Driving is a privilege (not a right)

Getting a driver’s license for the first time can be exciting, but it can take people some time to realize how much responsibility driving entails, especially in difficult or dangerous conditions. Driving is so much a part of Canadian culture that some people might consider the ability to hold a driver’s license and to operate a vehicle as a fundamental right common to all citizens. However, it is important to realize that, despite the prevalence of driving in Canadian culture, operating a vehicle is a privilege rather than a right.

Rights Versus Privileges

Understanding the difference between a right and a privilege is important. The term “rights” generally refers to something that is fundamental to humanity or to participation in society. The right to vote, for example, does not depend on a person’s knowledge of the political system or ability to perform certain tasks. A license to teach, on the other hand, depends on the person’s ability to meet certain requirements. Teaching, like the practice of medicine and other professions, requires a set of skills that must be maintained throughout a person’s career. Practicing these professions is a privilege that people have earned through their hard work and studies.

The same is true of driving. As Ryan Slawson explains on the York Region legal matters web page, all residents of Ontario have the right to apply for a driver’s license, but keeping it is a privilege. Just as doctors and teachers must maintain their skills to continue in their profession, drivers must be able to operate a vehicle safely to ensure, not only that they avoid causing accidents, but also that they can help make the roads safer and more pleasant for everyone.

Getting a License

In Ontario, new drivers go through a three-step process from when they first apply for a license to when they become fully qualified drivers.  Beginning with a written test, novice drivers have the chance to learn the skills they need to become experienced and competent drivers. To be able to drive safely, they need a certain amount of knowledge and a specific set of skills. The first step is to learn the rules of the road and the meanings of road signs and then to write a test on them to earn a G1 license.

Laughing young woman wearing sunglasses driving a car with her girl friend , close up profile view through the open window

At that point, student drivers can begin to practise driving, together with a fully licensed driver. The G1 license leads to the G2 test and finally to the full G license for those who have the required skills. After that, drivers can hone their skills on the road and take refresher courses if necessary. However, if they commit certain traffic offenses or accumulate a certain number of demerit points, drivers can be fined or in some cases lose their license temporarily or permanently. Convictions for certain driving offenses can also result in more serious consequences.

Limitations on Driving Privileges

To avoid problems like this, people should remember that driving is a privilege based on skill rather than an inherent right based on citizenship or other criteria. Driving safely involves constantly learning and assessing the road conditions and other factors to avoid crises. However, some issues are related to the way that health affects skill. People with certain medical conditions such as epilepsy or strokes may lose their driver’s licenses permanently or temporarily, until they can prove that the condition is under control. Older drivers may also lose their licenses if their skills deteriorate due to the aging process.

The reason for these limitations on driving privileges is that the process of operating a vehicle is complicated. It requires drivers to remember and perform a wide variety of actions to keep the vehicle moving without causing problems for other road users. With pedestrians crossing the road, bicycles driving beside large trucks and buses, and many other potential hazards, drivers need to be able to maneuver the vehicle wherever they need to go. Usually, this requires a certain amount of physical fitness and especially sufficient vision with or without glasses or contact lenses to be able to see the road. If an issue such as uncontrolled epilepsy or near blindness makes it impossible for someone to drive safely, the motor vehicle branch will normally refuse to issue a license.

In many cases, people with physical limitations can find ways to overcome the obstacles to driving. A short-sighted person can wear glasses or contact lenses, for example, or get laser surgery to correct any vision problems. Medication can often get diseases like epilepsy under control, and people may be able to drive, even with these ailments. However, people with these conditions should always be careful to monitor their health and ability to drive.

Physical fitness to drive is important, but mental fitness is also essential. People can sometimes have illnesses that give them hallucinations or take medications that make them drowsy or disoriented. A driver who is disoriented behind the wheel of a vehicle could be very dangerous for everyone on the road, and people with mental ailments might not be able to get a license unless they can prove that the illness is under control.

Effects of Depression on Driving

Possibly one of the most widespread mental disorders that can affect driving is depression. According to a University of Toronto study by Christine M. Wickens, Reginald G. Smart, and Robert E. Mann, depression is possibly the world’s main cause of disability. An ongoing feeling of sadness and loss of interest in any of the person’s usual activities can lead to serious problems with performing everyday tasks, especially when the depression is deeply rooted.

For drivers, depression can have a very negative effect on the skills necessary for operating a vehicle safely. People with this condition might be too listless to bother with many of the normal safety checks, for example. They can miss important clues or neglect to watch for traffic and possible hazards. Depression can often be minor, but it can sometimes be debilitating enough to make it difficult for people to concentrate enough to drive.

Most people feel depressed or sad at some point in their lives, but a diagnosis of depression indicates an ongoing and severe problem. In extreme cases, people may even feel so sad and hopeless that they commit suicide by ramming their vehicles into a barrier or driving off a bridge. When depression is not just a temporary problem brought on by events or circumstances in life, it can be debilitating and negatively affect people’s ability to perform many everyday tasks.

Even the treatment for depression can be problematic. Although antidepressant medication can help people feel better and be more alert, it can also be partly at fault for some of the mistakes that drivers make. Any medication can be an issue, depending on how it affects a person’s system. People might find that a medication affects them more on some days or at certain times than on others. They may forget to take their medication one day and fail to realize it until they are struggling behind the wheel.

Impaired Driving

Like many physical ailments, mental health problems like depression can often be controlled with medications. However, people still need to be aware of the possible side effects of these medications, including drowsiness or an inability to concentrate. They should be aware of how their medication affects them and be willing to consider other forms of transportation when necessary.

Drivers should also be aware of any changes in the effects their medications have on them, whether that is in the space of a week or a single day. For example, one medication may cause drowsiness an hour after it is taken, while another might cause issues only in the morning or evening. If people monitor the effects that medications have on them, they can more easily determine whether or not they are fit to drive.  

Generally, the drivers themselves are responsible for determining their fitness to drive when they are ill, injured, or taking medication. However, people who drink or take drugs such as marijuana before driving can be required to pay large fines or they can lose their licenses for a period of time up to ninety days or even permanently. Although experienced drivers are allowed to have some alcohol in their systems, they must stay within certain limits or they will be considered impaired.

Driving while impaired can have serious consequences, but the same is true of refusing to submit to the tests for impairment. As Ryan Slawson notes in his York region article, any drivers who refuse to provide a breath sample when stopped by the police can have their licenses suspended for anywhere from three to ninety days.

Stunt Driving

Another issue that has long been a problem is stunt driving, in which people race each other or perform dangerous maneuvers on the road. For example, a May 2020 CBC article described the way that street racing had increased during the first pandemic lockdown. With relatively empty streets, some road users were tempted to test the limits of their vehicles and to drive at high speeds. One teenage driver was even clocked at 308 kilometres per hour on the Queen Elizabeth Way. Drivers like this one failed to understand the responsibility that comes with a vehicle.

Seeing driving as a basic right can lead people to operate vehicles dangerously on the road. However, remembering that driving is a privilege and not a right can help people to take extra care and to avoid problems that they might otherwise have on the road.