legal limit of 0.08%.

Recognizing that the risk of accidents related to impairment begins even below 0.08% BAC, all provinces except the Quebec have established administrative license suspension (ALS) programs to intervene with the drivers who have BAC’s of 0.05% or higher.

The important elements of these programs include the immediate suspension of license and fines / fee recovery.

Graduate Licensing Programs

Graduate licensing programs are a key element of any policy aimed at reducing the risk of accidents among young people. Graduate licensing programs are designed to provide the novice and young drivers the chance to gain driving experience. These programs usually have certain requirements which include 0.00% BAC, limits on the number of passengers and night time driving restrictions. Duration of the program depends on the province or territory, but generally ranges from 1.5 to 3 years.

.00 BAC Restrictions on Novice and Young Drivers

Alcohol is a factor in nearly 45% of all deaths among young people aged 16 to 25. Although this age group accounted for only 13.2% of the population of Canada in 2006, they accounted for 33.4% of total deaths related to alcohol.

Almost all territories and provinces have a restriction of 0.00% BAC for novice and young drivers as a part of their Graduate licensing program. A major limitation in most of these programs, however, is that the .00% BAC restriction is withdrawn when full program of licensing is completed.

Ignition Interlock Programs

Ignition interlocks have proved to be an effective tool in stopping impaired driving.

Using the same technology as used by the police in breathalyzers, ignition locking device prevents a car from starting or continuing in operation if the alcohol level in the breath is more than a set limit.

The technology provides offenders who have lost their licenses an opportunity to regain driving privileges while ensuring that they can’t operate a vehicle in case they are in an impaired condition.

Despite their effectiveness, interlock usage is somewhat limited in the country. All territories and provinces except Yukon have ignition locking programs for offenders. But, all such programs are voluntary. Rate of participation in volunteer programs is only 10%.

Vehicle Forfeiture and Impoundment

Many suspended and banned drivers continue to drive, at least from time to time during the period of suspension or revocation of the license. Studies show that these are the drivers that are more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers who are authorized. Suspension of license alone is not sufficient to prevent offenders from driving while impaired. Therefore, vehicle-based sanctions are necessary to deter and prevent some disqualified and unlicensed offenders from driving while being impaired.


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