Impaired driving carries a heavy emotional, social, and economical toll on Canadian society. Alcohol and drug-impaired driving infractions are the leading criminal causes of death in Canada but they are also easily preventable. Individuals demonstrate serious carelessness when they get behind the wheel of a car after consuming alcohol and/or drugs. Annually in Canada, impaired driving jeopardizes the lives of other drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and victimizes these individuals and their families. The fatalities and injuries resulting from these accidents lead to insurmountable grief and financial burdens for the survivors and their families.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), every day 4 Canadians are killed and 175 are injured in alcohol and drug-related car crashes. Alcohol and drugs impair a driver’s judgement, reaction time and perception. These accidents can occur at any time of the day. Victims of impaired driving accidents have the right to receive compensation like other victims of crimes.


Impaired driving is a term used to describe the act of operating or having care and control of a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol, drugs, or a combination of the two. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, operation while impaired is described as:

235(1)  Everyone commits an offence who operates a motor vehicle or vessel or operates or assists in the operation of an aircraft or of railway equipment or has the care or control of a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft or railway equipment, whether it is in motion or not,

(a) while the person’s ability to operate the vehicle, vessel, aircraft or railway equipment is impaired by alcohol or a drug; or

(b) having consumed alcohol in such a quantity that the concentration in the person’s blood exceeds eighty milligrams of alcohol in one hundred millilitres of blood.

Most commonly, the thought of impaired driving incidents are related to the driver being impaired due to alcohol consumption. However, it is becoming increasingly prevalent that drugs are impairing motorists. Drugs that can alter a driver’s perception include illegal substances, mind-altering prescription medication, and over-the-counter remedies. Therefore, it is important that individuals understand the side effects associated with the medications they are prescribed, including the directions which advise against an individual operating a motor vehicle.

Impaired Driving Laws

Impaired driving laws in Canada are set out and maintained both federally and provincially/territorially. The Criminal Code of Canada sets out impaired driving offences, enforcement procedures and penalties. Enforcement, apprehension, prosecution and application of penalties fall within provincial and territorial authority.  Because provinces and territories have authority over highways and licensing within their jurisdiction, they also have the ability to enact additional laws and sanctions related to impaired driving.  This may include license suspensions at a certain blood alcohol level, rules for novice drivers, etc.

There are two main impaired driving laws set out by the Criminal Code under s. 253.  The first is “driving while impaired”.  This means you cannot operate a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft or railway equipment while impaired by alcohol and/or drugs.  In order to determine if a person is impaired by alcohol or drugs while driving, a police officer would look for suspicious driving behaviours such as:

  • Speeding
  • Erratic driving
  • Swerving
  • Delayed response to police/emergency vehicles
  • Failure to stop at signs/intersections
  • Single vehicle/unexplained accidents
  • Collisions

If the police officer notices a combination of the above signs of impaired driving and decides to pull over the vehicle, the officer would then look for physical observations of impairment of the driver.  These may include:

  • Bloodshot or watery eyes
  • Flushed face
  • Fatigue
  • The scent of alcohol
  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination and an inability to perform physical tests
  • Lack of comprehension
  • Leaning on objects for support
  • Inappropriate behaviour
  • Aggressive behaviour

Although there is no specific test for determining an impaired charge set out by the Criminal Code, a police officer’s observation of any or all of the above signs can lead to an impaired driving charge.

The second main impaired driving law set out by the Criminal Code is “over 80”.  This is a more specific charge and easier for a police officer to prove in court.  If an officer pulls over a vehicle and smells alcohol coming from the driver, the officer can administer a roadside test. In this test, the driver is required to blow into a screening device which detects the individual’s blood alcohol concentration. Motorists are said to be criminally impaired if they have more than 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood in their system.  This is also referred to as 0.08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC).  Many provinces and territories will also administer warnings and licence suspensions when a driver has a BAC between 0.05% and 0.08%.

Drug impaired driving is also a Criminal Code offence yet there is no drug limit similar to that of a BAC of over 0.08%.  A drug impaired driving charge then, must be based on non-quantifiable symptoms of drug impairment such as those police must look for in an alcohol impaired driver. Drug tests are also admissible as evidence in court but only if the accused participates voluntarily.

