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Registry of Motor Vehicles - Alcohol and Driving

It's About Control

Alcohol-induced impairment is the greatest contributing factor in many motor vehicle fatalities. The basic rule underlying all safe driving is to keep your vehicle under control at all times.

Drivers who have consumed alcohol do not have complete control over themselves, and therefore cannot be in control of a vehicle. They are a danger to themselves and others.

What Alcohol Does

Alcohol is not a stimulant. From the first drink it depresses the central nervous system. The feeling of stimulation is because the higher functions of the brain, including social restraints and judgement, are impaired.

When alcohol enters the stomach, it does not have to be digested. It is absorbed through the walls of the stomach and the small intestine into the bloodstream which carries it throughout the body.

In the brain, alcohol first depresses the area of higher function. Next it attacks the simple motor functions, reaction time and vision. Balance, co-ordination and sensory perception are the next faculties to be impaired. Concentrated drinking will eventually lead to stupor, coma and even, if continued steadily, death.

The most important factors contributing to alcoholic impairment are the amount of alcohol absorbed into the blood and the amount of time allowed for the elimination of this alcohol. The human body works to change alcohol into nourishment and/or to pass it out of the body, but it can only do this at a slow rate. This rate is affected by such other factors as body weight, the quantity and type of food in the stomach and the type of alcoholic beverage consumed.

How the Body Handles Alcohol

The liver breaks down about 90 per cent of the alcohol a person consumes into usable food. The lungs and kidneys eliminate most of the remainder. But these human body processes need time to remove alcohol from one's system. In terms of usual alcoholic beverages, it takes more than an hour to eliminate each 340 ml bottle of beer or 40 ml drink or 80 ml of unfortified wine.

Some people seem to be able to "hold their liquor" better than others, and this excuse is often used by those who do not want to believe that a few drinks can seriously impair driving ability. Because of body weight, fatigue, emotional condition, or a number of other reasons, individuals may show differing effects from drinking the same amount of alcohol. However, they may be equally impaired.

Another danger develops when the alcohol starts to "wear off". You can easily convince yourself that you no longer feel the effects and are perfectly sober. This state of mind is a delusion. You are comparing your peak feeling of impairment with the declining impairment that you feel as your body eliminates the alcohol from the blood. But you are not sober. You are only making a dangerous comparison.


Most of us have tried them at one time or another -- black coffee, cold showers, taking a jog around the block. But we must recognize them for what they are -- ineffective. There is only one thing that can sober a person: time.

Drugs and/or Medication

While alcohol is the most common cause of driver impairment, there are other substances, such as illegal drugs or medications that can create a safety hazard.

Many illegal drugs are extremely dangerous to use, especially when driving. As well, some medications, either prescription or over-the-counter drugs, are known to cause inattention and drowsiness. Take great care not to drive while taking these drugs.

Examples of Prescription Drugs That May Affect Driving Skills:
i Analgesics
  - Codeine
  - Other narcotics
i Antidepressants
  - Tricyclic antidepressants
i Antiemetic agents
i Antihistamines
i Antipsychotic drugs
  - Haloperidol
  - Major tranquillizers
  - Phenothiazines (i.e., chlorpromazine)
i Ophthalmic preparations
i Sedatives and anxiolytics
  - Barbiturates
  - Benzodiazepines
i Skeletal muscle relaxants
i Other
  - Antihypertensive drugs 
  - Antineoplastic agents
  - Chemotherapeutic agents
  - Immunosuppressants
  - Steroids

(Source: Physician's Guide to Driver Examination)

Alcohol and the Law

Even if you are well below the .08 level of alcohol in the blood that is accepted as the legal level in law, you can still be impaired; and the courts recognize this. Being caught at above .08 per cent blood alcohol in the bloodstream, in itself, is a criminal offense. But you can be impaired on one drink and can be charged and convicted with less than .08 in your bloodstream if you show other symptoms of impairment.

The average blood alcohol content of convicted alcohol-involved drivers in Nova Scotia is .16 per cent -- twice the legal level.

FAILURE OR REFUSAL TO PROVIDE A SAMPLE: The courts will convict a person who, without a reasonable excuse, fails or refuses to provide a sample of their breath or blood to a peace officer.

The Criminal Code of Canada

Under the Criminal Code of Canada a person commits an offense when operating or in care or control of a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs even though their blood alcohol level is less than 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 mL of blood (.08 per cent). Penalties can include fines, imprisonment, or both, and a prohibition from driving. Convictions may result in the loss of insurance, higher insurance rates, and loss of employment.

If a peace officer has "reasonable and probable grounds" to suspect the presence of alcohol, the driver of a vehicle may be demanded to supply a sample of breath in an approved screening device (ALERT), or to accompany the peace officer to provide a breath sample for analysis (Breathalyzer). If the person is unable to provide a breath sample, the peace officer may demand a sample of blood be taken by a qualified medical practitioner for analysis. It is an offense to refuse to provide these samples.

Penalties in Nova Scotia

Penalties in Nova Scotia for driving while impaired are outlined below, and all fines and assessment fees must be paid by the driver. The judge's decision and sentencing is based upon the specific facts of each case. Fines and jail terms can also be affected by whether any deaths, bodily harm or dangerous driving resulted from the motorist's actions.

1st offence:

  • a fine of $600 to $2000

  • revocation of driving privileges for one year from the date of conviction (not the date of being charged)

  • completion of an Addiction/Drug Dependency Services assessment program ($455.00, your cost)

  • licence reinstatement fee of $124.60 (your cost)

  • you might also be required to be re-take any and all of your driver's tests, including written, road, and vision tests.

2nd offence, within a 10-year period:

  • a fine of $600 to $2000

  • possible prison term of at least 14 days*

  • revocation of driving privileges for three years from the date of conviction (not the date of being charged)

  • completion of an Addiction/Drug Dependency Services assessment program ($455.00)

  • licence reinstatement fee ($124.60)

  • you must re-take your driver's tests: written, road, and vision tests.

3rd offence, within a 10-year period:

  • a fine of $600 to $2000

  • prison term of at least 90 days*

  • revocation of driving privileges is indefinite (minimum of ten years) from the date of conviction (not the date you were charged)

  • completion of an Addiction/Drug Dependency Services assessment program ($455.00)

  • licence reinstatement fee ($124.60)

  • you must re-take your driver's tests: written, road, and vision tests.

4th offence, within a 10-year period:

  • permanent revocation in addition to all of the penalties provided under the Criminal Code of Canada

* Persons prosecuted by indictment for offences under Sections 253, 254 of the Criminal Code (Canada) are liable to receive a prison term of up to five years. Persons prosecuted by way of summary conviction under these sections are liable to receive a prison term of up to six months.

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