A Quick Look at Alcohol-related Crashes in Canada

Fact Sheet TP 2436E
RS-2008-09
November 2008

Road Safety and Motor Vehicle
Regulation Directorate



This report looks at fatal alcohol-related crashes during the years 2003-2005. In this report, an alcohol-related crash is defined as a crash in which at least one driver of a road motor vehicle had been drinking. Cases where only a pedestrian, a bicyclist, or an operator of a non-road motor vehicle had been drinking are not included.

Road Safety Vision 2010 is Canada's national road safety plan. It has the goal of improving many aspects of road safety, including reducing the number of fatalities and serious injuries caused by impaired driving. Road Safety Vision 2010 uses the years 1996-2001 as a baseline against which to measure progress. In this report, the years 2003-2005 will sometimes be compared to the 1996-2001 baseline period to see whether the situation is improving or getting worse for various aspects of alcohol-related crashes.

Summary

  • Alcohol use by drivers was a factor in almost 30% of deaths from vehicle crashes during 2003-2005.
  • The proportion of fatalities caused by drinking and driving has decreased only marginally between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005.
  • The number of alcohol-related fatalities decreased by almost ten percent between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005.
  • More than 30% of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes were aged 16-24 years.
  • The number of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes decreased by 12% for drivers under 45 and increased by 7% for drivers 45 years or older.
  • Eighty-three percent of fatally injured drinking drivers were legally impaired.
  • Thirty percent of drinking drivers involved in a fatal crash were also speeding.
  • Fifty-five percent of drinking drivers involved in a fatal crash were not using seat belts.
  • Drivers of light trucks, vans, and SUVs accounted for 35% of drinking drivers in fatal crashes.
  • The number of drinking motorcyclists becoming involved in fatal crashes decreased by almost 9%.

Introduction: Drinking and Driving is a Continuing Problem

Although Canada has very stringent drinking and driving laws and sanctions, more than 750 vehicle occupants, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and bicyclists were killed annually from 2003 to 2005 in crashes where a driver had been drinking. This number is by necessity a conservative estimate because in certain cases it's unknown whether the driver was drinking. Some traffic safety organizations estimate that the number of victims is considerably higher. The precise figure may be in question, but there is no question in anyone's mind that alcohol use by drivers causes many unnecessary deaths and injuries.

Thanks to public education, policing efforts, and laws aimed at preventing drunk driving, there has been a ten percent reduction in deaths caused by driver alcohol use between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005. Nevertheless, drinking before driving was a factor in about 30% of deaths from vehicle crashes, a slightly lower percentage than during the 1996-2001 period.

Who Drinks and Drives?

During 2003-2005, about one in five drivers who got into a fatal crash had been drinking. This number is probably on the low side, because alcohol use is not always reported by police. The vast majority (86%) of drinking drivers in fatal crashes were men. Drinking drivers come from all age groups, but the majority are rather young. About 76% of drinking drivers in fatal crashes were under the age of 45.

There was a slight shift between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005 towards more middle-aged drinking drivers getting into fatal crashes. This is consistent with the general aging of the population. For drivers under the age of 45, the number of drinking drivers becoming involved in fatal crashes went down by 12%. At the same time, the number increased by 7% for drivers 45 years and older. The average age of a drinking driver in a fatal crash increased slightly from 33.4 years to 33.8 years.

For 16- to 19-year-old drivers, the average annual number who drank alcohol and then were involved in a fatal crash decreased by almost 15% between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005. This improvement may in part have been the result of the zero blood alcohol concentration restrictions inherent to graduated driver licencing programs for novice drivers. In spite of this restriction, the crash involvement of this age group was still out of proportion to the number of licensed drivers.

A similar percentage decrease in alcohol use and crash involvement was seen for drivers aged 25-34 and 35-44 years. The number of licensed drivers in these age groups declined between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005, which accounted for a small part of the reduction in crash involvement but not all of it.

Drinking drivers aged 20-24 years contribute significantly to the impaired driving problem. During 2003-2005, this age group accounted for more than 20% of drinking drivers who got into a fatal crash, yet they made up only 8% of licensed drivers.

Furthermore, the decrease in the number who got into fatal crashes was only about 2%, much less than the improvement experienced among other driver age groups under 45 years from 1996-2001 to 2003-2005.

While fewer younger drinking drivers were getting into fatal crashes, the trend among drivers over 45 was moving in the opposite direction. The number of drinking drivers aged 45-54 years and 65 years or older who became involved in fatal crashes increased by about 4% between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005. For drivers aged 55-64 years, the increase was close to 17%.

