Drinking and driving: laws and penalties in Canada

Reviewed by Daniel Mirkovic

Updated May 13, 2024

To state the obvious, drinking and driving is dangerous. Impaired driving is one of the leading causes of vehicle-related deaths in Canada.

If that’s not enough to dissuade someone from driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, it’s also illegal.

In Canada, there are drinking and driving laws at both the federal and provincial levels. In this article, we’ll describe the federal impaired driving laws that apply to all Canadians, and the laws and penalties in each of Canada’s largest provinces.

A police car parked behind a black car, with the police officer standing next to the driver's door

Introduction to drinking and driving laws

Before getting into Canada’s impaired driving laws and penalties, there are a few of things to go over.

Blood alcohol concentration

The first is an abbreviation you’re going to see a lot on this page: BAC.

BAC stands for blood alcohol content or blood alcohol concentration. BAC is a percentage expressing how much volume of a blood sample is alcohol. The calculation is milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. If a person’s BAC is .01, for example, it means they have in their body 10 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.

A BAC of 0 is sober. By the time someone’s reached a BAC of .08 (which can happen quickly), they’ll have impaired judgment and reduced coordination. Nausea, confusion, and loss of muscle control kick in between .15 and .30. A BAC of about .40 is fatal to many people.

Impaired driving tests

Barring a vehicle accident, impaired driving is typically discovered using a roadside breath sample test. Police are permitted to demand a breath sample test from any driver that they’ve legally stopped, even without suspicion of impaired driving. Breath samples can also be taken at the scene of a vehicle collision.

These roadside tests aren’t sophisticated enough to determine the driver’s precise BAC, and aren’t admissible in court in the case of a criminal trial. Instead, they indicate whether there is enough alcohol in the driver’s system to warrant a follow-up with a more precise breathalyzer or blood test.

The roadside test will indicate “warn” or “fail” depending on the concentration of alcohol it detects. Each province sets its own warn range, but most start at .05 BAC they all end at .079 BAC. A warn reading is enough to trigger the provincial-level penalties you’ll see below. A BAC of .08 or higher is a fail, and may lead to an arrest and criminal charges.

Legal BAC limits typically apply within two hours of driving. That means a driver failing a BAC test, even after they’ve stopped driving, could still be charged with impaired driving. This primarily exists to restrict certain legal defenses, such as impaired drivers claiming that they drank immediately before driving and weren’t over the legal limit while operating the car. Or, that they didn’t have a drink until after an accident had already occurred. In any case, police still need a legal basis to demand a breath sample.

It is illegal to refuse to give a breath sample when you’re lawfully ordered to do so. Failure to provide a sample carries penalties that are just as strict as impaired driving penalties.

One other important note: Impaired driving doesn’t necessarily mean you were actively moving the vehicle. Most laws apply while you have care and control of the vehicle. That basically means that if you’re in a position to drive the vehicle (sitting inside with possession of the keys, for example) you could still be charged with impaired driving. If you’ve been drinking, it’s best to avoid getting into your car unless there’s a sober driver present with you. It’s even possible to be charged with impaired driving while sleeping it off in your car.

BAC and alcohol consumption

BAC is straightforward, but it’s not easy to know your actual BAC after, say, one or two drinks. Even a couple of drinks over a couple of hours could bring someone near the legal limit. A typical night out can easily put most people well over the .08 criminal impairment line.

There are many, many factors that influence how a person’s BAC will rise and fall when they drink alcohol. A person’s weight, sex, hormone levels, body fat percentage, and other factors all influence the speed at which their body can metabolize alcohol. Time is a major factor, too — after a night of heavy drinking, a person can have detectable alcohol in their system for 12–24 hours. Other factors include what someone’s eaten before and while drinking, how quickly they were consuming drinks, or their overall health.

You can find BAC calculators online that estimate BAC given several variables. Make no mistake, though: these are for educational purposes; you shouldn’t use them to decide that you’re “okay to drive” after a few drinks. Use them to get an idea of how quickly your BAC can rise and how long it takes to come back down to zero.

