Using a mobile device? Best pull over first. Click image to enlarge

Article by Mark Atkinson

A story my high school English teacher told me years ago still sticks with me today. He’d decided to drive from our town north of Toronto down to New York state for some skiing during March Break. It was after sundown, and he was on a road well off the interstate when he noticed a flashing blue light a ways back in his rear-view mirror. After a decent amount of time, he was surprised that the light had gotten right behind him, and eventually, sirens and a voice over the bullhorn, shouting at him to pull over immediately. The police officer, obviously fuming at this point, ran up to the Jeep, and when the teacher rolled his window down, shouted, “What the hell do flashing blue lights mean where you come from, son?” Not wanting to anger the officer any more, the teacher told the truth: “a snow plow.”

Say what? It’s true: some provincially contracted snow-removal equipment use flashing blue lights to make themselves more visible. Emergency lights – at least back then – consisted mainly of red-and-white flashers, although some police forces now throw a blue into the confusing mix too.

In advance of this year’s road trip season, we take a look at some regional variations on common driving laws.

Distracted Driving

Virtually every province and territory – except Nunavut – has some form of distracted driving law, with wide-ranging penalties. Most focus almost exclusively on text messaging or handheld cell phones, although Saskatchewan goes even further by prohibiting new drivers still in the graduated licensing system from any cell-phone use, including hands-free. Ontario and British Columbia also include clauses relating to handheld entertainment devices, so things like Gameboys, tablets and MP3 players should be left to passengers only.

Alberta’s is the only law to also include things like reading or writing, and “engaging in personal grooming or hygiene.” Obviously Mr. Bean’s daily commute would be a lot more expensive were he based in Calgary…

According to Kristine D’Arbelles, manager of public affairs with CAA, the association has put together a handy resource for drivers at Beyond the statistics and tips on avoiding the situation altogether, there’s also a handy chart comparing all the various penalties. Fines range from $100 and three demerit points in Northwest Territories to up to $400 and four points in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Driving Under the Influence

Family road trips that end with roadside breathalyzer tests will certainly leave lasting memories, although not the kind you might bargain for. Expensive too, with things like licence suspensions, immediate roadside vehicle seizure, big fines and potential jail time. Oh, and skyrocketing insurance rates too.

For the longest time, a maximum blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.08 was the generally accepted ‘limit’ from which there was no return. However, in recent years, there’s been a push towards lowering the limit: in places like Alberta and Ontario, you’re not allowed to drive with a BAC over 0.05, while in Saskatchewan, although it retains the 0.08 BAC ceiling, DUI charges and suspensions can be laid by blowing as low as 0.04.

Several provinces – Ontario, PEI and Quebec – have strict zero-tolerance laws for those 21 years old and under, presumably to mitigate risks from Americans crossing the border to get access to alcohol earlier than at home.

Don’t forget that even if you blow under the local BAC limit, police can still use things like roadside sobriety tests to charge you anyway.

Best policy, as always, is not to drink and drive at all.

Main Street, Canmore, AB
Speeding penalties vary greatly between jurisdictions. Click image to enlarge


Canada’s most-broken driving law is also the most difficult to pin down in terms of penalties and enforcement. Depending on where you’re speeding, it could mean a monetary wrist-slap or a serious pocket-pincher. But the big scary figures start when discussing where each province or territory starts automatically triggering the street racing, stunting or unsafe driving laws. Ontario’s is perhaps the most notorious: 50 km/h over the speed limit means a minimum $2,000 fine – up to $10K max – a week-long licence suspension and roadside vehicle impound. And that’s before you even get to court.

Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, have similar nastiness for speeding 50 km/h over, which run anywhere from $400 to over $2,000 with mandatory court appearances. Quebec’s Excessive Speeding charge ranges from 40 km/h over to 60 km/h over, depending on the limit of the road you’re traveling. PEI’s maximum charges are laid once you’re caught traveling more than 60 km/h over the limit, and fines quickly rack up to well over $1,100 and charges to get your vehicle out of hock.

However, BC’s Excessive Speed is ‘only’ 40 km/h over, with similar car-losing penalties, which is the ‘lowest-highest’ in Canada.

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