There are five other offences listed in the Criminal Code that relate specifically to impaired driving.  They are:

  • Impaired driving causing bodily harm or death
  • Driving with a BAC above .08% and causing bodily harm or death
  • Failing to provide a sample or participate in Standard Field Sobriety Testing (SFST) or Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE) testing without a reasonable excuse
  • Failing to Provide a Sample or Participate in SFST or DRE testing and Causing Bodily Harm or Death
  • Driving while prohibited under federal law or while suspended under provincial law for a federal impaired driving offence

An impaired driving incident may also involve various other federal criminal offences that aren’t related specifically to impaired driving, including dangerous driving, leaving the scene of the accident to avoid civil or criminal liability, and criminal negligence causing death. One impaired driving incident may result in a combination of the charges listed above.

Impaired Driving Laws Timeline

1921: Parliament amends the Criminal Code of Canada to include the summary conviction offence of driving while intoxicated.

1925: The Criminal Code prohibited drug-impaired driving.

1969: The offence of driving while intoxicate is removed and the offence of driving while impaired replaces it.  The summary conviction offences of “exceeds 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood” (0.08% blood-alcohol concentration [BAC]) and refusing to provide a breath sample on an approved screening device are added.

1970: Administrative license suspension programs for BACs in the warning range of 0.05% to 0.08% were introduced in provinces and territories.

1976: Police are given the authority to administer a breath sample on a roadside screening device if they have grounds to suspect the driver is under the influence.

1985: The previous impaired offences of operating a vehicle are extended to include the operation of aircrafts and vessels.  The sentence for impaired operation causing death is raised to 14 years and 10 years when bodily harm is caused.  A mandatory driving prohibition is put in place for offenders.

1999: Driving with a blood alcohol concentration exceeding 160 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood becomes an aggravating factor in sentencing.  Judges can now impose treatment for convicted offenders or the use of an ignition interlock device.  Mandatory driving prohibitions periods are increased and the minimum fine for a first impaired driving offence is raised from $300 to $600.  Victims and their families now have the right to present a Victim Impact Statement at trial and any subsequent parole hearings. Victims are able to express the physical, emotional and financial toll the impaired driving offence has had on them.

2000: The maximum penalty for impaired driving causing death is increased to life imprisonment.

2008: The minimum fine for a first impaired driving offence is raised from $600 to $1000.  The minimum penalty for a second impaired driving offence increased from 14 days to 30 days imprisonment and for a third impaired driving offence, from 90 days to 120 days imprisonment.  Police now have the authority to perform roadside analysis and physical coordination tests of drivers suspected of drug-impaired drivers.

2016: Private Members’ Bill C-226 has been tabled with an aim on cracking down on impaired drivers.  The Bill, introduced by former Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, looks to institute mandatory screening procedures for breath-tests, allowing police to ask any driver, at any time, to provide a breath sample at the side of the road.  Specific changes that Bill C-226 looks to make regarding impaired driving laws include:

  • The introduction of a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for impaired driving causing death, with a maximum sentence of 25 years. There are currently no minimum sentences for impaired driving causing death or bodily harm.
  • The maximum sentence for impaired driving causing bodily harm would go up from 10 to 14 years
  • When more than one life is lost, a judge could apply consecutive sentences
  • Repeat offenders, when found guilty, would face a one-year prison sentence for a second offence, and a two-year prison sentence for a third
  • Judges could favour guilty pleas by handing down lighter sentences to those to admit to their offence “in good faith”
  • The government is looking to impose stricter drug-impaired driving laws
    • Ontario has a head start on this movement by enforcing the Making Ontario’s Roads Safer Act, 2015 which was implemented in October 2016
    • Under the Ministry of Ontario, drivers under the influence of drugs face the following penalties:
      • A $180 penalty
      • An immediate suspension of 3 days for the first occurrence, 7 days for the second occurrence and 30 days for the third and subsequent occurrence upon failure of a roadside sobriety test
      • A possible 90-day licence and a seven-day vehicle impoundment following further testing by a rug recognition expert at a police station
      • Mandatory education or treatment programs, and installation of an ignition interlock device in their vehicle, for drivers with two or more licence suspensions involving alcohol or drugs within a 10-year period

Sentencing for Impaired Driving

According to Justice Canada, 4 in 5 impaired driving cases resulted in a guilty outcome in 2010/2011.  However, the most common form of sentencing was the payment of a fine.  Of those found guilty, only 1 in 10 received a prison sentence, with a median of 33 days to serve.