Laws for non-alcohol impairment and provincial differences

The information on this page is not exhaustive. There are also impaired driving laws governing driving under the influence of THC, or THC and alcohol combined, or most other drugs. These laws are similar, but limits and penalties differ from province to province. This page only deals with drinking and driving; just know that rules exist for using cannabis and driving, too. Across Canada, there is a zero-tolerance policy for driving under the influence of illegal drugs like LSD, psilocybin, ketamine, PCP, cocaine, or methamphetamine.

Keep in mind, too, that there are almost always monetary costs aside from fines. License reinstatement fees, ignition interlock device fees, course fees, towing fees… an impaired driver may need to pay hundreds or thousands of additional dollars beyond fines and penalties.

There isn’t enough room here to write every single impaired driving regulation in every province. We’ll go over the main laws and penalties pertaining to everyday drivers and novice drivers. But, for example, there are stricter rules for those driving commercial vehicles. There are also (obviously) more significant penalties if you injure or kill someone while driving under the influence.

Let’s put it simply:

The best way to ensure that you’re not breaking any impaired driving laws is to never drive while impaired.

Federal drinking and driving laws in Canada

The most serious drinking and driving laws in Canada are at the federal level. These laws apply across the country, and can result in arrest and criminal charges if you break them.

The federal BAC limit is .08%.

Any driver in Canada with a BAC over .08 can face criminal charges. At this level, impaired driving convictions come with mandatory minimum fines and the possibility of imprisonment.

These are the potential penalties for someone charged with having a BAC over .08% within two hours of driving:

First offense Second offense Third offense
  • Minimum $1,000 fine
  • Maximum 10 years’ imprisonment
  • Minimum 30 days’ imprisonment
  • Maximum 10 years’ imprisonment
  • Minimum 120 days’ imprisonment
  • Maximum 10 years’ imprisonment

Reusing to provide a breath sample carries a minimum $2,000 fine. Additionally, there are escalating minimum fines for first offenders with a BAC of .12–.159 or .160 and above.

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Provincial drinking and driving laws and penalties

While federal laws punish those driving with BAC levels of .08 and up, most provincial laws deal with drivers in the range of zero to .079 BAC. Instead of criminal charges, provincial penalties tend to deal more with driver’s license suspensions, fines, vehicle impoundments, or mandatory education programs.

Most of these penalties can be issued immediately when a driver receives a warn indication on a breath screening device.

It’s possible for someone to face both federal and provincial penalties depending on the circumstances.

British Columbia

In BC, the prohibited BAC level is 0.05. If a breath sample indicates a driver has a BAC of 0.05 or greater, they may receive an immediate roadside prohibition — meaning their driving privileges are suspended right then and there.

A BAC of 0.05 to 0.079 is the warn range in BC.

If someone fails a breath sample test (or refuses to do one), they may be given an immediate 90-day driving prohibition. Police may also recommend criminal charges.

Police in BC may also issue an immediate 24-hour license suspension if they have reasonable grounds to believe someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol while having care and control of a vehicle — no breath screening needed.

If someone’s breath sample lands in the warn range, the following penalties may apply in BC for each offense within a five-year period:

First offense Second offense Third offense
  • Three-day driving prohibition
  • Three-day vehicle impoundment (driver pays towing and impound fees)
  • $200 penalty
  • License reinstatement fees
  • 30-day driving prohibition
  • 30-day vehicle impoundment
  • $400 penalty
  • Referral to Responsible Driver Program or Ignition Interlock Program

In addition to the above, drivers who are part of the graduated licensing program (drivers with an L or an N) may not drive with any alcohol (or other drugs) in their system. If they’re caught with anything above zero BAC, they will receive a 12-hour license suspension and have their driving record reviewed (which may lead to further restrictions). Novice (N) drivers will restart their 2-year period, and learner (L) drivers will need to retake all of their licensing tests.

