Impaired Driving:Get the Facts

Every day, 29 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. This is one death every 50 minutes.The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $44 billion.

Thankfully, there are effective measures that can help prevent injuries and deaths from alcohol-impaired driving.

How big is the problem?

  • In 2016, 10,497 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for 28% of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.
  • Of the 1,233 traffic deaths among children ages 0 to 14 years in 2016, 214 (17%) involved an alcohol-impaired driver.
  • In 2016, more than 1 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. That’s one percent of the 111 million self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving among U.S. adults each year (figure below).
  • Drugs other than alcohol (legal and illegal) are involved in about 16% of motor vehicle crashes.
  • Marijuana use is increasing and 13% of nighttime, weekend drivers have marijuana in their system.
  • Marijuana users were about 25% more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers with no evidence of marijuana use, however other factors–such as age and gender–may account for the increased crash risk among marijuana users.

Impaired driving is dangerous. It’s the cause of more than half of all car crashes. It means operating a motor vehicle while you are affected by

  • Alcohol
  • Legal or illegal drugs
  • Sleepiness
  • Distractions, such as using a cell phone or texting
  • Having a medical condition which affects your driving

For your safety and the safety of others, do not drive while impaired. Have someone else drive you or take public transportation when you cannot drive. If you need to take a call or send a text message, pull over.

One of the first reported criminal cases regarding drinking and driving in Canada was an Alberta decision in 1920 called R. v. Nickle. In that case, the appeal court found that the act of driving while intoxicated was an unlawful act that could support a manslaughter conviction.

In 1921, the Parliament of Canada first created a summary conviction offence for drinking and driving, called “driving while intoxicated”. At the time, the courts interpreted intoxication to mean substantial inebriation, and more than just being under the influence of alcohol. The minimum penalty for the first offence was seven days in jail. The minimum penalty for the second offence was one month in jail. The minimum penalty for a third offence was three months in jail.

In 1925, Parliament amended the Criminal Code to include a new offence of driving while intoxicated by a narcotic. The offences were also amended to include “care or control” of a motor vehicle, not just driving. (See below.)

In 1930, Parliament changed the offence to a hybrid offence, giving the Crown the option to proceed with the more serious indictable offence procedure.

Difficulties arose regarding how to prove someone was in care or control of a motor vehicle, and what the test should be. In 1947, Parliament amended the Criminal Code again, adding a presumption of care or control when a person was found sitting in the driver’s seat of a motor vehicle. This did not answer all of the problems regarding the test (i.e. when a person is not found in the driver’s seat of a motor vehicle). Many of the court’s answers to those questions remain in conflict today.

In 1951, Parliament re-worded the law, making it an offence to operate or have care or control of a motor vehicle while the driver’s ability to operate the motor vehicle was impaired by alcohol or other drugs.

The breathalyzer was made into a practical police tool by Robert Frank Borkenstein in 1952, which allowed for the police to measure a person’s blood alcohol concentration. The first Canadian test of the breathalyzer was in Ontario in 1954. By 1962, police were using the breathalyzer for “mass testing”. However, the test was voluntary, and could only be used as confirmatory evidence.

Tips to avoid impaired driving

There are simple steps you can take to avoid driving while you’re impaired by drugs or alcohol:

  • Have a plan to get home safely. Have a designated driver, use public transit, call a friend or family member for a ride, call a taxi or ride share, or stay overnight.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about side effects related to driving when using prescription medication.
  • Read the information on the package of any prescription drugs or over-the-counter medicine, including allergy and cold remedies.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about how a prescription drug could affect you. Remember that combining drugs and alcohol together can impair your ability to drive more than using either one alone.