Traffic Laws in Canada
Federal, Provincial, and Municipal Traffic Laws
In Canada, crossing from one province or territory to another is a very simple procedure, normally marked by a roadway sign but with no other indication that the traveller is moving from one jurisdiction to another. Yet drivers might be surprised to find themselves being fined in one place for something that was allowed in another. These differences are the result of how Canada’s federal, provincial, and municipal laws have come to affect traffic regulations.
Canada’s history has affected the development of traffic laws. As Jason Tschir notes in his Globe and Mail article on road history, when Canada was first formed in 1867, responsibility for traffic was given to the provinces, for each jurisdiction to make its own laws.
Federal, Provincial, and Municipal Responsibilities
However, the federal government did not entirely give away its authority over traffic, as Lewis N. Klar explains in his Canadian Encyclopedia article on traffic laws. Federal law governs mainly criminal matters related to driving, including impaired driving, dangerous driving, and criminal negligence in the operation of a vehicle. The laws governing matters such as these are the same across Canada, regulated by the federal government.
Provincial governments are in charge of matters relating to the use of the roads, including highway maintenance, driver licensing, vehicle registration, and more. For example, the Ontario.ca website describes the process for obtaining a driver’s license. The graduated licensing program allows new drivers to learn the techniques of turning, changing lanes, and everything else they need to know. While other provinces have similar programs, Ontario’s involves two road tests in addition to the written one.
Municipal governments also have the power to create traffic laws, within provincial guidelines. Through bylaws, municipal governments can control aspects of traffic rules in ways that fit their particular requirements. For example, while turning right on a red light is allowed in most of Canada except where a posted sign forbids it, the move is not allowed on any streets in Montreal. There, the municipal government has chosen to maintain the ban on that practice.
Besides the federal, provincial, and municipal laws that officially govern driving in Canada, local customs, or what might be termed “common law,” regulate the way people drive in various areas, often in ways that they might not realize. For example, a CBC article from June 26, 2017 notes some of the bad habits of Ontario drivers, including speeding in construction zones. A survey by the Ontario Road Builders’ Association showed that while ninety percent of drivers could recognize bad driving in others, they could not recognize it in themselves. These unofficial habits can have a significant impact on traffic flow and safety.
With ten provinces and three territories each passing its own set of regulations for drivers, the results could be a jumble of inconsistent and confusing standards. Some of the rules, like the right-turn-on-red ban in Montreal, likely are very confusing for drivers. Yet many of the basic rules apply across Canada, regardless of jurisdiction. Transport Canada, as its website notes, can propose laws to the different levels of government and can help to make laws within the country more consistent than they might otherwise be. Police from any jurisdiction are also allowed to enforce these laws.
Despite some differences, the rules of the road have many similarities throughout the country. For example, as the Canada.ca website notes, a valid driver’s license is a requirement all across the country. Although people can drive to any part of Canada with a license from another province or territory, they must change their licenses within a set period of time to the province or territory where they live if they have moved.
For example, according to the Ontario.ca website, a driver who has moved to the province from any other part of Canada has sixty days to switch over to a license from their new home. Other parts of Canada have similar rules, as well. Similarly, vehicle insurance is required throughout Canada, and the basic rules about stopping at red lights and yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks apply everywhere in Canada.
Normally, drivers who are transferring their licenses from a different part of Canada or even another country are not required to retake their written or road tests. Still, it is a good idea to take a few lessons, especially in cases where a driver has come from a place with a set of rules vastly different from Canada’s. Lessons can also be beneficial for people who have kept up their licenses but not driven in years.
Knowing each province’s policies on license expiry dates is important for every driver, as drivers who miss the deadline may have to retake the entire driving test to get their licenses back. However, some exceptions may apply. As the Driving.ca website notes, the lockdown for the coronavirus in the spring of 2020 meant that drivers whose licenses expired during that time were unable to go renew their licenses. In Ontario, the government gave drivers extra time for renewal in that case.
Other parts of Canada had their own way of dealing with the crisis. For example, the Manitoba Insurance Corporation’s website describes some of the measures the insurance company took during the lock down. More opportunities for license renewals and replacements over the phone were among the measure put in place. Once the crisis is over, the corporation may choose to continue with these measures or to revert to earlier office procedures.
While the basic rules regarding safe driving are unlikely to change substantially, the details of what is allowed are different. With federal, provincial, and municipal laws all governing driving in this country, everyone who operates a vehicle should know the rules that apply to them in different situations.