By Jordan W. Charness
Drinking and driving is certainly getting a lot of play in the media these days, and rightly so. We are now finally realizing that there is a tremendous cost in safety and lives when people drink alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a car. All levels of government are grappling with this situation and in my province, Quebec, the provincial government is now talking about legislating stiffer measures for those who drink and drive.
There are actually three different levels of government that are capable of creating or enforcing anti-drinking and driving rules. The first level is the federal government (the government of Canada), which has absolute jurisdiction over criminal offences. It is up to the Canadian government to decide what is a crime punishable by jail or a fine that comes with a criminal record. This government is the one that writes The Criminal Code. If you break one of these laws you stand a chance of going to jail.
The provincial government, in this case Quebec, has the jurisdiction to decide on administrative measures related to driving. It is this government that issues your driver’s licence and has the power to suspend your right to drive for breaking the Quebec Highway Safety Act rules. This government is the one that sets up the number of de-merit points you may accumulate before losing your licence.
The Quebec government is once again looking into new ways of reducing the incidences of drinking and driving even though they do not have the power to create new criminal offences. According to the Criminal Code (a federal law) the maximum blood alcohol limit you may have without committing a crime is .08. This limit is the same throughout Canada. If you drive with more than this amount of alcohol in your blood you can and will be convicted of a criminal offence and lose your right to drive anywhere in Canada for certain period of time.
Many of the provinces however, have adopted even stricter alcohol limits and have reduced the amount of permissible alcohol in your bloodstream to as low as .05. If you are caught driving with more than .05 and less than .08 you’ll not be committing a crime but you will be breaking a provincial law. This means that the province will deal with you in an administrative way.
The province has the power to take away your right to drive and your driver’s licence for a certain period of time without giving you a criminal record. The province has the right to set fines, restrict your driving, and impound your vehicle but it may not put you in jail for breaking one of its driving laws.
Let’s take the example of a speeding ticket. If you are charged under the Highway Safety Act (a provincial law) you will pay a fine and earn demerit points. However, in addition to your speeding ticket, and depending on how fast you were driving, you may also be charged with the Criminal Code offence of dangerous driving which could lead to your being sent to jail. The same action can lead to charges under both the provincial law (Highway Safety Act) and the federal Criminal Code.
However, if a province feels that the Federal act is too lenient in a matter that it has administrative control over, it can proclaim new laws to govern actions that would otherwise be legal under the federal law. Since the provincial government administers driving regulations it can decide how much alcohol you are allowed to have in your blood if you intend to drive on one of the province’s roads. These rules will have no bearing on the criminal code offence of driving while impaired with more than .08 blood alcohol content.
Break the province’s rules and you won’t get a criminal record, but you won’t be allowed to drive either.