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Drinking and driving means to get behind the wheel of a vehicle after consuming any amount of alcohol. However, for the purposes of penalizing drinking drivers and in order to provide clear guidelines concerning the effects of alcohol on driver performance, the definition of drinking and driving is usually refined further. Specifically, drivers are over the federal criminal limit of alcohol consumption if they register a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) equal to or over 0.08mg. In addition, Provinces and Territories can set their own limits regarding drinking and driving. These limits range from 0.04mg (Saskatchewan) to 0.79mg (Quebec) and result in administrative penalties.
Drinking and driving has well-known effects on traffic safety. Alcohol-impaired drivers suffer from a variety of limits to their performance: they commit sloppy driving errors, have significantly reduced situational awareness, and overall may be more likely to make unsafe decisions behind the wheel. Every drink that a person consumes has the ability to slow their reaction time, which can also be hindered by the other effects of alcohol including blurred vision and drowsiness. The greater the level of impairment, the more likely it is that the driver will be involved in a collision.
The inevitable results of alcohol-impaired driving are vehicle crashes and fatalities. In 2009, 27.7% of fatal crashes in Canada involved a drinking driver (Vanlaar et al. 2012). That year, 714 Canadians were killed in a crash involving a drinking driver.
When polled in 2011, 7.5% of Canadian drivers reported that they would likely drink and drive if their vehicle was equipped with modern safety features. This is concerning because these features cannot be safely relied upon to compensate for the effects of alcohol.
One of the effects is delayed reaction time, which has sweeping effects for the functioning of all safety features. If drivers brake too late, safety features that help reduce stopping distance – including brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution – will have less time to work. If an impaired driver steers erratically, features that help to maintain stability and control including antilock braking systems (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) may be overwhelmed and fail to work at their best.
In addition to a delayed reaction time, alcohol has impairing effects on coordination and information processing. Drinking drivers are less able to respond to safety systems that warn them of impending collisions or accidental lane departures. Finally, features designed to improve visibility could have their benefits negated by a driver’s decreased ability to see clearly due to the effects of alcohol.
Drivers have an important role to play in the proper functioning of their safety systems, and alcohol-impairment can make fulfilling this role difficult or impossible. The good news is that by driving safely and attentively, drivers can accrue the maximum safety benefits that safety features have to offer.
When asked about driving after consuming alcohol in the past thirty days, 19.2% of Canadians admitting to doing this in 2011. This number is consistent with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) findings on the prevalence of drinking and driving. In 2008, NHTSA found that one in five (20%) of persons of driving age in the United States reports driving within two hours of drinking.
In addition, 5.4% admitted to drinking and driving when they thought they were over the legal limit in the past 12 months (TIRF 2011). Finally, also in 2011, 3.8% of Canadian drivers reported that they often drink and drive (TIRF 2011).
Drinking drivers share some common characteristics, including the tendency to drink and drive, but this does not mean that these offenders are all the same. The reality is that some people drive and drink infrequently, while others do it often; some are at relatively low risk of causing a collision, while others are at a very high risk. Impaired drivers are one of the most heterogeneous offender populations in the justice system and they come from all walks of life.
The majority of impaired drivers are men however the issue of female impaired drivers is a growing concern. Impaired drivers also represent different age groups, levels of education, and professional achievement. The socio-economic status and criminal activity of these offenders also varies greatly. As such, it is essential to have a broad range of strategies or countermeasures available to create a comprehensive approach to the impaired driving problem.
The Federal Criminal Code of Canada (CCC) contains two laws that address drinking and driving. Section 253a prohibits the operation of a vehicle while impaired by drugs or alcohol, and Section 253b prohibits operating a vehicle with a BAC of 0.08 or higher. Federal laws apply across Canada.
Provincial and territorial governments are responsible for driver licensing and have the authority to create administrative offenses and to impose penalties for drinking and driving through the provincial/ territorial Motor Vehicles Acts. Almost all jurisdictions in Canada have chosen to set a lower BAC that ranges from 0.04 to 0.08. This means that provinces and territories are able to impose driver license suspensions and other penalties on drivers with a BAC below the federal limit of 0.08. Penalties often include roadside license suspensions, administrative license suspension, and other penalties that escalate with multiple offenses.