Alberta

In Alberta, the warn range for BAC is 0.05 to 0.079.

If a breath sample shows a reading in this range, the driver may receive an Immediate Roadside Sanction, or IRS. These range from 24 hours to 30 days. There are also other penalties, such as vehicle seizure or fines.

Like BC, police in Alberta can issue a 24-hour suspension if they have grounds to suspect impaired driving (even without a breath test).

If a driver’s breath sample fails (a BAC of 0.08 or greater) they will face even greater administrative penalties, in addition to possible criminal charges. Failure penalties also apply if someone refuses to give a breath sample when lawfully ordered to do so.

Warn range (.05–.079) penalties

First offense Second offense Third offense
  • 15-day license suspension
  • Seven-day vehicle impoundment
  • $600 fine, plus 20% surcharge
  • Referral to Crossroads course
  • 30-day license suspension
  • Seven-day vehicle seizure
  • $1,200 fine, plus 20% surcharge
  • Referral to IMPACT Program

Fail (.08+) penalties

These penalties are in addition to any criminal-level impaired driving charges.

First offense Second offense Third offense
  • Two-part license suspension: 90-day full prohibition, followed by 12-month Ignition Interlock Program requirement
  • 30-day vehicle impoundment
  • $1,000 fine, plus 20% surcharge
  • Enrollment in Planning Ahead course
  • Two-part license suspension: 90-day full prohibition, followed by 36-month Ignition Interlock Program requirement
  • 30-day vehicle impoundment
  • $2,000 fine, plus 20% surcharge
  • Enrollment in IMPACT Program
  • Two-part license suspension: 90-day full prohibition, followed by lifetime Ignition Interlock Program requirement (reviewable after 10 years)
  • 30-day vehicle impoundment
  • $2,000 fine, plus 20% surcharge

Alberta has a zero-tolerance policy for novice drivers and impaired driving. If a driver with a learner’s license gives a breath sample with any detectable alcohol, they could face the following penalties:

  • 30-day license suspension
  • 7-day vehicle impoundment
  • $200 fine, plus 20% surcharge

Saskatchewan

Like BC and Alberta, Saskatchewan has a set of penalties for drivers facing criminal impairment charges (with a BAC of 0.08 or higher), and another set for those caught with lower BAC.

Saskatchewan’s impaired BAC range is from 0.04 to 0.08.

Notably, Saskatchewan imposes stricter penalties for impaired drivers with passengers in their vehicle under the age of 16. Experienced drivers (holding a license equivalent to a Class 5) face the following penalties if they’re caught with an impaired BAC:

First offense (within 10 years) Second offense (within 10 years) Third offense (within 10 years)
  • Three-day license suspension (Seven days if transporting passengers under 16)
  • Three-day vehicle impoundment (Seven days if transporting passengers under 16)
  • Enrollment in Driving Without Impairment program
  • 21-day license suspension (30 days if transporting passengers under 16)
  • Seven-day vehicle impoundment (30 days if transporting passengers under 16)
  • Enrollment in Alcohol and Drug Education program
  • 90-day license suspension (120 days if transporting passengers under 16)
  • 14-day vehicle impoundment (60 days if transporting passengers under 16)
  • Addiction assessment
  • Mandatory ignition interlock device

Drivers facing their first or second offense can get their license back before completing the requisite courses, but they do have to take the course within 120 days. Upon the third offense, the driver can’t get their license back until they’ve completed the addiction assessment and had the ignition interlock device installed.