Table 1 shows a breakdown of the number of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes and licensed drivers by age group, while Figure 1 shows the percentage increase or decrease in the number of drinking drivers by age group.

Table 1
Percent of Drinking Drivers in Fatal Crashes Compared to Licensed Drivers by Age Group, 2003-2005
Age Group % of drinking drivers in fatal crashes % of licensed drivers
16-19 years 10.7% 4.8%
20-24 years 21.6% 8.1%
25-34 years 25.1% 17.7%
35-44 years 19.6% 21.7%
45-54 years 13.2% 20.6%
55-64 years 6.2% 14.2%
65+ years 3.7% 12.9%

The percentage increase or decrease in the number of drinking drivers by age group.

Victims Killed in Alcohol-related Crashes

Types of Victims

Many victims of alcohol-related crashes are the drinking drivers themselves. During 2003-2005, almost 70% of fatally injured victims were motor vehicle drivers, and more than 90% of those drivers had been drinking. This works out to drinking drivers (excluding motorcyclists) accounting for about 63% of persons killed in alcohol-related crashes.

Motorcyclists, most whom were drivers, made up a little less than six percent of fatalities. Almost 95% of motorcycle drivers killed in alcohol-related crashes had been drinking.

Passengers accounted for about 22% of persons killed in alcohol-related crashes. Fatalities for all types of road users decreased between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005, but the biggest decrease was for passengers, who experienced a 20% decrease as victims of drunk driving crashes. It may be that passengers are heeding the warnings not to get into a car with a driver who's been drinking. Riding with a drinking driver is a huge risk. More than 88 percent of passengers killed in alcohol-related crashes were with a drinking driver. For passengers aged 16-24 years, the number was closer to 97 percent.

Other road users, specifically pedestrians and bicyclists, made up less than 4% of victims killed in crashes where a driver had been drinking. This is because relatively few such crashes occurred at intersections, where pedestrians are more likely to be struck.

Fatally Injured Drinking Drivers and Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

Because there is a strong likelihood that a driver killed in a crash had been drinking, most fatally injured drivers are tested for the presence of alcohol in their blood. The results of testing showed that more than 83% of drinking drivers killed in crashes during 2003-2005 were legally impaired; that is, had a BAC over 80 mg%.

Even more shocking, almost 56% of all drinking drivers killed in crashes had a BAC that was more than twice the legal limit (higher than 160 mg%). Fatally injured drinking drivers aged 35-44 years were the most likely age group to have a very high BAC, with almost two out of three testing higher than 160 mg%.

Most drivers know that 80 mg% is the legal limit for alcohol in the bloodstream. But fewer drivers realize that lower BAC levels can still get them into trouble.

Slightly over five percent of fatally injured drinking drivers had a BAC between 50 mg% and 80 mg%. An amount of alcohol that is well below the criminal code threshold can still affect vision, slow reaction time, and impair judgement. In light of this, up to 50 mg% is the "permissible" alcohol limit in most jurisdictions. A driver with a BAC around this point may have their licence suspended by police for a short period of time, in what is called an administrative licence suspension.

It should be remembered that even a drink or two before driving can lead to a deadly outcome. Almost 12% of drinking drivers killed in crashes had a BAC lower than 50 mg%.

Drinking and Driving and Other Risky Behaviours

Law enforcement officers and road safety professionals know that a drinking driver is more likely than the average non-drinking driver to engage in additional dangerous behaviours such as speeding or failing to wear a seatbelt.

A connection between alcohol and excess speed is easy to see. During 2003-2005, about 30% of drinking drivers who were involved in a fatal crash had also been driving too fast. In comparison, only about 8% of non-drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes had been speeding.

The worst offenders when it comes to alcohol use and speed are young adults. A whopping 36% of drinking drivers aged 16-24 years who got into a fatal crash had been speeding.

As for seat belts, more than 55% percent of drinking drivers of vehicles equipped with safety restraints who were involved in a fatal crash had failed to buckle up. In comparison, less than 14% of non-drinking drivers were not wearing seat belts at the time of a fatal crash.

Finally, there are drivers who engage in all three dangerous behaviours. About 15% of drinking drivers in fatal crashes were also speeding and not wearing a seat belt. The number climbed to over 19% in cases where the drinking driver was fatally injured.

Drinking Drivers and Their Vehicles

The majority of drinking drivers who got into fatal crashes (more than 57%) were driving an automobile. Another 35% were driving a light truck, van, or sport utility vehicle.

