Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 7
The Human Cost of Impaired Driving in Canada
The decline of impaired driving crime in Canada is an example of the progress that can be made when government and civil society work together to change harmful social behaviour and, in this instance, save lives. Half a century ago, impaired driving was, to some extent, a tolerated behaviour in Western society (The Breathalyzer Team 2010). Today, public awareness campaigns and education in schools seek to prevent impaired driving; criminal and civil penalties seek to punish and prevent the act from occurring; and driver spot checks, such as the Reduced Impaired Driving Everywhere program (RIDE), seek to deter drinking and driving and to catch and remove impaired drivers from roads. Nevertheless, fatalities continue to occur as a result of impaired driving on Canadian roads and highways every year.
While there have been many positive changes in both the attitudes and behaviours of Canadians, impaired driving continues to be a widespread problem with a tragic human cost. This article attempts to determine the extent of this human cost by looking at the data available in Canada on the number of fatalities caused by impaired driving.
The Canadian Criminal Code defines impaired driving in a variety of ways. Drivers are said to be criminally impaired if they have more than 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood in their system. This ratio is commonly referred to as .08% Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). A driver can also be impaired if he or she is under the influence of narcotics or prescription medication. A driver’s impairment poses an immediate risk of death or injury to the driver, to passengers, to other drivers on the road, to cyclists, and to pedestrians.
Over the summer of 2013, the federal Minister of Justice addressed the issue of impaired driving, expressing a desire to amend the existing relevant legislation. The Minister is supported by various victims’ advocacy groups, including Families for Justice, which supports this legal redefinition (Chamberlain 2013), and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which supports various legislative changes that would institute mandatory minimum penalties, as well as the implementation of random breath testing (MADD 2012).Footnote 1
In Canada, the two primary sources of data on impaired driving causing death are Statistics Canada’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) survey and the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) survey. The UCR is used to present police-reported data concerning impaired driving causing death, by alcohol or drug use. The UCR survey is virtually 100% representative of police-reported crime as it is completed every time a police officer can substantiate the occurrence of a crime. The UCR collects data that can be used to present crime visually on a map and provides information on the demographics of victims and accused. A limitation of the UCR is that it relies on police reporting: not all crimes are reported to, or are substantiated by, the police. This means that the UCR may not present the true extent of impaired driving causing death in Canada. Footnote 2 The second data source comes from TIRF, an organization that has conducted numerous studies of alcohol-related road accident fatalities. TIRF’s data show the proportion of drivers killed in motor vehicle accidents where alcohol was involved. The two data sources differ in so far as one collects police-reported data on impaired driving causing death, and the other collects information on drivers killed in alcohol-related road accidents. Combined they present an estimate of the number of people killed in Canada by impaired driving.
Statistics on impaired driving
Police are amongst the first responders to fatal vehicle accidents and are usually responsible for recommending a criminal charge when the circumstances warrant it. Police officers reported 793 incidents of impaired driving causing death over the five-year period of 2008 to 2012. It is important to emphasize that these incidents do not include incidents where only the impaired driver was killed. Footnote 3 The majority of incidents resulted in a driver being charged: police identified a driver to be charged in 665 incidents (84%). For 78 incidents (10%), charges were cleared for other reasons. Footnote 4 The remaining 6% of incidents were not cleared for charges, either due to the escape of the accused or the inability of the police to locate an accused.
The UCR collects information about the age and gender of victims of impaired driving causing death and of those accused of the crime. Data available from 2009 to 2012, the only years for which data are available, reveal that 598 people were killed by an impaired driver over the four-year period. The majority of victims were adult males. While 88% of victims were over the age of 18, 53% of adult victims were between the ages of 18 and 35, showing that victims of impaired driving causing death are typically younger than middle age. A total of 67 youth were fatally injured by this crime between 2009 and 2012, with 4 victims under the age of 12. The demographic characteristics were similar for those accused of impaired driving causing death. Accused persons were mainly young adult males. The vast majority (95%) of accused were adults; more than two-thirds (68%) were between the ages of 18 and 35. In total, 26 youth aged 12 to 17 were charged with impaired driving causing death between 2009 and 2012.