Whether an experienced driver or a new driver, there are heavier penalties for those caught driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher or those refusing to give a sample:

First offense Second offense Third offense
  • Indefinite license suspension (until charges are resolved in court)
  • Vehicle impoundment (30 days if BAC under 0.16, 60 days if BAC over 0.16)
  • Enrollment in Driving Without Impairment program
  • Mandatory ignition interlock (1 year for BAC less than .16, 2 years for BAC over .16)
  • Indefinite license suspension (until charges are resolved in court)
  • Vehicle impoundment (30 days if BAC under 0.16, 60 days if BAC over .016)
  • Enrollment in Alcohol and Drug Education program
  • Mandatory ignition interlock (3 years for BAC less than .16, 5 years for BAC over .16)
  • Indefinite license suspension (until charges are resolved in court)
  • Vehicle impoundment (30 days if BAC under 0.16, 60 days if BAC over 0.16)
  • Addiction assessment
  • Mandatory ignition interlock (10 years)

New drivers in Saskatchewan face strict rules and penalties for impaired driving. Like other provinces, Saskatchewan imposes a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving with new drivers. A new driver caught with any detectable BAC faces similar penalties to the above, though with more severe license suspensions:

  • First offense: 60-day suspension
  • Second offense: 120-day suspension
  • Third offense: 18-month suspension

A new driver facing their second offense may opt to install an ignition interlock device to reduce the length of their suspension.

Manitoba

Manitoba’s warn range is a BAC between 0.05 and 0.079.

However, police can issue a 24-hour suspension to any driver if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that driver is under the influence of any drug.

As is typical, the penalties in Manitoba grow worse with each subsequent violation within a 10-year period. These are known in the province as Tiered Administrative License Suspensions.

First offense Second offense Third offense Fourth (or more) offense
  • Three-day license suspension (Seven days if transporting passengers under 16)
  • Vehicle impoundment (3–30 days)
  • $400 fine
  • Five-level drop in Driver Safety Rating
  • 15-day license suspension
  • Five-level drop in Driver Safety Rating
  • $400 fine
  • Vehicle impoundment (3–30 days)
  • Assessment through Impaired Driver Program
  • 30-day license suspension
  • Five-level drop in Driver Safety Rating
  • $600 fine
  • Vehicle impoundment (3–30 days)
  • Mandatory ignition interlock use
  • Assessment through Impaired Driver Program
  • 60-day license suspension
  • Five-level drop in Driver Safety Rating
  • $600 fine
  • Vehicle impoundment (3–30 days)
  • Mandatory ignition interlock use
  • Assessment through Impaired Driver Program

Drivers in Manitoba who register a BAC of 0.08 or higher, or who refuse to provide a breath sample, may receive any or all of the following administrative penalties:

  • Three-month license suspension
  • $700 fine
  • Five or 10 level drop in Driver Safety Rating
  • Vehicle impoundment
  • Mandatory Impaired Driver Assessment
  • Mandatory ignition interlock use

These are in addition to possible criminal charges and penalties. A driver convicted of a criminal impaired driving offense in Manitoba, provincial laws may impose the following additional penalties:

  • Five, 10, or 15 level drop in Driver Safety Rating
  • Significant fines
  • Imprisonment
  • Mandatory license suspension
  • Vehicle forfeiture

Like most other jurisdictions, Manitoba has a zero-tolerance policy for new drivers and alcohol. Any driver in the Graduated Driver Licensing program must not have any alcohol in their system while driving. Those who do may receive an immediate 24-hour license suspension and other penalties in addition to those above.

Ontario

Ontario’s warn range for impaired driving is 0.05 to 0.079 BAC.

A driver caught driving with a BAC in that range may face the following penalties:

First offense Second offense Third offense
  • Three-day license suspension
  • $250 fine
  • Seven-day license suspension
  • $350 fine
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • 30-day license suspension
  • $450 fine
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • Six-month ignition interlock requirement

Drivers in Ontario caught with a BAC of 0.08 or higher, or those who refuse to comply with a demand for testing, face the following penalties (in addition to potential criminal charges):

First offense Second offense Third offense
  • 90-day license suspension
  • Seven-day vehicle impoundment
  • $550 penalty
  • 90-day license suspension
  • Seven-day vehicle impoundment
  • $550 fine
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • 90-day license suspension
  • Seven-day vehicle impoundment
  • $550 fine
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • Six-month ignition interlock requirement