During sentencing for an impaired driving charge, a judge must take any aggravating and mitigating factors related to the case into consideration. Aggravating factors are any evidence presented about the defendant’s character or the circumstances of the crime that would cause the judge to vote for a harsher sentence, whereas mitigating factors would lessen the sentence.

Possible aggravating and mitigating factors related to alcohol and drug impaired driving includes:

Aggravating Factors

  • Driving with a blood-alcohol concentration above 0.08%
  • A lack of remorse for their wrongdoings, or failure to accept responsibility
  • Failure to seek assistance to address addiction problems or other underlying problems
  • Prior criminal record or history of violence

Mitigating Factors

  • Previous good character
  • Shows genuine remorse for wrongdoings and accepts responsibility
  • Aboriginal status, youth, or physical/mental disability
  • Commitment to address an addiction or another underlying problem
  • Ongoing financial responsibilities for dependent family members

Below is a graph from Transport Canada (2009) that outlines charges and sentences for alcohol and drug impaired driving:


Impaired Driving Statistics

  • Impaired driving has been a prominent issue in Canadian society for many years.  In 1981, a soaring 61% of all drivers killed on Canadian roads tested positive for alcohol in their system.  As more laws began to be put in place to reduce the amount of impaired drivers on the road this number dropped, and in 1999 33% of drivers killed tested positive for alcohol- an all time low. However, this number has since risen, and now hovers between 35 and 40 percent annually.  Clearly something more must be done to keep impaired drivers off the road.
  • MADD Canada estimates that in 2010 there were between 1,250 and 1,500 deaths due to impaired driving.  They also estimate that another 63,821 were injured in an impaired driving related accident.
  • Between 2006 and 2008 there was also an average of 135 boating deaths per year caused by impairment.
  • In 2012, the total number of individuals who died in car crashes in Canada was 2, 456. Out of those 2, 456 deaths 18.7% of the victims were positive for alcohol alone, 24.1% were positive for drugs alone, and 16% were positive for both alcohol and drugs.
  • According to the Office of the Chief Coroner, 39% of drivers killed on Ontario’s roads in 2013 had either drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol in their system.
  • Drug-impaired driving collisions in Ontario had an estimated social cost of $612 million in 2013.

Services and Support for Victims

The statistics representing impaired driving in Canada are staggering. However, these statistics do not reveal the trauma families and communities experience resulting from someone’s poor decision to drive while impaired. The effects of impaired driving greatly impact the loss of human life.  With so many people affected by impaired driving, many services are available to support the victims.

MADD Canada

MADD Canada offers support for those directly involved in crashes caused by impaired drivers, as well as to the families and friends who are coping with the loss or injury of their loved one. MADD Canada’s victim services are free and they offer their services to 20,000 victims and survivors across Canada each year.

Services provided to injured victims/survivors and bereaved victims/survivors by MADD include:

  • Court accompaniment and support wherever possible
  • Support writing a Victim Impact Statement
  • National Conference for Victims of Impaired Driving
  • National Candlelight Vigil of Hope and Remembrance
  • National Memorial Wall, online Tributes, Travelling Memorial Banner
  • Information on Insurance
  • Brochures on grief and bereavement
  • A National Resource Guide
  • Lending library

For phone and email support:

National Support
1-800-665-MADD (6233) ext. 222

Western Region (MB, SK, AB, BC, YT, NWT)
Gillian Phillips

Ontario Region
Steve Sullivan

Quebec Region
Marie Claude Morin

Atlantic Region (NS, NB, PEI, NL)
Gloria Appleby

Financial Assistance for Victims of Impaired Driving

Most provinces that have victims of violent crime services exclude victims/survivors of impaired driving; however, there are other programs that may be available to victims/survivors of impaired driving:

Income Support

An individual may be eligible for the Federal Income Support for Parents of Murdered or Missing Children (PMMC) grant if they are a parent of a child under 18 who has been killed in an impaired driving crash.

For more information:
Phone: 1-800-622-6232

Financial Assistance for Canadians Victimized Abroad

Financial assistance may be available to Canadians if a family member is killed in an impaired driving crash in another country where no other source of financial assistance is available.

For more information:
Phone: 1-888-606-5111

Last modified: February 10, 2017

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