Impaired Driving in North America

The number of motor vehicle deaths resulting from crashes involving a drinking in Canada steadily declined since the 1980s to early 2000s. More recently progress has diminished and the number of fatalities has risen.

At the time of publication, coroner data from British Columbia were not yet available for all of the years included in this analysis. Thus, reported fatality data for Canada excludes British Columbia. The number of motor vehicle deaths involving a drinking driver due to road crashes decreased from 706 in 2007 to 424 in 2014. However, between 2014 and 2016 the total number of deaths involving a drinking driver rose to 476 in 2016.

a) What is the percentage of motor vehicle deaths involving a drinking driver on Canadian roadways?

Another way to understand the drinking driving problem is to look at the percentage of total deaths on the nation’s roadways that occurred due to the involvement of a drinking driver. The percentage of drinking driver-related deaths in Canada generally rose from 32.0% in 2007 to 34.0% in 2010. It then decreased to 27.1% in 2015 before increasing to 29.3% in 2016.

The following table presents the number of motor vehicle deaths involving a drinking driver and the percentage of all road crash fatalities involving a drinking driver:

Year Total number of deaths* Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related
2007 2205 706 32.0
2008 1955 660 33.8
2009 1790 587 32.8
2010 1804 613 34.0
2011 1771 550 31.1
2012 1856 562 30.3
2013 1690 477 28.2
2014 1559 424 27.2
2015 1633 442 27.1
2016 1622 476 29.3

* Excluding British Columbia.

** Note: These numbers are estimates based on the percent of deaths for which information was available to determine alcohol use. Only deaths occurring on public roadways using principal vehicle types were included. The number of deaths include those in which the victim died within 30 days of the crash.

*** (Brown, Vanlaar, and Robertson 2020)

b) How frequently do Canadians drink and drive?

When asked about driving after consuming any amount of alcohol in the past 30 days, an estimated 14.6% of Canadians admitted to driving after drinking in 2019. This represents a decrease from 2010 when 24.4% of Canadians admitted to drinking and driving.

When asked about driving when they thought they were over the legal limit in the last 12 months, 8.6% of Canadians admitted to doing this in 2019. From 2007 to 2015 there was a general decrease in the percentage of drivers who admitted to this behaviour. However, from 2015 to 2017 the percentage increased steadily from 4.2% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2019. Continued monitoring is necessary.

*(TIRF 2008; TIRF 2009; TIRF 2010; TIRF 2011; TIRF 2012; TIRF 2013; TIRF 2014; TIRF 2015; TIRF 2016; TIRF 2017; TIRF 2018; TIRF 2019)

Similar to the reduction in the number of motor vehicle fatalities involving a drinking driver in Canada, the United States has seen comparable trends in recent years. The number of persons killed in crashes involving a drinking driver (i.e., the driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was equal to or greater than .01) in the U.S. has steadily decreased. To illustrate, the number of fatalities in crashes involving a drinking driver decreased from 15,534 in 2007 to 12,514 in 2016; the number of fatalities involving an alcohol-impaired driver with a BAC greater than 0.8 decreased from 13,491 in 2007 to 10,497 in 2016.

With regard to the total number of motor vehicle deaths, the percentage of deaths involving a drinking driver has remained stable with slight increases and decreases. The percentages have consistently fallen between 35-38% over the past 10 years. It is important to note that while the U.S. has far more motor vehicle deaths involving drinking drivers than Canada (due to differences in population size), the percentages are still comparable. In each country, deaths involving at least one drinking driver account for approximately one-third of the total deaths on roadways. Furthermore, in both countries, while there was a decrease in the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities between 2007 and 2014, there has been a slight increase in the past two years.(1)

The following table illustrates the magnitude of the drinking and driving problem in the U.S. using two indicators. Alcohol-related deaths are those resulting from crashes in which at least one driver had a BAC of .01 or greater. Alcohol-impaired deaths are those resulting from crashes in which at least one driver had a BAC of .08 or greater.

Table 2: United States

Year Total number of deaths* Number of alcohol-related deaths (driver BAC .01+) % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of alcohol-impaired deaths (driver BAC .08+) % of total deaths that are alcohol-impaired
2007 41,259 12,731 37.6 13041 31.6
2008 37,423 13,826 36.9 11711 31.3
2009 33,883 12,731 37.6 10759 31.8
2010 32,999 11,906 36.1 10136 30.7
2011 32,479 11,527 35.5 9865 30.4
2012 33,782 12,118 35.9 10336 30.6
2013 32,893 11,918 36.2 10084 30.7
2014 32,744 11,743 35.9 9943 30.4
2015 35,485 12,257 34.5 10320 29.1
2016 37,461 12,514 33.4 10497 28.0

*The table depicts the estimated number of deaths, estimated number of drinking and driving-related deaths, and the percent of drinking and driving-related deaths from 2007 to 2016 based on FARS data.

**Note: Total number of deaths from motor vehicle crashes includes fatalities in crashes in which there was no driver or motorcycle rider present.

*** (NHTSA 2018)

In Canada in 2016, of all the fatally injured drinking drivers (i.e., drivers with a BAC of .01 or greater), almost one-half (47.1%) were in an automobile; 25.7% were light truck drivers (e.g., pick-up trucks); 16.1% were motorcycle drivers; and 8.2% were van drivers.

Note that in 2016, the highest incidence of drinking was found among light truck drivers. In fact, over two-fifths (41.9%) of light truck drivers in fatal crashes had been drinking, and 75.0% of them had an illegal BAC, compared to tractor-trailer drivers among whom only 10.0% had been drinking.

Pedestrians are also at an increased risk of being hit by a vehicle if they have consumed alcohol (Vanlaar et al. 2016). To illustrate this, during 2016 there were 282 pedestrians fatally injured and 192 of them were tested for the presence of alcohol. Among those tested, 34.9% had a BAC of .01 or greater.

1. Vanlaar, W., et al. (2016). “Fatal and serious injuries related to vulnerable road users in Canada.” Journal of Safety Research 58: 67-77.