If you ever have a drink before you drive in Ontario, it’s essential to understand the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels that apply here.

The consequences associated with an impaired driving (DUI) charge are potentially life-changing, with hefty fines, license suspension, a criminal record and even imprisonment possible in addition to any accident injuries suffered.

Let’s go through the legal BAC levels that apply in Ontario.

Understanding BAC and the legal alcohol limits in Ontario

BAC or Blood Alcohol Concentration measures the amount of alcohol present in a person’s bloodstream. It is one of the tests used by law enforcement in Ontario to assess the level of impairment of drivers who are operating motor vehicles.

BAC is measured in milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood (mg/ml) or as a percentage.

In Ontario, the standard legal limit for most drivers is 0.08% or 80 milligrams (0.08 grams) of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. Drivers at or above this level are considered to be operating a vehicle with impaired judgment, coordination, and reaction time. This is seen to increase the risk of accidents.

However, the alcohol limits are even more stringent for some classes of drivers and they vary based on the type of license held. These variations are explained below:

The legal alcohol limit for standard Ontario G license holders is 0.08% or 80 milligrams of alcohol for every 100 millilitres of blood. Drivers over this limit will be charged with impaired driving.

It’s important to understand that drivers can still face penalties (license suspension and fines) if their BAC is lower than this —within the “warn range” of between 0.05% and 0.079%.

For novice drivers holding a G1, G2, M1 or M2 license, there is a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to legal alcohol limits. Any detectable trace of alcohol in the blood can lead to penalties, such as an immediate license suspension and fines.

For young drivers under the age of 21, the same applies: a legal alcohol limit of zero.

Commercial drivers in Ontario are also subject to the zero-tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol or illegal drug consumption.

This applies to all commercial license holders, including licence classes A to F, vehicles requiring a Commercial Vehicle Operator’s Registration (CVOR), and drivers of road-building machines.

What are the main methods of measuring BAC levels in Ontario?

Two main methods are used by law enforcement in Ontario to measure BAC levels:

  • Breathalyzer tests: a common roadside test where drivers “blow into a bag” so that the alcohol content in the breath can be measured and the level of intoxication gauged. The results of these tests are often disputed by criminal defence lawyers.
  • Blood tests: a more precise method of measuring BAC, using a blood sample and lab analysis, which is more challenging (but not impossible) to dispute.

What factors influence BAC readings in Ontario?

Two people can drink the same amount of alcohol and be affected differently by it. So, it’s important to understand the factors that may influence your BAC reading.

  • Weight: low body weight usually leads to a more rapid BAC increase after alcohol consumption.
  • Gender: generally speaking, women register higher readings than men of the same weight.
  • Food intake: eating food before or with alcohol usually slows down the alcohol absorption process while drinking on an empty stomach may speed it up.
  • Metabolism: Different people metabolize alcohol at different rates, also affecting BAC levels.

What are the penalties for a first-time impaired driving charge in Ontario?

Even a first-time impaired driving charge is a serious criminal charge in Ontario. And if you blow below the legal BAC limit, you can still face sanctions.

For first-time offenders who return a BAC within the “warn range”, there is a three-day licence suspension and a $250 penalty in Ontario.

For first-time offenders who blow 0.08% or more and / or fail / refuse to take an alcohol test, there is an immediate roadside sanction of 90 days licence suspension, a seven-day vehicle impoundment, and a $550 fine.

Drivers under the age of 21 or with a G1, G2, M1, or M2 license and who are caught with any alcohol in their system for the first time, can expect a three-day license suspension, a $60-1,000 fine if convicted, and a penalty of $250.

Commercial vehicle drivers found (for the first time) with any alcohol in their blood while operating their vehicle face a three-day license suspension and a fine of $250.

If a defendant has a prior record of impaired driving convictions or there are aggravating circumstances, such as an injury or death to another person, jail time is a real possibility.

What to do if you are caught driving over the limit in Ontario

Drivers should be aware that they face criminal charges if caught driving over the legal limit anywhere in Ontario.

A conviction will lead to a criminal record, which can have consequences for employment, travel, immigration status, and more, long after the initial license suspension and fines are paid.

So, simply accepting your “lot” and not challenging an impaired driving charge can be a big mistake. It’s best to request to speak to your lawyer (or public defender) at the earliest opportunity after you’ve been tested, arrested, and charged.

Discussing your situation with an impaired driving lawyer as soon as possible will protect your rights while outlining your legal options and helping you navigate the legal procedures, which may be strange to you.

You should also take some steps to ensure that you do not make the situation worse, such as:

  • Cooperate with law enforcement: Follow their instructions during the traffic stop and if you are taken back to the station, asked to take a breath or blood test, and arrested. Do not be argumentative or confrontational.
  • Don’t say too much: remain polite but don’t try to explain your actions. Instead, invoke the right to remain silent. You don’t have to respond to questions if your answer may incriminate you and you should be cautious of making any statements until you have received legal counsel.
  • Don’t refuse a breath or blood test: doing so can land you with an instant license suspension and harsher penalties if convicted.

Impaired driving charges can be stressful, especially for first-time offenders who have had no previous exposure to the Ontario legal system.

Do not underestimate the challenges you face if you are caught driving over the legal limit. At the same time, you don’t have to face these challenges alone. An experienced impaired driving lawyer can limit the negative impact of the criminal charge you’re facing.

For legal advice about an impaired driving charge, speak to one of our criminal defence lawyers in Ottawa during a free consultation.