In Ontario, there is a third stage of penalties for drivers who go on to be convicted of criminal impaired driving, with stricter penalties for each offense within a 10-year period. These are also in addition to any fines or jail time imposed by the courts:

First offense Second offense Third offense Fourth offense
  • One-year license suspension
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • One-year ignition interlock requirement
  • Three-year license suspension
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • Three-year ignition interlock requirement
  • Mandatory medical evaluation
  • Lifetime license suspension (reviewable after 10 years)
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • Six-year ignition interlock requirement
  • Mandatory medical evaluation
  • Lifetime license suspension (no possibility of reduction)

Ontario also has a range of penalties for young or novice drivers. These penalties apply to drivers under 21 or with a class G1, G2, M1, or M2 license if they have any detectable alcohol in their system. These are in addition to the penalties above, depending on the driver’s BAC:

First offense Second offense Third offense
  • Three-day license suspension
  • $60–$1,000 fine (if convicted)
  • $250 penalty
  • Seven-day license suspension
  • $60–$1,000 fine (if convicted)
  • $350 penalty
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • 30-day license suspension
  • $60–$1,000 fine (if convicted)
  • $450 penalty
  • Mandatory enrollment in education or treatment programs
  • Six-month ignition interlock requirement

Quebec

Quebec doesn’t have a separate set of penalties for drivers caught in a warn range; Quebec’s impaired driving penalties generally apply to those at .08 BAC and above. There are stricter limits for some drivers, such as learners or those driving heavy vehicles, however. Quebec’s provincial impaired driving laws are part of the Highway Safety Code.

Because the penalties start at 0.08 BAC, there will always be the possibility of arrest and criminal charges when a driver is caught above the impairment limit in Quebec.

One exception is an immediate 24-hour suspension, which police may issue if they believe a driver is impaired by any drug while having care or control of a vehicle.

First offense

The first time a driver in Quebec is caught with a BAC of .08 or higher, they will receive an immediate license suspension. This ranges from 24 hours to 90 days, depending on the circumstances (such as how high their BAC is). They may also have their vehicle impounded for up to 30 days, again, depending on the situation.

If they are later convicted of criminal impaired driving charges, they’ll receive the following provincial-level penalties:

  • One year driving prohibition
  • Revocation of driver’s license for at least one year, and possibly longer
  • Mandatory enrollment in PERRCCA or the Alcofrein program
  • Mandatory ignition interlock (variable duration, depending on circumstances)

First repeat offense within 10 years

If a driver reoffends within 10 years, they’ll face the following penalties under the Highway Safety Code:

  • 90-day license suspension
  • 90-day vehicle impoundment
  • Mandatory enrollment in PERRCCA

If they are later convicted of criminal charges, they may receive any or all of these additional penalties:

  • Two-year driving prohibition
  • Revocation of driver’s license for 3-5 years (or possibly longer)
  • Imprisonment
  • Prohibition from registering, acquiring, renting, or leasing a vehicle
  • Lifetime ignition interlock requirement (with the possibility of reviewing after 10 years)

Second (or more) repeat offense within 10 years

If a driver reoffends more than once within a 10-year period, they’ll receive the following penalties immediately upon their arrest:

  • 90-day license suspension
  • 90-day vehicle impoundment

If they subsequently receive a criminal conviction, any of the following penalties may apply:

  • Minimum 2-year driving prohibition
  • Revocation of driver’s license for 3-5 years (or longer)
  • Imprisonment
  • Prohibition from registering, acquiring, renting, or leasing a vehicle
  • Lifetime ignition interlock requirement (with the possibility of review after 10 years)

Young or new driver penalties

Drivers in Quebec under the age of 22, or those who hold a learner’s or probationary license face a zero-tolerance policy for impaired driving. Such drivers face the following penalties if caught driving with any detectable alcohol in their system:

  • 90-day license suspension
  • 4 demerit points
  • $300–$600 fine

Insurance impacts of drinking and driving

There are several ways that drinking and driving can impact your car insurance, and none of them are good.