Table 1 presents incident counts of impaired driving causing death and the rate of incidents per 100,000 population, Footnote 5 for the years 2008 to 2012. Note that an incident can have one or more victims. The five-year trend of police-reported incidents of impaired driving causing death indicates a 30% reduction in incidents of impaired driving causing death over the period of 2008 to 2012. In addition, the rate has declined from .59 to .40 incidents per 100,000 population. Nevertheless, police-reported impaired driving causing death remains a problem in all Canadian jurisdictions.
Source: Statistics Canada, The Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.
Incident counts of impaired driving causing death are high in the more populous provinces. However, there are a few examples of high counts of incidents and high rates in less populated provinces. In 2012, for example, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and New Brunswick all report rates of impaired driving causing death higher than the national rate of .40, whereas Québec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia have recorded rates lower than the national rate.
The following map depicts the number of police-reported incidents of impaired driving causing death for the 2012 calendar year, distinguished by whether they occurred within a Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) or outside of one. CMAs can be considered major urban areas. They are formed by one or more adjacent municipalities centred on a population centre, known as the core. A CMA must have a total population of at least 100,000, of which 50,000 or more live in the core (Statistics Canada 2012a). There were 33 CMAs in Canada according to the 2011 Census (Statistics Canada 2012b). While some non-CMAs can still be considered urban, Footnote 6 distinguishing the locations of incidents between CMAs and non-CMAs provides an interesting comparison of where incidents of impaired driving causing death have occurred.
Figure 1: Police-reported incidents of impaired driving causing death in Canada in 2012, by Census Metropolitan Area and Non-Census Metropolitan Area
Text version of Figure 1
This Figure is a map of Canada in which each province and territory is delineated by a black border. The legend is in the upper right corner. It illustrates that there are four types of items plotted on the map. First, there is Impaired Driving Causing Death where the impairment is caused by alcohol. These incidents are plotted on the map by whether they were reported in a Census Metropolitan Area (CMA), which is represented on the map as a darkly shaded star, or in a non-CM, which is represented as a darkly shaded triangle. Incidents of Impaired Driving causing Death where the impairment was caused by drugs are broken down the same way. Those incidents that occurred in CMAs are represented on the map by a lightly shaded square. Incidents occurring in a non-CMA are represented by a lightly shaded circle. Each symbol on the map represents one incident of Impaired Driving Causing Death. The source of the information is the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey of 2012 from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.
There are a total of 138 incidents plotted on the map of which 134 are alcohol-related and 4 are drug-related.
In British Columbia, 18 incidents are plotted on the map of which 3 are drug-related. Four incidents occurred in a CMA while 14 occurred in a non-CMA.
In Alberta, 27 incidents are plotted on the map. Six incidents occurred in a CMA while 21 occurred in a non-CMA.
In Saskatchewan, 22 incidents are plotted on the map. Three incidents occurred in a CMA while19 occurred in a non-CMA.
In Manitoba, 17 incidents are plotted on the map. Seven incidents occurred in a CMA while 10 occurred in a non-CMA.
In Ontario, 23 incidents are plotted on the map of which one was drug-related. Twelve incidents occurred in a CMA while 11 occurred in a non-CMA.
In Quebec, 15 incidents are plotted on the map. Seven incidents occurred in a CMA w+hile 8 occurred in a non-CMA.
In New Brunswick, 8 incidents are plotted on the map. Two incidents occurred in a CMA while 6 occurred in a non-CMA.
In Nova Scotia, 3 incidents are plotted on the map each of which occurred in a non-CMA.
In Prince Edward Island, 3 incidents are plotted on the map each of which occurred in a non-CMA.
In the Yukon, one incident is plotted in a non-CMA.
In the NWT, one incident is plotted in a non-CMA.
No incidents of Impaired Driving Causing Death were reported in Newfoundland and Labrador nor in Nunavut.
