The following is a general overview of federal impaired driving offences and penalties. For more comprehensive information, please see A Victim’s Guide to the Criminal Justice System (PDF).
The Criminal Code of Canada includes seven impaired driving offences:
- Operating or having care or control of a motor vehicle while one’s ability to do so is impaired by alcohol or a drug
It is an offence to operate or have care or control of a motor vehicle if one’s ability to drive is impaired by alcohol and/or drugs. The key issue is whether a person’s ability to drive is impaired; the amount of alcohol or drugs an individual has consumed in irrelevant. As a result, a person can be convicted of impaired driving even if his or her BAC is below the legal limit of .08%.
- Operating or having care or control of a motor vehicle while having a BAC in excess of .08%
The offence is based solely on the individual’s BAC level. Regardless of whether the driver appears sober or appears to be driving safely, it is an offence to operate or have care and control of a motor vehicle if one’s BAC is over .08%.
- Impaired driving causing bodily harm or death
These two offences were enacted in 1985 to ensure that impaired drivers who cause serious crashes are subject to a more substantial charge than simple impaired driving.
- Driving with a BAC above .08% and causing bodily harm or death
It is an offence to cause an injury or fatal crash while having a BAC above .08%. These offences do not require proof that the crash was caused by the accused illegal BAC or impairment. Rather, the Crown prosecutor must prove that the BAC of the accused was above .08% and that he or she caused a crash involving bodily injury or death. Drivers cannot escape liability by claiming the crash was due to something other than alcohol, such as poor road conditions, a momentary lapse in attention or other factors.
- Failing to provide a sample or participate in Standard Field Sobriety Testing (SFST) or Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE) testing without a reasonable excuse
It is a criminal offence for a driver to refuse or fail to comply with a police officer’s demand for a breath, blood, urine or saliva sample, unless the driver has a “reasonable excuse”.
- Failing to Provide a Sample or Participate in SFST or DRE testing and Causing Bodily Harm or Death
In the past, most impaired drivers who killed or injured someone and then refused to provide a sample could only be charged with refusing to provide a sample. By refusing to provide a sample, the accused was able to avoid the more serious charge of impaired driving causing bodily harm or death. The law was amended in 2008, making it an indictable offence for drivers to fail to provide a sample or participate in SFST or DRE testing if they knew or ought to have known that they killed or injured someone in a crash. These offences carry the same maximum penalties as impaired driving causing bodily harm or death, thus eliminating the previous benefits of refusal.
- Driving while prohibited under federal law or while suspended under provincial law for a federal impaired driving offence.
In 1985, Parliament created a separate criminal offence of driving while prohibited under federal law or while suspended under provincial law for a federal driving offence. This amendment was introduced to help combat the problem of offenders continuing to drive even when suspended or prohibited from doing so.
Penalties for Impaired Driving
Impaired driving offences carry potentially severe sentences, especially for repeat offenders. In addition to these penalties, a judge may issue a probation or restitution order. The terms of probation may include abstaining from alcohol, undertaking community service, submitting to an alcohol or drug assessment or participating in treatment. A restitution order compels the offender to compensate the victim, but these are rare in impaired driving cases.
The charts below outline the penalties for impaired driving within three categories: simple impaired driving and failing offences; impaired driving and failing offences involving bodily injury or death; and driving while suspended/prohibited.
In addition to enforcing and prosecuting federal offences listed in the Criminal Code, provinces and territories also have constitutional authority over highways and the licensing of drivers within their jurisdictions. That means provinces and territories can also legislate certain impaired driving laws and sanctions.
MADD Canada recognizes the importance of provincial/territorial programs to deal with impaired driving and has established a series of best practices which forms the basis of our provincial legislative review.
The following is a general overview of the key provincial/territorial impaired driving laws
Please note that the laws and sanctions differ according to province and territory. For a list of Provincial/Territorial Governments websites, please click here.
Short-Term Administrative Licence Suspension Programs
Contrary to misperception that it is only drivers who are well above the legal limit who cause crashes, approximately 20% of crashes are caused by drivers with BACs below the Criminal Code limit of .08%.
Recognizing that the risk for impairment-related crashes begins below .08% BAC, all provinces except Quebec have established administrative licence suspension (ALS) programs to intervene with drivers who have BACs of .05% or higher. The key elements of these programs include immediate roadside licence suspensions and fines/reinstatement fees.
In most instances, these programs have been in place for years, if not decades. In recent years, however, some jurisdictions have strengthened their programs with longer suspension periods, corresponding vehicle impoundments, higher fines and other sanctions.
Working with the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, MADD Canada developed a model .05% Administrative Licence Suspension Program based on existing best practice in Canada. For additional information, please see our Provincial Policy Initiatives.
Graduated Licensing Programs
A Graduated Licensing Program is a cornerstone of any policy aimed at reducing crash risk among youth. These programs are designed to give young and novice drivers an opportunity to gain driving experience while limiting known risks. Such programs typically include: a .00% BAC requirement, night-time and highway driving restrictions and limits on the number of passengers. The duration of the programs depend on the province or territory, but generally range from 1.5 to 3 years.
.00 BAC Restrictions for Young and Novice Drivers
Impaired driving takes a disproportionate toll on young people. Alcohol is a factor in almost 45% of all crash deaths among 16 to 25 year olds. Although that age group accounted for just 13.2% of the Canadian population in 2006, they accounted for 33.4% of total alcohol-related deaths.
Zero and low blood alcohol concentration restrictions have been shown to have very positive results.
Nearly all provinces and territories have a .00% BAC restriction for young and novice drivers as part of their Graduated Licensing Programs. A major limitation on many of these programs however, is that the .00% BAC restriction is lifted when the driver completes the Graduated Licensing Program. This is usually around the age of 18 or 19, which corresponds to the legal drinking age in most jurisdictions – a period during which alcohol consumption and range of binge drinking increase.
Several provinces have extended the .00% BAC restriction beyond the framework of the Graduated Licensing Program and others are in the process of doing so, in their ongoing efforts to reduce the risks of impairment-related crashes among youth.
Ignition Interlock Programs
Alcohol ignition interlocks are an effective tool in the fight to stop impaired driving. Using the same technology as the roadside breathalyzers administered by police, an ignition interlock prevents a car from starting or remaining operational if the driver’s breath indicates he or she is over a pre-set limit.
The technology gives offenders who have lost their licences a chance to regain conditional driving privileges while at the same time ensuring they cannot operate a vehicle if they are impaired.
Despite the evidence of their effectiveness, interlock usage is limited across the country. All provinces and territories except the Yukon have some form of ignition interlock program for convicted impaired drivers. However these programs are often voluntary. The participation rate in voluntary programs is just 10% of those convicted.
Vehicle Impoundment and Forfeiture
Many suspended and prohibited drivers continue to drive, at least occasionally, during the period of their licence suspension or revocation. Studies show these drivers are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licenced drivers. Licence suspensions, alone, are insufficient to keep certain offenders off the roads, and insufficient to keep them from driving while impaired. Consequently, vehicle-based sanctions are essential to discourage and at least temporarily prevent some unlicensed, disqualified and prohibited offenders from driving and, particularly, from driving while impaired.
Vehicle impoundment and forfeiture programs provide a means of addressing the problem of offenders who show a repeated willingness to endanger the public and violate licensing laws.