Denial of claims

If you’re in an accident while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, your insurer may not be required to pay anything to repair your vehicle or cover your liability for damage. If you read your car insurance policy, you’ll see some manner of exclusion for driving while impaired or while otherwise not entitled to operate a vehicle. This will tell you the circumstances under which your coverage may be reduced or denied.

For example, as of 2023, impaired drivers in Manitoba are responsible for covering the cost of any damage they cause while driving impaired. Such costs would otherwise be covered by their third-party liability coverage.

Increased premiums

One thing you can count on is an increase in premiums if you’re caught drinking and driving. How much they increase will vary widely, however.

In the provinces with public insurers, you can figure out exactly how much your car insurance premiums will change when you’re caught drinking and driving. For example, in BC, you’ll have to start paying a Driver Risk Premium. This starts at $453/year after a second license suspension, or $1,108/year after a single criminal offense. Similarly, Manitoba’s Driver Safety Rating system allows you to see how your premiums will change. If an impaired driving charge drops you from a +10 to a +5, your driver premium will increase by $10 and your vehicle discount will drop from 29% to 16%.

In provinces with private insurance, it’s not so easy to know how your premiums will change. Each insurer decides how they want to treat impaired driving charges. Depending on the severity of the impaired driving (not to mention the frequency), your premiums could double, triple, or more.

Difficulty finding insurance

Many insurance providers don’t issue policies to drivers with impaired driving charges at all, particularly multiple charges. After getting caught drinking and driving, your provider might cancel your policy entirely. If that happens, you may find it difficult to find another provider willing to offer coverage.

Once a driver has been designated high-risk, they may have to seek car insurance through special channels, such as the Facility Association. Often, the driver will have no choice but to continue insuring with the Facility Association until three years have passed without accruing any more serious convictions.

Notably, car insurance denials are mostly an issue in provinces with private car insurance providers. In BC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, you can’t seek car insurance from a high-risk provider because there are no providers aside from the public insurers. Instead, ICBC, SGI, and MPI insure high-risk drivers themselves (in exchange for much, much higher premiums).

Commonly asked questions

Do I need to inform my insurer if I’m convicted of impaired driving?

Generally, yes, you’re obligated to inform your insurer if you’re convicted of impaired driving, or if you have your license suspended. These constitute material changes in risk, which policyholders are always obligated to inform their insurer of (whether car, home, or other insurance).

That most certainly includes impaired driving convictions, license suspensions, or other such penalties. If you’re insured by a private insurer (such as in Alberta, Ontario, or Quebec), you’re obligated to inform your insurer of convictions or suspensions. Failure to do so would result in a void policy — and they’d find out about it eventually anyway.

In provinces with public insurers, there is usually no need to inform the insurance provider if the incident occurred in your home province. Since driver’s licenses are issued by the insurers in these provinces (including BC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba), they’ll know of any suspensions or charges.

How much does it cost to reinstate your driver’s license?

A license reinstatement fee is one of the many additional costs of having your license suspended for impaired driving. Reinstatement fees vary by province, but are typically between $200 and $300.

Is impaired driving the same as a DUI in Canada?

DUI, or “driving under the influence” is largely an American term, and doesn’t appear in the Criminal Code of Canada. Nor does its cousin DWI, or “driving while impaired.” Impaired driving is the preferred term in Canadian law, meaning essentially the same thing as DUI or DWI.

Want to learn more? Visit our Car insurance resource centre for dozens of helpful articles to guide you through the complexities of car insurance. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized car insurance can be.

About the expert: Daniel Mirkovic

A co-founder of Square One with 25 years of experience in the insurance industry, Daniel was previously vice president of the insurance and travel divisions at the British Columbia Automobile Association. Daniel has a bachelor of commerce and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He holds a Canadian Accredited Insurance Broker (CAIB) designation and a general insurance license level 3 in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

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