Geographically plotting police-reported incidents of impaired driving causing death helps to illustrate an interesting finding: 70% of all incidents of impaired driving causing death in 2012 occurred in non-CMA areas. Since roughly 7 out of 10 Canadians lived in a CMA in 2011, incidents of impaired driving causing death are overrepresented in non-CMAs (Statistics Canada 2012a). Given the wide-spread availability of alternate means of transportation in major urban centres, such as taxis and buses, this is not entirely surprising. This geographic distinction shows that drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians in rural or non-CMA urban regions face a greater likelihood of being killed by an impaired driver than drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians in CMAs.
The second source of data is the report of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) of Canada entitled Alcohol-Crash Problem in Canada: 2010 (TIRF 2013). This report contains information on fatally wounded drivers with alcohol detected in their blood and presents data that show that alcohol and driving result in many more fatalities than the UCR reports. TIRF collects BAC data from police reports and coroner reports relating to fatal motor vehicle crashes. TIRF data show how prevalent alcohol use and driving deaths are by looking beyond the criminal instances of impaired driving causing death, presenting a more complete estimate of the number of drivers killed in alcohol-related road accidents. Unlike the UCR, no narcotics-related fatal accidents are included. A limitation of the TIRF data is that it still underestimates how many Canadians are killed by alcohol-related accidents as it does not relate other victims killed to those drivers killed in alcohol-related road accidents.
For the latest year of data available (2010), TIRF recorded 1,621 drivers killed in a motor vehicle accident. Of these fatally wounded drivers, 36% (590) had alcohol detected in their blood. From a human cost perspective, the TIRF data show that the problem of alcohol-related deaths on Canada’s highways and streets is a greater problem than homicide: there were more alcohol-related driver fatalities in 2010 than homicides (554).
Some characteristics of fatally wounded drivers with alcohol detected in their blood are reported by TIRF. Fatally wounded drivers were mostly male (84%) and generally between the ages of 20 and 35 (44%). The BAC levels of fatally injured drivers were also reported by TIRF. Over four fifths (83%) of fatally injured drivers with alcohol detected in their blood had BAC levels above the criminal limit of .08% BAC. Crashes involving fatally wounded drivers with alcohol detected in their blood were typically found to be single vehicle crashes.
Regionally, the TIRF data mimic the police-reported data. Figure 2 presents the number of driver fatalities related to alcohol for the latest TIRF reporting year (2010) by jurisdiction.
Figure 2: Number of alcohol-related driver fatalities by province and territory, 2010
Text version of Figure 2
A vertical bar chart illustrates the counts of fatally wounded drivers who had alcohol detected in their blood stream following their fatal accident. The Y Axis represents counts of fatalities, from 0 to a maximum of 180. The X axis presents the provinces and territories of Canada, from left to right: P.E.I., N.B., N.L., N.S., Q.C., O.N., M.B., S.K., A.B., B.C., Y.T., N.W.T., and N.U. The highest counts of fatally wounded drivers with alcohol in their bloodstream were reported in Ontario (165), Alberta (106), and Quebec (95).
Source: Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada, Alcohol-Crash Problem in Canada: 2010.
Not surprisingly, the counts of fatally wounded drivers with alcohol detected in their blood are higher in the more populated provinces. Nevertheless, smaller provinces, such as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan show high numbers for relatively small populations.
International comparisons can be made to the TIRF data, as two nations conduct similar surveys. A report by the Australian Transport Council (2011), entitled National Road Safety Strategy: 2011-2020, notes that 30% of Australian crashes resulting in a fatality were related to impaired driving. New Zealand reports that of the 227 drivers killed in a road crash in 2010, 26% (59 drivers) were killed in an alcohol-related accident (ANZPAA 2010). From TIRF’s perspective, Canada’s alcohol-related crash fatality problem is comparable, if not more serious, than in nations with comparable legal systems and cultures.
An analysis of the TIRF data shows how broad the problem of fatal, alcohol-related road accidents is in Canadian jurisdictions. However, these data only present the number of drivers who died as a result of their drinking and do not present the numbers of other victims, such as passengers, other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. Ultimately, this means that the death toll of impaired driving is much greater than either the UCR or TIRF sources estimate.
