What is Impaired Driving? Criminal Lawyer Explains

Car dash during a dark, rainy drive

What is impaired driving?

Impaired driving in Canada is defined as the act of driving a motor vehicle while influenced by alcohol or drugs, or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) higher than the legal limit, which is at 0.08% Canada-wide. 

What is the difference between impaired driving and DUI?

There is a common misconception that impaired driving and DUI (driving under the influence) are interchangeable terms, but this is not accurate. DUI is a type of impaired driving that specifically refers to driving under the influence of alcohol and can result in the need for a DUI insurance quote. On the other hand, impaired driving is a broader term that encompasses any situation where a person operates equipment, such as a vehicle, boat, plane, or railway, while impaired by drugs or alcohol, regardless of whether the impairment is due to alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both.

Is impaired driving a criminal offence in Canada?

In Canada, impaired driving is considered a serious criminal offence that carries severe consequences, such as fines, license suspension, and imprisonment.

What can impair driving?

There are three primary forms of impaired driving that can significantly impair your ability to drive:

  • Drinking and driving: This type of impaired driving is the most commonly recognized and is associated with the consumption of alcohol before or while driving.
  • Drug-impaired driving: Driving while under the influence of both legal and illegal drugs can also cause significant impairment.
  • Prescription medication: Although often overlooked, taking certain prescription medications can also impact your driving ability as much as drugs and alcohol.

Other factors that can impair your driving ability include distracted driving, lack of sleep, and texting while driving.

What is the safe limit for driving after drinking?

The safest limit for consuming alcoholic beverages before driving is none at all, as even one drink can impair a driver’s decision-making and reaction time.

However, the legal limits for blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) are established based on the amount of alcohol present in the bloodstream. According to the Department of Justice in Canada, the prohibited blood-alcohol concentration is 80 milligrams (mg) or more of alcohol per 100 milliliters (ml) of blood, which is commonly known as the “0.08” limit. Provinces in Canada may set their own limits and penalties, which can be lower than the federal limit.

Can I take cannabis and drive?

Cannabis has been legalized in Canada. However, it still carries legal consequences for those who consume it and then operate a vehicle. Driving under the influence of cannabis can result in legal repercussions and even imprisonment.

The primary psychoactive component in cannabis is THC, and the severity of the consequences depends on the concentration of THC in the bloodstream. While it is illegal to drive with a concentration of between two and five nanograms (ng) of THC per ml of blood, the offence is considered more serious if the concentration exceeds 5ng per ml.

How do police detect impaired drivers?

Police use several methods to evaluate drivers’ sobriety.

  • Breath testing: The police can request a breath sample from any driver they stop to determine the driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
  • Field sobriety test: If the police suspect a driver is impaired, they will administer a standardized field sobriety test on the roadside.
  • Drug recognition evaluation: If an officer suspects that a driver is impaired by drugs, the driver may be required to take a drug recognition evaluation test at the police station to assess their level of drug impairment.
  • Approved drug screening devices: The police can ask for an oral fluid sample to assess drug impairment, and they can use approved drug screening devices for this purpose.

Laws for impaired driving in Canada

On December 18, 2018, Canada introduced new impaired driving and driving laws, which granted law enforcement additional powers to combat impaired driving. These changes apply to both drug and alcohol impaired driving and include:

  • Mandatory alcohol breathalyzer testing: Police can now require a breath sample from any driver they stop, without needing reasonable suspicion. Drivers who refuse to take the roadside test can be charged.
  • Elimination of the “bolus drinking” defence: This defence previously allowed drivers to argue that they consumed alcohol just before driving and that it was not absorbed. This defence is no longer available.
  • Oral fluid samples: If police suspect that a driver is impaired by drugs, they can demand an oral fluid sample (saliva), which may lead to further testing, such as a blood test, if the results are positive.
  • Drug-impaired fines: Drivers with a blood THC concentration between two and five nanograms per milliliter could face fines of up to $1,000. More significant fines and possible jail time could result from a THC concentration exceeding five nanograms or mixing drugs with alcohol.
New impaired driving laws
Source: New alcohol-impaired driving laws

The new laws also increase the maximum fines for most alcohol impaired driving offences and propose changes to the interlock program and other areas.

Impaired driving penalties and fines under the Criminal Code of Canada vary depending on the charge and offence, and repeat offenders face more severe fines, penalties, and imprisonment. These penalties are in addition to the provincial impaired driving laws. The Department of Justice outlines the impaired driving penalties under the Criminal Code of Canada.

How can I avoid driving while impaired?

It is crucial to avoid situations where you might end up driving while impaired. Here are some sensible tips to help you avoid impaired driving:

  • Be responsible: If you have been drinking or using drugs, make the responsible decision not to drive.
  • Have a plan: Plan ahead of time how you will get home safely before going out for the evening.
  • Use a designated driver: Choose a designated driver before consuming alcohol.
  • Call a driver service: Use a taxi, Uber, Lyft, or a designated driver service to get home.
  • Stay overnight: Arrange to stay with a friend or family member or book a hotel room.

You can also help prevent others from driving while impaired by not allowing them to drive if they have been drinking. If you suspect that someone is impaired, notify the police immediately. Taking these steps can contribute to safer roads for everyone.

Get serious about defending your DUI charge

If you are serious about defending your DUI charge, you choose a lawyer with a track record of successfully getting charges withdrawn, winning at trial, or with the experience to negotiate reduced penalties for drivers.

A lawyer may contest your charge using technical defences, cross-examination of witnesses, Charter Rights and Freedoms defences, or other defences based on the exact nature of your arrest and charge.

For an assessment of your case and advice on the suggested next steps, get a free consultation.

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