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Keeping Drunk Drivers Off The Road

News, Older, Vehicle & Road Safety

Ottawa —A 2007 survey by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) found that 8.2 percent of respondents had driven when they thought they were over the legal limit at least once in the past year. Canada-wide that works out to 1.84 million drunk drivers, a scary thought.

Yet, of the 846,400 vehicles checked during Ontario ’s five-week holiday RIDE program, a mere 0.14 percent of the drivers were considered impaired by alcohol. Officers charged 334 people with alcohol-related criminal offences and gave another 842 drivers 12-hour licence suspensions.

“It’s fair to assume many more people would have driven after a few drinks if there was no visible enforcement,” says Canada Safety Council president Jack Smith. “We don’t have figures for the other provinces, but most have similar programs and the number of drinking drivers they catch never comes close to eight percent.”

The purpose of roadside checks is not simply to catch and punish offenders. In and of themselves, they serve as a very effective deterrent. A large body of research shows that people are less likely to offend when they believe they will be caught. Programs like RIDE, CounterAttack, CheckStop and others actually prevent people from drinking and driving.

According to Smith, while roadside checks keep most drinking drivers off the road, they do little to deter the few hard core drinking drivers responsible for most of the drunk driving problem in this country. In 2004, 35 percent of fatally injured drivers in Canada had been drinking. Of these, 80 percent were legally impaired, most of them at least twice the legal BAC.

These high-BAC offenders share several characteristics:

  • They drink frequently, and often to excess. Many are alcohol dependent.
  • They repeatedly drive after drinking.
  • When they drink and drive, their BAC is two to three times the criminal legal limit.
  • Many have previously been convicted for impaired driving and have driven while suspended.
  • They resist changing their behavior, and are insensitive to anti-drinking-driving campaigns.

Rehabilitation programs are essential to deal with these hard core offenders, because most have an alcohol dependency problem. That is why assessment and treatment, often combined with licensing sanctions, are mandatory for impaired driving offenders across Canada . These programs work; of 12,000 people who attended Ontario ‘s remedial program in its first year, only one returned due to a subsequent conviction.

The TIRF survey showed Canadians agreed with a number of proven measures currently being implemented or under consideration across Canada . These include: ignition interlock devices for impaired driving offenders (83 percent); tests of physical co-ordination for suspected impaired drivers (80 percent); impoundment of the vehicles of drivers who fail a breath test (81 percent); and, more police spot checks (70 percent).

The federal government is looking at a proposal to lower the legal limit in the Criminal Code. However, support for such a move is low (only 18 percent in the TIRF survey), and safety experts are against it. Says Smith, the worst offenders are already driving with BAC two or three times the current limit; it would be naive to think they would comply with a lower limit.

The Canada Safety Council commissioned a 2006 study comparing Canada ‘s blood alcohol legislation with other countries. It found that Canada ’s practice of not using criminal law for drivers under 80 mg% is in line with international trends. In all provinces and territories except Quebec , police impose roadside licence suspensions on lower-BAC drivers starting from 40 to 60 mg%. These are effective because they impose swift and certain consequences, and protect the public by removing the driver from the road.

Smith points out that impaired driving is taken very seriously in this country. Effective countermeasures are in place, and have led to a drop in fatalities. In 2005, road crashes involving a driver who had been drinking took 851 lives, down 34 percent from 1995 when 1,296 motor vehicle deaths involved a drinking driver. Nevertheless, progress has stalled over the past couple of years, and the problem is far from eradicated.


The Road Safety Monitor 2007: Drinking and Driving. Traffic Injury Research Foundation, December 2007 (

OPP Festive RIDE program is over but checks continue all year. Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services news release, January 3, 2008.

David Paciocco, Canada’s Blood Alcohol Laws —an International Perspective. Canada Safety Council, 2006 (

CCMTA’s Position on the Criminal Code BAC. Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, February 2003 (

Alcohol-Crash Problem in Canada : 2004. Traffic Injury Research Foundation, November 2006 (

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