The full extent of victimization by impaired drivers in Canada is not known. In order to measure the full extent, it would be necessary to test all drivers and victims of all motor vehicle accidents for impairing substances. Currently, Canadians know only the number of incidents that are reported to, and are substantiated by, the police and the number of fatal road accidents that are alcohol-related. However, one advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada, has generated its own estimate of the number of people killed in Canada as a result of impaired driving. MADD estimated that 1,082 individuals died as a result of impaired driving in 2010, but the group suspects the true number may be closer to 1,500 fatalities per year when off-road vehicles, such as boats and all terrain vehicles, are included (MADD 2013). Using these figures, another MADD Canada report has attempted to estimate the economic cost of impaired driving in Canada. The authors estimate that impaired driving causing death cost Canadians over $16 billion in 2010 alone (Pitel and Solomon 2013).
The human cost
There is no doubt that impaired driving causing death exacts a devastating cost. Not only are lives lost, but survivors bear the costs of grieving for the family and friends they have lost. In the devastating instances where the impaired driver survives and the passengers do not, that individual bears the grief that accompanies being responsible for a friend or family member’s death.
Various advocacy and lobby groups provide victim services to those individuals affected by the criminal actions of an impaired driver. MADD, the largest of such groups, organizes and participates in victim conferences and support networks, and lobbies provincial and federal governments for changes in the laws relating to alcohol and vehicle use. MADD has chapters located across Canada where trained volunteers provide court accompaniment services, support services, and assistance to victims and their family members in writing and delivering victim impact statements. MADD also produces information materials for victims and their family members. These materials concern bereavement and how to navigate the criminal justice system, amongst other issues. The agency also operates a victim support line for those seeking help. Victim Services are also available in every province and territory and such services provide information and support to victims of crime, their families, and their friends.
Impaired driving is totally preventable, yet every year hundreds of motorists, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians are killed in alcohol-related accidents. The exact number of fatalities as a result of impaired driving is actually not known, given the lack of available comprehensive data. Statistical data cannot prevent alcohol-related accidents. However, developing more comprehensive data and analyzing regional and local trends in impaired driving would provide a clearer picture of the full extent of the human cost of impaired driving and would help police, policy makers, and legislators combat this crime and bring about a much greater reduction in the number of Canadians killed by impaired driving.
- Australian Transport Council. 2011. National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020. Accessed October 8, 2013.
- Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency (ANZPAA). 2010. Road policing statistics. Victoria: ANZPAA. Accessed October 8, 2013.
- Chamberlain, Jason. 2013. Families for Justice seeks harsher penalties for drunk drivers. The Athabasca Advocate. Accessed October 8, 2013.
- Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada. 2012. Sentencing for impaired driving. Oakville: MADD Canada. Accessed October 8, 2013.
- Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada. 2013. The magnitude of the alcohol/drug-related crash problem in Canada: Overview. Oakville: MADD Canada. Accessed October 9, 2013.
- Pitel, Stephen, and Robert Solomon. 2013. Estimating the number and cost of impairment-related traffic crashes in Canada: 1999 to 2010. Oakville: MADD Canada. Accessed October 9, 2013.
- Statistics Canada. 2012a. Census Dictionary. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. Accessed December 4, 2013.
- Statistics Canada. 2012b. The Canadian Population in 2011: Population counts and growth. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2012. Accessed December 4, 2013.
- The Breathalyzer Team. 2010. Social attitudes towards drunk driving are changing for the better. Breathalyzer Canada. Accessed October 10, 2013.
- Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada (TIRF). 2013. Alcohol-crash problem in Canada: 2010. CCMTA Road Safety Report Series. Ottawa: Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada. Accessed October 8, 2013.
André Solecki, LLB, PhD, is Principal Researcher with the Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada, in Ottawa. She is responsible for victims of crime research in the Department and has extensive research experience on a range of victim issues.
Katie Scrim is a policy analyst with the Policy Centre for Victim Issues, Department of Justice Canada, in Ottawa. She is responsible for the Children’s Advocacy Centres initiative at the PCVI and also provides policy input on a range of Victims Fund projects as well as general oversight to the Victims Fund.
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