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It's not just alcohol that impairs: National Safe Driving Week

November 20, 2014

December 1 to 7 is National Safe Driving Week, and the Canada Safety Council is reminding Canadians that it’s not just alcohol that impairs.

Driving is such a daily activity, we can easily forget that it’s a complex task requiring skill, concentration and alertness. In the rush from Point A to Point B, we may not always be mindful of the responsibility involved in piloting two tons of moving steel, glass and plastic. Given the potentially deadly consequences of doing a poor job, doesn’t it make sense to bring your best self to the task?

By now, we all know that drinking and driving is a bad idea. But what about drugs and driving?

Let’s focus on the effects of weed (marijuana or cannabis) because it’s one of the most common illicit drugs found in drivers after a deadly crash.

You might think:

“Smoking weed helps me concentrate. Plus, I drive slower. Doesn’t that make me a better driver?”

The truth is any safety benefit you might get from driving slower is more than outweighed by the additional risk of slower reaction times, foggier thinking, and altered time perception you experience when high on weed.

“I just had a little to drink and a couple puffs. I feel fine to drive.”

The reality is alcohol has a “multiplicative” effect on other drugs. That means having a drink if you’ve also had some weed results in far greater impairments than taking either alone. So even if you haven’t consumed enough liquor to blow over at a Checkstop, if you’ve got weed in the system, your driving will be as bad as someone who has had far more to drink.

Drivers who are high on marijuana tend to compensate by driving more slowly and leaving more follow distance. This behaviour disappears when the driver has a drink, because alcohol makes them feel less impaired even though they are more impaired.(American Journal on Addictions, 2009)

If you have taken weed and alcohol, just don’t drive.

“I really don’t feel that toking and driving is as bad as drinking and driving.”

Eating a Sloppy Joe while driving might be safer than texting and driving, but ultimately, they’re both dangerous. The same goes with drug-impaired driving and drunk driving. They’re both risky behaviours that significantly increase the chances of the story ending badly.

Drug Impaired Driving and the Law

It’s illegal to operate a motorized vehicle if your ability to drive is impaired by alcohol or drugs, whether illegal or legal drugs, prescription or over-the-counter. That vehicle could be a car, truck, motorcycle, ATV, snowmobile or boat, and it doesn’t even have to be moving – you could be charged under the Criminal Code if you’re the one with the keys behind the wheel.

If a police officer suspects you of having taken drugs, or a combination of alcohol and drugs, you could be required to undergo testing to determine if you are impaired. Failure to comply with the request for testing results in charges similar to alcohol-impaired driving.

In addition to criminal charges, drug-impaired drivers also face penalties that vary by province, and the type of licence the driver holds. These penalties include immediate roadside suspensions, impounding of the vehicle, loss of your licence and steep fines.

Don’t drive impaired

- Plan ahead. Have a designated driver, arrange a ride in advance, or call a cab.
- Socialize responsibly.
- Before getting behind the wheel, ask yourself: “Am I safe to drive?” It’s not just alcohol that can impair your ability to drive.
- Friends don’t let friends drive impaired - have the conversation that could save a life.


Decades of attention to the problem of alcohol-impairment and crashes has helped to make drinking and driving a social taboo. But research suggests that awareness of the issue of drug-impaired driving lags behind.

In a 2013 report, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse found that many youth interviewed in focus groups believe it’s okay to use marijuana and drive. Even among those who didn’t condone this behaviour, many believed smoking up before driving to be safer than drinking and driving. One of the more alarming findings, echoed in surveys done in other countries, is the common belief that marijuana use actually improves driving ability (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2013).

There is also a perception that drug-impaired drivers are less likely to get caught by police. While it is true that there is currently no analog to the breathalyzer currently used to detect drunk drivers, changes to federal regulations since 2008 have made it easier for police to press charges against suspected impaired drivers. Anyone suspected of being impaired behind the wheel can be subjected to road-side sobriety tests, and more and more officers are becoming drug recognition experts (DRE) able to conduct these tests.

This year, motor vehicle collisions will probably claim at least 2,000 lives in Canada, or about five or six people a day. In addition, 10,000 more will be seriously injured, many of whom will be permanently disability. Most of these collisions are preventable.

According to coroners’ testing on drivers who died in crashes, more than half tested positive for either drugs or alcohol or both. Between 2000 and 2007, 36.6 per cent of drivers who died in crashes tested positive for alcohol, and 33 per cent tested positive for at least one of seven categories of drugs known to have a negative impact on the ability to operate a vehicle safely (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2011). A worrisome trend shows that while the percentage of fatally injured drivers testing positive for alcohol has remained flat over the last few years, the percentage testing positive for drugs seems to be increasing over time. The most commonly detected illicit drug in fatally injured drivers was cannabis(Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2011).

For more information contact:
Lynn Lau
Communications and Media Program Coordinator
Canada Safety Council
Phone: 613-739-1535 ext 228

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