Less than six percent of drinking drivers in fatal crashes were operating a motorcycle, and the numbers were on the decline. In fact, the number of drinking motorcyclists becoming involved in fatal crashes went down by almost 9% between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005.

Heavy truck operators accounted for a very small number of drinking drivers (2%). Even so, their involvement increased between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005.

More about Drinking and Driving Crashes

Single-vehicle Crashes

When a single-vehicle fatal crash occurs, there's a good chance that alcohol was involved. During 2003-2005, at least 25% of drivers who got into a fatal crash involving one vehicle had been drinking. In comparison, only 7% of drivers involved in a fatal multi-vehicle crash had been drinking.

A drinking driver in a fatal single-vehicle crash was likely to be doing other dangerous things when the crash occurred. About 30% of such drivers were also speeding. Furthermore, about 19% of drinking drivers in fatal single-vehicle crashes were both speeding and not using a seat belt.

High driver BACs tend to be seen more often in single-vehicle alcohol crashes than in multi-vehicle alcohol crashes. For example, almost 90% of drinking drivers killed in single-vehicle crashes were legally impaired (had a BAC higher than 80 mg%) compared to 71% of drinking drivers killed in multi-vehicle crashes. A drinking driver killed in a single-vehicle crash was also more likely to have a BAC higher than twice the legal limit.

Single-vehicle fatal drinking and driving crashes had a higher percentage of young adult drivers than multi-vehicle crashes. About 35% of drinking drivers in fatal single-vehicle crashes were aged 16-24, compared to about 27% of those in fatal multi-vehicle crashes.

Type of Crash

Alcohol plays a major role in crashes where a single vehicle runs off the road. Almost half of drivers who got into a fatal run-off-the-road crash involving one vehicle had been drinking. 22% of those drinking drivers had also been speeding and not wearing a seat belt.

37% of drinking drivers who got into a fatal crash were involved in a run-off-the-road accident. The number of drinking drivers getting into such crashes grew by 9% between 1996-2001 and 2003-2005.

Head-on crashes are also common when a driver has been drinking. About 17% of drinking drivers involved in a fatal accident were in a head-on crash.

Time of Crash

As might be expected, nighttime hours are risky for alcohol crashes. More than 40% of drinking drivers in fatal crashes had the crash between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. However, there was a small shift towards fewer nighttime crashes and more crashes during the day.

Figure 2 shows how the number of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes has changed within each time period from 1996-2001 to 2003-2005.

Figure 2 shows how the number of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes has changed within each time period from 1996-2001 to 2003-2005.

Also not a surprise, weekends have more than their share of alcohol-related crashes. Almost 45% of drinking drivers who became involved in a fatal crash had it on a Saturday or Sunday.

Urban Roads

The most inebriated drinking drivers in fatal crashes are found on urban roads, defined as roads with a speed limit of 70 km/h or less. Almost 87% of drinking drivers killed on urban roads were legally impaired, compared to about 82% of those killed on either rural roads or motorways. The figure is even higher when only single-vehicle urban crashes are considered. Almost 93% of fatally injured drinking drivers in such crashes were legally impaired.

Urban roads also see the highest percentage of drivers who combine risks. During 2003-2005, more than 31% of drinking drivers killed on urban roads were both speeding and not using a seat belt. In comparison, about 20% of drinking drivers fatally injured on rural roads were also speeding and unbelted.

Making Canada's Roads the Safest in the World

Drinking and driving remains a complex road safety problem. If we want to make further progress in reducing the number of alcohol-related crash victims we must keep the issue in the spotlight and attack the problem from many angles. Here are some things that governments are doing or considering doing to combat impaired driving:

  • Educating police, prosecutors, and judges about drinking and driving
  • Continuing and expanding prevention programs in schools
  • Showing the social costs of drinking and driving
  • Developing awareness campaigns for specific audiences
  • Training police officers to be Drug Recognition Experts and make more use of Field Sobriety Tests
  • Streamlining procedures for processing drinking drivers
  • Encouraging police to lay more criminal charges
  • Lobbying for more police resources
  • Tracking administrative licence suspensions on driver records
  • Making it an offence to refuse a Standardized Field Sobriety Test
  • Introducing escalating sanctions based on BAC level
  • Widening the lookback window for drinking and driving sanctions
  • Reducing BAC thresholds for multiple offenders
  • Introducing mandatory assessment and rehabilitation for offenders
  • Introducing alcohol ignition interlock programs for convicted offenders
  • Promoting and strengthening links between police, courts, injury prevention agencies, and other communities with an interest in preventing impaired driving